Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Conservative Welfare State

The Conservative Welfare State:
Conservative crank Ann Coulter has made a career out of bad
manners, so it was no surprise when she slammed her libertarian
hosts at the annual International Students for Liberty confab in
February as “pussies.” That was almost a compliment, compared to
“drunks” and “horny hicks,” two other terms Coulter has used to
describe her political opponents.
A student raised Coulter’s ire by questioning her hawkish drug
war stance: “How is it your business what I choose to put in my
“It is my business when we are living in a welfare state,”
Coulter responded. “Right now, I have to pay for…your health care.
I have to pay your unemployment.…I have to pay for your food, for
your housing.…Get rid of the welfare state, then we’ll talk about
drug legalization.”
One doesn’t have to choose between the drug war and the welfare
state. But if one must, the drug war is worse. The welfare state
confiscates one individual’s wealth to give to another. That’s
unfair. But putting people behind bars for smoking a joint that is
less harmful than the alcohol and tobacco that Coulter pumps into
her body is a travesty.
Before Richard Nixon kicked off the drug war in 1971, nonviolent
drug offenders constituted less than 10 percent of Americans in
state and federal prisons. Now they are more than 25 percent of the
(much larger) prison population.
What’s really rich about Coulter’s jeremiad is that had it not
been for libertarians, her anti-welfare-state sentiment might have
been banished from respectable company. In the six decades between
the New Deal and the 1996 welfare reform, Republicans had been
largely content to play tax collectors for the welfare
As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley has
noted, many of FDR’s New Deal redistributionist schemes, such as
Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had
their roots in Republican initiatives, including those of his
predecessor, Herbert Hoover. GOP presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford
expanded Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Even Ronald
Reagan, a conservative hero, refused to touch Social Security or
Medicare. And George W. Bush boosted everything from food stamps to
prescription drug coverage.
This didn’t happen in an intellectual vacuum. Conservative
intellectuals over the decades criticized the welfare state but
mostly on prudential grounds. Irving Kristol, the founding father
of neoconservativism, averred in 1976 that the GOP must “fully
reconcile” itself to the welfare state if it were to have a
political future. Even National Review founder William F.
Buckley, who came closer to being a principled advocate of liberty,
mostly recommended petty reforms like requiring recipients to do
“street cleaning or general prettification work.”
Through all of this, libertarians were making the lonely,
principled argument against the welfare state, noting that a
government that habitually takes from one to give to another hurts
both. It was this central insight that libertarian Charles Murray
deployed to demonstrate welfare’s soul-killing consequences for its
beneficiaries, paving the way for something resembling its genuine
recalibration in 1996.
The welfare state suits conservatives just fine. Its existence
gives them an excuse to regulate individual choices. And it’s their
trump card for stopping liberty-oriented reforms they
Refusing to end the drug war is one example. But conservatives
also have used the welfare state to rally public sentiment against
immigration reforms, portraying poor Latino workers as welfare
queens. And in the name of stopping abuse of taxpayer dollars,
Republicans have enthusiastically backed invasive drug testing of
welfare recipients and prohibited them from using cash assistance
to buy morally dubious goods such as alcohol and lottery
The liberal welfare state and the conservative anti-sin state
are two arms of the same statist pincer, squeezing out individual
liberty. Libertarians should raise hell against both, because Ann
Coulter doesn’t have the cojones to do so.