Federal entitlement programs have to be reformed, as almost everyone now admits, but the need for reform provides conservatives with a great opportunity to expose liberalism’s illusions and half-truths.
Social Security, Medicare, and similar programs depend on certain moral and economic assumptions. It’s the latter that have come under heavy assault since the financial meltdown of 2008-9. Everyone knew vaguely that entitlements lacked a sound actuarial basis, that they were slowly going broke — but the emphasis was on slowly. The demographic wall they were supposed to hit was thought to be decades away. It still is. The wall they’re approaching now is a fiscal one. The government’s annual deficit and its accumulated debt are staggering the market, and raising questions about our future ability to borrow and the soundness of the dollar. When the entitlements’ unfunded liabilities are thrown in, the amount the government doesn’t have but has promised to pay is even more unsettling. Greece is the word. Suddenly it seems modern democratic welfare states really can go broke.
This kind of development simply wasn’t in the cards that liberalism said it was dealing over the past 80 or so years. From FDR to President Obama, liberals have presumed as a condition of the welfare state that there was “plenty” to go round, that an economic surplus existed and could be sustained by Keynesian fine-tuning. The only question was how to redistribute that surplus. The 1970s tested this optimism, but oddly enough the success of Reaganomics helped breathe new life into the old confidence. But now the welfare state is broke, and the farther ahead one looks the broker it is. Broke, but not yet broken. The politics of redistribution have just become much more difficult, but it will be up to conservatives to drive home a salutary and affordable alternative.
Bankruptcy tends to concentrate the mind, but the welfare state’s growing moral bankruptcy may prove in the long run just as important as its financial embarrassment. Among its key moral assumptions, none is more telling than the notion of socio-economic rights. FDR enshrined these into a so-called Second Bill of Rights, which he did not bother to add formally to the Constitution because he expected them to be part of America’s living, informal constitution — its real, evolving structure of government. But he implied that these rights were permanent, and said nothing about ever trimming them in difficult times.
Here conservatives need to concentrate their moral criticism. Every right implies a duty, but liberals never came clean on who would bear the duty to provide the jobs, houses, health care, and other goods promised by government to the people. Sometimes the Left boasted that the rich would pay, sometimes that each of us would pay through a scheme of social insurance, sometimes that the future would take care of itself. The result, practically speaking, was to encourage Americans to demand their benefits now, and to worry about paying for them later. Passions first, reasoning about duty…someday.
We can do better. Conservatives need to expose the shameful state of our self-government, explain liberals’ complicity in it, and prepare the way for a return to genuine equality and liberty.
Charles Kesler is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.