Sunday, March 18, 2012

The sprawl of the welfare state

I was reading a political blog and read this not-atypical comment:
"... a  few partisan leftists rolled their eyes at conservatives who think death panels are a feature of socialized medicine...
"All that said, the reason this stuff is so much more offensive on the right is because the nation has basically drifted leftward, in some respects rapidly, over the past several years. Who would have thought, even 15 years ago, that opposition to gay marriage would be basically fringe in the US? Or that we would reach a point where the viability of political candidates is largely, perhaps mostly, predicated on how well they avoid taking stuff away from key constituents? It is, practically, an increasingly liberal country and world." -- A plainblog commenter
I started to write a comment arguing against this viewpoint. It's easy to defeat the idea that avoiding "taking stuff away from key constituents" is only a problem for the left. I can point to some juicy benefits for the wealthy and medical corporations during the Bush administration to show that the GOP does constituent service the same as the Democrats, but do I really need to?

It's so easy to talk about marriage for same-sex partners as being mixed lefty and conservative, since marriage is a traditional, conservative sort of institution.

However, it was a lot harder to argue that the country hasn't drifted leftward over the past several years, or maybe I should say four decades. I wanted to make the argument that, in terms of social acceptance, there has been definite leftward shifts, but not on fiscal issues.

Yet when I tried to find examples of conservative ideals becoming more prevalent in society and government, I could think of only one example--the welfare reform of the 1990's. Most government policy has expanded government's role, responsibilities, and expenditures. But remember that not all government spending is "liberal" spending. Increased defense spending, which we've had, has more of a conservative constituency. Increased spending on Medicare had bipartisan support when it was voted on in Congress, so it's not exactly fair to label it "liberal" now. If the country is in a rightward shift now, as shown in the GOP/Tea Party gains in the 2010 election, it hasn't penetrated spending or policy yet.

For movement in a fiscal conservative direction, you may have to look to business. Many are pushing back on healthcare with co-pays and higher employee contributions. They're also offering 401K retirement plans instead of fixed pensions.

Whether you think the leftward direction is good or bad depends on your political viewpoint. I'm afraid (or glad) you'll have to make up your own mind about that.

Basically blue


Anastasios said...

I think I know what you are getting at, MP, but I don't necessarily agree that it is a "leftward" drift. Rather, in response to the various problems over the years, the government at its various levels has taken a largely "ad-hoc" approach. These approaches have these days come to be labeled as left or right, but that is mostly a product of evolving political tactics and cultural resentments. At the time, most of these policies were instituted not out of clear ideological programs, but rather due to a mix of factors in which ideology, perceived best practices, practical necessity, cultural tropes, and many other factors all played a role.

To give an example, was Winston Churchill "conservative?" Many modern conservatives in the US like to claim him, yet as a young man he sponsored legislation that laid the foundation for the British Welfare state because he felt like such programs were the most rational responses to perceived economic and social needs. He kept the British defense forces on a starvation budget in the 1920s as a finance measure, and was deeply and intensely committed to eliminating religion as a factor in public policy.

So was he a conservative? I think the question obscures as much as any answer might reveal. Applying modern definitions of left or right to him risks misunderstanding the context in which he operated and by which he understood himself.

Maybe it would have been better to use an American figure like for instance Nixon (conservative hero at the time and creator of the EPA, affirmative action, busing policies, revenue sharing, and a federal health care policy that Ted Kennedy later regretted not passing through the Senate). But the point remains the same.

Has the country drifted "left?" I think that depends on how you define left, and how that fits your tactical needs at the moment. Ideology as such has, I think, little to do with politics, especially American politics. Rather than left vs right or any other dichotomy, I strongly suspect it mostly comes down to us against them, with left and right and good and bad and all the rest being useful psychological and rhetorical tools (often used unconsciously, I might add, as most people have neither the energy nor the fortitude to be truly cynical and Machiavellian).

What defines us and them? Ideology plays a small role, I guess. But culture plays a much larger one. So does geography, personal and family history, educational background, economics, and, to an extent that we don't want to acknowledge, much darker aspects of the human soul that manifest as racism, sexism, agism, and every other nasty ism you might like to pinpoint.

I can easily imagine an America where the Republican party becomes fiercely protectionist and the defender of working class rights, including union rights, while the Democratic Party calls for a new globalism that attracts Wall Street bankers and industrial executives who influence the party to denounce many welfare policies and pro-union laws as atavistic and provincial resistance to the modern world on which American prosperity depends. It would be no stranger than many of the reversals that have taken place since 1870, when Republicans boasted enormous black support and stood for extremely aggressive civil rights while Democrats sheltered the early KKK.

But if that came to be, would the parties hate each other any less? And would the designations of what is right and left really match what we might expect? I suspect the answers are "not on your life" and "no."

Couves said...

Conservatives have also made lasting gains in: deregulation, tax policy and criminal justice.

But you make a good point -- government consistently gets bigger and assumes an ever-greater role in society. Republicans themselves have always done more to expand government than to shrink it. That's why real conservatives vote for Ron Paul ;-)

Anastasios said...


You make some very good points. Just to muddy the waters, however, I would point out that although many of the policies you mention are often viewed as conservative, that has not always been the case and in some ways is shifting now.

