Testing the Ratchet Effect

The “Ratchet Effect” is the well-known theorem that once liberals get a social welfare program in place, it is nearly impossible for a subsequent conservative government to roll it back. Margaret Thatcher did privatize a lot of nationalized industries in Britain, but then socialist or Labour Party governments did the same thing in New Zealand, Australia, and even France back in the 1980s, as the incompetence of government ownership of the means of production was too obvious to be ignored. But not even Thatcher dared attempt to dismantle Britain’s national health service, despite its well-known shortcomings.

In other words, the best conservative governments have been able to do over the decades—sometimes all they aspired to do (see: Eisenhower Administration)—is manage the welfare state more efficiently. The repeal and replacement of AFDC with TANF—the welfare reform of the mid-1990s—is looking more and more like a one-off anomaly.

The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is a large data point on behalf of the Ratchet Effect. Even though Obamacare is broadly unpopular, it has acquired enough of a constituency, including among insurance companies who have made their peace with it, that it is proving politically difficult to accomplish.

President Trump’s decision to stop the DACA program is another test of the Ratchet Effect. President Obama’s own people understood that DACA was legally shaky, but went ahead on the view that once DACA was set in motion, a future administration would be hard pressed to end it. Only someone as bold as Trump would take today’s step: can anyone imagine President Jeb Bush or President Rubio doing this? Of course not. The uproar today about Trump’s decision to return to the law status quo ante shows how well this game of the left works.

Congress may step in and pass some kind of compromise on DACA that will leave everyone unhappy. (NB: One of the surprises of the APSA over the weekend was the number of times I heard the Senate’s terrible “Gang of Eight” immigration bill from 2013 described as a “fascist” bill, because it didn’t result in open borders. That’s how far gone the left is on this subject. Hence, any bill Congress passes on the issue of children brought here by their parents will be bitterly attacked by the left.) But this will be a positive step, as one of the great questions of the Trump presidency is whether it will cause a return to old-fashioned congressional lawmaking, instead of relying more and more on the abuse of executive power. Even if you are pro-immigration, what Trump is doing here is all for the good.