The Republican embrace of the welfare state

Conservatives, including most of those who were against the New Deal, are not opposed to social welfare for the truly needy. We believe, however, in the constitutional framework, which reserves the promotion of social welfare to the states and the people. Social-welfare policy is not one of what Madison described as “the few and defined” powers delegated to the central government. It is, instead, a paradigmatic power of the sovereign states because, as Madison elaborated, it “concern[s] the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” The Constitution thus enables Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare — on public goods, related to Congress’s carefully enumerated Article I powers, that benefit all Americans; not on redistributionist schemes that fleece some citizens for the benefit of others.

This is not just sound constitutional federalism, it is good policy. Private charity is reliably based on need; it will target the people whose straits are truly dire. Government, to the contrary, is a poor delivery system for social welfare because redistributions of wealth determined by politicians using the compulsory force of law are inevitably made based on political considerations — buying votes — rather than need.

If welfare policy is made at the state level, there are important disciplines in the equation that can prevent the programs from bankrupting the state and unduly punishing productivity. Economic conditions vary widely in a nation of our size, so welfare programs are best designed and run at the local level, by elected officials directly accountable to the people who live with the consequences — officials who can easily alter the programs if conditions change. States know they are in competition with each other, and if wealth redistribution is too onerous in one state, people and businesses can move to others. States and localities also may not print money, and they have incentives (and often constitutional requirements) to balance their budgets that do not exist at the federal level. At the state level, there can be a sensible balancing of “internal order, improvement, and prosperity.”

This is not so at the federal level, as the last 80 years have affirmed. Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are not, as Krauthammer contends, “great achievements of liberalism.” They are prosperity killers — and inevitably so. In part, this is because they have little if anything to do with what Krauthammer describes as the “consensual idea” that “you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution.”

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