Criminal justice, for instance, has long been seen as a "right-wing" cause. But the drug war (which has been at the very heart of much of the law-and-order movement for the past generation) has become deeply problematic, with many people who we might think of as conservative denouncing it as unaffordable and others joining with civil rights people on the "left" to question its social ramifications. Criminal justice is, in fact, a wonderful example of how "left" and "right" and "liberal" and "conservative" are shifting, slippery terms that can change a great deal over relatively short stretches of time. After all, prisons, police stations, and courtrooms are about the most expensive and obtrusive aspects of Big Government that one can imagine. If to be liberal is to be for centralized government power, then the criminal justice regime of the past generation has been an enormous liberal triumph.

Deregulation, on the other hand, is, as you say, nowadays often seen as a conservative cause. But deregulation of airlines was conceived and sold during the Carter Administration as a liberal initiative designed to bring down prices and open up routine air travel to the middle class. In that, I must say it succeeded spectacularly - but is that a liberal triumph or a conservative one?

Even tax policy is not a clear cut case, since the Earned Income Tax Credit was an initiative of the Reagan Administration designed to encourage work and lessen welfare dependency but has now come to be seen as a bulwark of the liberal welfare state. And the various tax credits and breaks hidden in the code have been exploited by "liberals" as often as "conservatives." Indeed, the PPACA is, in that regard, very much in the tradition of tax policy over the last couple of generations.

"And so the wheel turns, spinning as it will" - as Robert Jordan (not a favorite author of mine but he had some good phrases)would say.

ModeratePoli said...


I'm hoping you'll be more specific. What aspects of deregulation, tax policy, and criminal justice are you referring to?

Couves said...


Deregulation - Utilities (telecom and energy), transportation (trucking, rail and air) and finance come to mind…

Tax Policy - Reduction of income tax rates by Reagan and GW.

Criminal Justice - The War on Drugs, increased use of the death penalty and tough sentencing guidelines (three strikes you’re out, etc.). Also, increasingly militarized police forces and erosions of basic Constitutional freedoms.


I don’t think being tough on crime is what most people would consider to be “liberal.” But I heartily agree with your underlying point and you’re probably right about the pendulum beginning to swing back on that issue. You make a number of good points -- I’ll add that, generally, any lasting policy change of any significance will naturally have buy-in from both parties. (Although the ACA doesn’t, hmm…)

Perhaps we haven’t seen the ascendancy of liberal ideas so much as the creep of statism. The one big exception here is deregulation and the boost to consumer freedom that resulted. But consumerism seems to be morphing into just another artifact of state control. And control of the consumer economy has clearly been marked by disastrous mismanagement -- some liberals see this as an opportunity to roll back financial deregulation, but only Ron Paul seems to have a truly cogent response to a crisis that’s of the government’s own making. I think it may take us some time to get that one right.

Anastasios said...


You are quite right that most people see being tough on crime as a conservative stance. Actually, I talk that way myself most of the time. I just wanted to show that things are not as clear cut as they seem, i.e. what is conservative by one definition is not very conservative by another. Overall I think that "liberal"
and "conservative" are not very helpful labels when dealing with issues of government power, since those cut across the ideological lines in all sorts of complicated patterns. Of course, as I've said above, I'm not usually a great believer in the ultimate importance of ideology-as-such in politics, anyway.

I agree about the problems of the consumer economy being linked to questions of policy by a cats-cradle of issues. I don't agree that our problems are all of government making -- there is plenty of blame to go around to everyone, from government to business to consumers to journalists to academics. That's part of why the problems are so difficult to solve -- everybody involved (i.e. everybody) can point their finger at somebody else (choose your favorite whipping boy) and say "It's their fault!" and have some degree of truth on their side. Similarly everybody can point to somebody else's policy or political stance (take your pick) and say "It's not fair!" and be at least somewhat correct.

Sigh. It's a nasty old world.

Couves said...


There were many bad actors in the recent housing crisis - but their actions were encouraged by government policy. The policy largely remains the same -- boost the housing market, the stock market and consumer spending as much as possible. It's a foolish, short-sighted policy that shows an ignorance of economics.

Anastasios said...


True, government policy has played a role, no doubt (and that includes failure to make policy, whether deliberately or out of error). But I don't think it was universally good or universally bad. Some policy (and some failure to make policy) was undoubtedly harmful, some helpful, some we just don't know for sure. The evidence is neither simple nor clear, nor does it necessarily support any particular theory of how things "ought" to work.

As for misunderstanding economics, that is a quagmire as well. When Federal Reserve Chairmen and Nobel Prize winners are circling each other with drawn swords, I think it is fair to say that there is, at the very least, room for complex argument.

I think what will happen in the end, politically speaking, depends on who is holding power (which in this case means largely who is in the White House), when the electorate begins to feel that the recession is definitely over (we aren't there yet by any means). That person, and his or her compatriots, will largely get to define the causes of the recession and also the effective cures, and history will go on from there, as ever written by the winners.

Couves said...


There is a fair amount of agreement that the Fed’s low interest rates caused the bubble (fiscal and regulatory policy both had a role, but the Fed is what really fueled the whole thing). Naturally, Bernanke doesn't exactly agree, but commentators as diverse as Ron Paul, John Taylor and Paul Krugman support this theory. According to John Taylor, the Fed screwed things up by deviating from his namesake “Taylor Rule” by which interest rates are supposed to be set. The real disagreement is about what we should do now.