Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Liberaltarians, Safety Nets and the GOP

While E.D. Kain and I no longer share the same ideological family (though I still think he is one of the best thinkers out there and will continue to read him), we do agree on one thing: the necessity of social safety nets.

I can already hear a few people screaming that this somehow disqualifies me as a true conservative. After all, humans were born to live free away from the grabby hands of government.

Snicker all you want, I do think we need to have a less dominating government, but I also see the importance of safety nets, like Medicaid or unemployment benefits.

I don't say these things because I'm so lover of all things government. I say this because I've experienced times when I've needed these programs. In 1996, I caught the flu which then went to pnuemonia and then to a bad bacterial infection. At the time, I didn't have health care; couldn't afford the insurance offered at the coffee chain I worked for. I ended up in the hospital and because of the efforts of a savvy nurse practitioner, Medicaid was able to pay most of the bill.

In 2005, I was let go from a job. I applied for unemployment insurance. It wasn't a lot, but it sure helped in the weeks I looked for work.

No doubt there are a lot of folks who are conservatives who see these programs as wasteful. And sometimes, they are correct that these programs can be run rather inefficiently. But that said, I've usually called for reform, not for their abolishment.

Which gets me to liberaltarianism. While I have some big problems with it, I do think it at least wants cares about "the least of these" and how best to take care of them. But like I said, I have my doubts about liberaltarianism. Maybe it's still nascent, but it's hard to see where it contrasts with American liberalism. I'm not that interested in making the return trip to liberalism.

That said, I am interested in a more generous conservatism, and I think that can be found in the old tradition of liberal conservatism.

The problem with modern conservatism (and modern libertarianism as well) is this love of a laizze faire past, a place and time free of government meddling. In a recent post, Dave Hart has this to say about that past and about safety nets :

Quite simply, that period's approach to laissez faire capitalism was unsustainable. It was precisely this model that millions of people revolted against, turning to communism or fascism as an escape. Modern day capitalism is softer (although the degree to which it is softer varies across Europe, North America, and Asia). By offsetting the harsh realities of capitalism with a stronger safety net and progressive redistribution, contemporary capitalism has succeeded in neutering many of the harshest criticisms against it.

To a certain extent, bigger governments are the product of greater wealth. Rich societies inevitably demand greater government involvement since, as wealth increases, so do expectations regarding standards of living. For examples, one need only look to capitalist Hong Kong, where welfare benefits far surpass those in communist mainland China. There is absolutely no good reason why wealthy countries should tolerate the levels of depravity suffered by those living in the glory days of laissez-faire.

But this is not a one-sided dynamic. The success of the social safety net is itself contingent upon the success of the capitalist model. It is not possible to continue to raise living standards without economic growth, and economic growth requires a free market. If government growth outpaces the economy, a painful re-adjustment will inevitably follow (viz. modern day United Kingdom).

I think that many of my side of the fence forget that the reason that communism became such a potent force around the world was because of laizze faire. We also forget that the lack of government intervention made life worse for people, not better.

Is this all a suggestion that we should all go and support the president's plan for more and more government? Or that we should leave Social Security alone? No. I think "Obamacare" should be look at again and not made so cumbersome. I think we need to consider some benefit cuts to Social Secruity. But I don't think getting rid of such programs will allow us to enter a libertarian paradise. If we didn't have Social Security, we would have a lot of old people without any resources dying miserable deaths. No food stamps, and we would see a lot of hunger issues. It's one thing to argue for womb to tomb are ala many European societies. It's another to say that we should get rid of basic programs that protect people from the ravages of poverty.

What saddens me these days is that the GOP has lost the drive to support a liberal conservatism that backs reform of government programs, not their abolition. Yes, there are people who still believe in this in the GOP, but their voices are barely heard above the dim of the Tea Party movement.

What is needed is an American version of liberal conservatism, something akin to David Cameron's Conservative party. As Niall Ferguson said in a 2006 article, it's time for the GOP to follow it's brothers and sisters accross the Atlantic towards a more pragmatic ideology.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Couldn't agree more. There is some hope

for moderates.