The Era of Bad Feelings

The new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) features William Voegeli’s timely essay on the future of the welfare state and conservatives’ efforts to stem its growth. His essay is “Reforming Big Government.”

Liberals and conservatives, Voegeli observes, have been arguing about the welfare state for 75 years, each side going so far as so define itself in terms of its stance on big government: “If the expansion of the welfare state is the reason liberals get up and go to work in the morning, its contraction is the reason conservatives do,” he writes. The long tug of war between liberals and conservatives may achieve some tentative resolution in favor of liberals in the coming election, but Voegeli suggests that reality may yet intrude and serve to prolong what he terms our long Era of Bad Feelings between liberals and conservatives.

Voegli’s essay poses difficult questions for liberals and conservatives. It includes, for example, a tabulation of federal spending on “human resources” programs since 1940. It shows that welfare state programs have increased under every president since FDR. Real, per capita federal spending on such programs was 15 times greater in 2007 than in 1940. Even the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who called for cuts to federal spending more than any other recent president, saw a slight increase. Should conservatives reconciles themselves to the welfare state? If so, how?

The welfare state has massively increased in scope and size since 1940, and it stands poised for another great expansion. Despite this massive growth, liberals keep calling for more. Since the beginning of the Progressive era, no liberal politician has suggested the ultimate or sufficient size of government. Instead, liberals demand more growth, refusing to consider the limits to growth of the welfare state.

Voegeli argues that Democrats’ welfare state aspirations cannot be realized merely by soaking the rich: “Since even a 70% tax bracket won’t do much good if it applies only to one-fiftieth of the population, the revenue yield from a much lower, politically feasible top bracket is going to be underwhelming.”

To liberals Voegeli poses the question: “How do we render entitlements solvent, and pay for liberals’ numerous initiatives for those who aren’t elderly, and do all this without resorting to the kind of tax increases that imperil Democrats and the economy?”

UPDATE: Commenting on this essay at NRO’s Corner, Jonah Goldberg writes: “Bill Voegeli has become my new James Q. Wilson — the egghead I always read even if I don’t think I’m interested at first.”

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