Things Fall Apart: After the Welfare State

by Dennis Sanders on December 8, 2010

One question that has been on my mind as of late is how government can still provide some of the services we have become used to it providing (ie: social security), but at a low cost.

The modern American welfare state is crumbling.  It came to prominence under FDR and became a fact of American life in the post-WWII years.  The American welfare state was different from its European counterpart, but it did offer expanded government services such Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.  During those years, states expanded their higher education systems and also expanded their powers, which required more people who were paid handsomely for their work.

But the system, the old model of running government no longer works.  This isn’t something that happened overnight, but over decades.  It has been ignored for a long time, but it is becoming more and more evident that the old ways no longer work.

Walter Russell Mead has been thinking about how to think in new ways.  He has no ideas himself, but he can see the signs and knows that the time has come to develop new ways of thinking.  The problem, as he notes in his latest blog post, is that America lacks an intellectual elite that can think outside of the box and provide a re-imagining of the welfare state (which probably won’t be called the welfare state). Mead notes:

…the biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level.  Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Too many of the very people who should be leading the country into a process of renewal that would allow us to harness the full power of the technological revolution and make the average person incomparably better off and more in control of his or her own destiny than ever before are devoting their considerable talent and energy to fighting the future.

As much as Republicans can be criticized for not having any new ideas, the Democrats have been just as guilty.  I believe one of the reasons they lost so badly last month, is because they misread the results from 2008.  President Obama’s victory and the large Democratic majorities were interpreted as a repudiation of 30 years of conservatism.  The answer to many liberals was to the New Deal 2.0 or least the Great Society 2.0.  But what worked in say, 1962 wasn’t going to work in 2010.  Our society has changed since the days of FDR and the old ways don’t work.

Conservatives aren’t any better.  While they had good ideas around the time of Reagan, they are still using the same old ideas from the 1980s and some are hoping for a tearing down of the welfare state and replacing it with…nothing.

So, what about centrists?  Well, they are better than conservatives, but about as bad as liberals.  All the talk about bipartisanship is usually a longing for the past.  Listen to some of the talk for centrists (and I include myself) and what you get is hopes to go back the 1960s and 70s when there was more cooperation between the political parties.  But that model was based on what Mead calls, the “Blue Social Model” and as he said, that model is fading fast.

I think the new model for government in the coming years and decades is going to be one that is more libertarian, not in the Cato institute let’s-live-in-a-libertarian-anarchist-uptopia, but one somewhat like what is going on in the UK with Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition: the creation of smaller state that still has some duties, but does it at a low cost and is not as expansive as the old welfare state.

Sadly, there are few libertarian bloggers or thinkers out there that are trying to fashion this future. Blogger E.D. Kain has probably been the best one at trying to describe what this could look like.  As for politicians, folks like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson might be able to fashion a “neolibertarian” social model.

But I don’t think we will see a new social model for governing for quite a while- at least until the old ways of thinking are exhausted.  If the economy remains weak in the coming years, we might see that warmed-over liberalism and conservatism just won’t do.

Or, we might see the political class and others give it a college try and keep using old ideas that don’t work.

Hooray for us.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

DonC December 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm

While I pretty well agree with you across the board on our recent famine of new ideas from both left and right, I harbor a little more optimism about the future. Though we all have watched the ebb and flow of centrist third parties over the years, there seems to be signs that the substantial dissatisfaction that has swelled within the moderate Left at its inability to take on debt/deficit issues, and the dissatisfaction within the moderate Right at the Palin/Bachmann phenomena (along with a host of other issues on both sides) has created an environment where the footings of a centrist third party might be poured. There is a lot of conversation going on in the ranks of state third party leadership. I believe the best catalyst for this would be to have ‘big’ names on the state and national stages stand up and declare that it’s time for something new to be born politically.

I hope to be part of this process.

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