Two great pieces from NRO (Welfare State, Elite Pathology)

Here’s why National Review Online is in my blogroll. I’m going to give lots of excerpts since WordPress tells me almost all of you are too lazy to click and read the articles, but as they say, RTWT.

Unbundle the Welfare State

The deepest and clearest analysis I have seen of the various social programs that make up the welfare state, their structural flaws, and how they should be reformed. Required reading for all politicians and economists (and voters too, if they can tolerate complex but clearly expressed analysis). I knew the author, Jim Manzi, in my college days. Some quotes:

The long-term course of broadly capitalist societies is one of higher and more rapidly rising living standards than those found in societies with different methods of social organization. On the evolutionary timeline, however, the commercial republic is a brand-new invention. One should expect social evolution’s outpacing of biological evolution to create profound conflicts.

Capitalism can channel potentially destructive human characteristics — including greed, envy, and the need to establish personal and group dominance over others — into benign and socially productive work. This is because capitalism allows expression of these urges without violence as markets transform our baser motivations into general progress. Other aspects of capitalism, however, appear to conflict with human nature. The deep anxiety created by the choices offered to individuals in a free society was noted at least as early as ancient Athens, and a modern, extensive capitalist economy exacerbates this condition greatly.

The West has built an edifice of markets and free political institutions through a combination of luck, work, foresight, and painful trial-and-error learning, and this has produced once-unimaginable prosperity. But that achievement faces a constant undertow of resistance.

America is a very different place than it was in the first half of the 20th century, and this has led to severe dislocations between the original design of our welfare programs and today’s needs. For one thing, we are vastly wealthier. The simple lack of available food and shelter that in America persisted into the Great Depression is extremely rare today for any physically and mentally competent person who is willing to abide by the most basic social norms. Individual conduct is the primary driver of contemporary deprivation. Further, the ratio of old to young is crucially different.

All of the major elements of the welfare system — pensions, health care, education, and welfare payments — share a common architecture that combines them. Unbundling these five components — and understanding each one separately — can open up the path to achieving the goals of the welfare state in a modern environment. First, welfare programs provide a safety net: a fail-safe provision of important goods that represents some roughly agreed-upon minimum baseline of subsistence for any member of the society. Second, they incorporate some element of risk pooling (and, more generally, economies of scale) beyond what is implied by the safety net: spreading out the costs of falling victim to some horrible disease in old age, for example. Third, these programs also may require prudent behavior on the part of beneficiaries. For example, Social Security requires that wage earners forgo some consumption today in order to provide funds for retirement. Fourth, the programs may redistribute wealth beyond what is required by the first two goals. Fifth and finally, they may be a mechanism for the government to provide certain goods directly, as in the case of traditional public schools. Even if it made sense to bundle these functions in 1935, does it today?

The first two components — provision of a safety net and the exploitation of economies of scale, such as risk pools — are legitimate government functions. But bundling them has an enormous drawback: It hides the transfer of wealth from the prudent to the imprudent. This is especially problematic in the modern environment. The safety net and risk pools should be different programs.

The Pathology of the Elites

An interview with the author, Michael Knox Beran, of a new book that sounds great, though I haven’t read the book yet. Some quotes from the interview:

Elites become pathological when they mask their will to power with a philosophy of social pity.

Edmund Wilson once observed that the “sincere reactionaries” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky are beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, finds in his vision of a better world what he thinks is an escape from the imperfections of his nature: He has “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.” The elites who would save the world with social legislation are conscious only of a magnificent generosity of intention: In believing their motives to be pure, they have erected utopias in their hearts, Potemkin villages in their minds — specious constructions that allow them to feel good about themselves and to disavow the harmful consequences of their policies.

It is evident that those who seized so eagerly on this patently spurious redemption rhetoric suffer from a kind of unrequited spiritual passion. In their discontent they are driven to seek an unsatisfactory relief in what Abraham Lincoln called “political religion” — a cult of a leader or a legislative program, an idolatry of the flesh or of nature itself. “Thou, Nature, art my goddess,” Edmund says in King Lear: “to thy law / My services are bound.” In promising to heal the planet, Obama adroitly posed as a priest of nature. This ersatz religion is the ark in which the elite sufferer confides his dream of regeneration and with which he tries to fill up the void in his life, an emptiness which even the choicer forms of Epicureanism cannot fill. Our elites were among the first to anoint the president a secular redeemer, yet even as we deplore their blindness, we ought to look charitably upon souls desperate enough to seek consolation in such strange gods. Theirs is an approach that leads inevitably (in Whittaker Chambers’s words) to “intolerable shallowness of thought combined with incalculable mischief in action.”

In hypocrisy there is hope. When President Obama sends his daughters to a fancy private school, not the local government-run institution, he implicitly confesses that the policies he would impose on the rest of us don’t work.

The emphasis on the socialization of the young, and on the merging of their identities in that of the social pack, has led to the deposition of the moral and cultural element in education. As a result, public schools grow ever more culturally vacuous and ever less capable of engaging what Trilling called the “deep places” of the imagination.

The question today is whether we can prevent the wreck of the founders’ labors and restrain the Leviathan of the administrative state. As a result of the mandarin revolution over which our elites have presided, too much discretionary authority has been confided to unelected regulators and unaccountable quasi-public bodies (like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and too much purse-string power has been vested in robo-laws that automatically trigger expenditures of public funds and steadily increase the size and scope of the government. It is sobering to reflect that overall government spending in the United States, which accounted for less than 7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1903, was estimated in 2009 to account for as much as 43 percent of GDP.

Sarah Palin infuriates the elites because she has not only questioned their system of accreditation, she has identified their moral “spinelessness” precisely with the elite training they have received, and has in particular questioned the moral value of an “elite Ivy League education.” Palin is saying essentially what Trilling said 60 years ago when he argued that the “educated class” of his day, however accomplished it might have been, was morally unintelligent. Your garden-variety elitist will put up with this sort of criticism from Lionel Trilling, but not from Sarah Palin. They despise the folksy candor that has made her a popular figure in much of the rest of the country.


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3 Responses to Two great pieces from NRO (Welfare State, Elite Pathology)

  1. Duh says:

    >> In their discontent they are driven to seek an unsatisfactory relief in what Abraham Lincoln called “political religion” — a cult of a leader or a legislative program, an idolatry of the flesh or of nature itself. <<
    This is funny considering that American ‘conservatives’ worship freedom and the constitution without any qualifier to either.

  2. Polymath says:

    Some of them do, true, but that doesn’t result in them trying to take over everybody’s lives like the liberals do.

  3. You need to take a lesson from my Canadian-born father and start rooting for the country of your citizenship: America. Few things are more annoying than someone who becomes a citizen on paper, but not with their heart.

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