Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Social Challenge

When conservatives want to do something about the cost of entitlements, social democrats say, as President Obama said at his 2011 State of the Union speech, "let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens."

When conservatives react against a universal government program of health delivery, they say that "no one should go without health care." Or if it's a program to deliver health care to children, "no child should be without health care." On education, the cry is No Child Left Behind. Even President George W. Bush got behind that slogan.

When people make deliver these challenges, they mean that there ought to be a program. There ought to be a nation government program of health insurance paid for with tax dollars and administered by the federal government. Or child health care. Or education. As if that is the only way to deliver social goods.

The conservative challenge is to change the argument. Nobody doubts the need for social goods. The question is whether the administrative centralism is the right, or indeed the just way to do it.

A century ago, many advanced social thinkers were confident that these social goods could and should be provided by administrative centralism, tax-funded government programs negotiated in the political sector through comprehensive legislation and administered by a department of the central government.

A century later, this vision seems hopelessly naive. In the first place, the negotiation of social goods in the political sector is extremely divisive, and descends into a brawl over dividing the spoils of political victory. In the second place, governments have demonstrated that, on average, they deliver these services very badly. In the United States, the government pension programs have all grossly overpromised pensions to current and future beneficiaries. The government health care programs have distorted the health care delivery system and greatly increased costs because of the "third party" payment problem. The education system has been captured by the producers, and one political party has been completely neutered by the power of the teacher unions. The government welfare system has succeeded in wrecking the low-income family.

So if President Obama warns against harming the most vulnerable citizens, he would have a point--if he were directing his concern against the cruelty and the injustice of the present administrative welfare state. It has notoriously spawned social pathologies, divided the nation, and wasted valuable resources. Governments in the United States spend about one trillion dollars a year on government pensions, one trillion dollars a year on government health care, one trillion dollars a year on government education, half a trillion dollars a year on government welfare, and it does it badly.

Conservatives have an alternative to this cruel, corrupt, unjust, wasteful, and deluded system. The conservative argument is that the universal delivery of social goods through government like old age pensions, health care, education, and welfare is a bad idea and there are other, better ways to realize the promise of universal health care and universal education. The answer is to take these social goods out of the grip of the state and hand them back to society.

There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state. Society, on the view of political philosopher Michael Novak can be thought of as three separate and coequal sectors. There is the political sector, which specializes in activities that need force; it says, you must. There is the economic sector, which specializes in activities that need cooperation and exchange; it says, we can. There is the moral/cultural sector, which specializes in moral questions; it says, I should.

Conservatives ask: why do our liberal friends insist, against all the evidence, that social goods can only be delivered according to the principle of force?

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