Can the Right and Left Have a Real Conversation About Entitlements?

Feb 9, 2012Mark Schmitt

Democracy can't function unless both sides are willing to debate the actual proposals on the table instead of trying to change the subject.

I got hit with something of a one-two punch Tuesday on National Review Online. In two different articles, I'd referred to William Voegeli's book, Never Enough, which argues that liberalism's aspirations for the welfare state are essentially boundless. Both Reihan Salam and Voegeli himself take issue with my argument, but both seem to me to be changing the subject.

Let's take Salam's post first. (He's an old friend and one of the smartest young conservatives I know.) He's responding to the column I wrote about Mitt Romney's "I'm not concerned about the very poor" comment. I treated Romney more generously than anyone else (including Romney himself, who took it back). I took the gaffe, along with Romney's speeches about the "entitlement society," to indicate that he's aligned with House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan and Voegeli in arguing for a safety net carefully limited to the very poor, rather than a more expansive set of supports for those moving out of poverty.

I've got Ryan and Voegeli all wrong, Salam says. (No word on Romney.) They aren't about cutting programs for the near-poor at all. Rather, it's that they are concerned "that the U.S. public sector isn't doing a good job of putting taxpayer dollars to good use." After a long digression about a McKinsey report on public sector productivity, "Baumol's disease," K-12 education, and various other topics, he claims that the "core idea" of Ryan and Voegeli is this: "We need to do a better job of imposing fiscal discipline on the public sector, but...we also need to give public sector managers the tools they need to impose organizational discipline."

That's it? All this huffing and puffing about the "entitlement society" and slashing spending is just about helping bureaucrats do their jobs better? In his piece, Voegeli accuses me of depicting liberalism as "meek and earnest." I would say the same about Salam's depiction of conservatives. I'd also note that he doesn't cite a single word from Ryan or Voegeli to support this benign interpretation. He's arguing that Ryan's changes to Medicaid (turning it into a block grant) and Medicare (turning it into a Groupon to buy private insurance if it's available) are really just a better way to "align incentives" to reduce overall health costs, a goal we share. The Medicaid block grants are just a way to give states incentives to cut costs, because they can keep all the money they save, rather than sharing the savings with the federal government, as in the current system.

This is an argument worthy of a very long separate response, but in short, it's just wrong. States have plenty of incentives to cut costs and there are 84 Medicaid waivers for states that manage their programs more effectively. Unless the block grant is extremely generous (and thus more expensive than the current system), states, which have little ability to control health costs, will respond by simply cutting Medicaid eligibility. Likewise, Ryan's Medicare plan will, as the CBO has shown, increase total health care costs, the opposite of what Reihan claims is the "core idea."

Then Reihan reverses and admits that Ryan and Voegeli are about cuts, not just better management, but only cuts to invisible programs that serve the well-off. Ryan and Voegeli are really "allies," he says, of Suzanne Mettler, whose book The Submerged State calls for reconsideration of invisible and regressive programs like the mortgage-interest tax deduction. I consider myself an ally of Mettler as well, in every way, so maybe we can all just get along. Ryan has "emphasized the importance of 'broadening the tax base,'" Salam claims, which is true, but his budget didn't offer any specifics and he would give the savings from unnamed tax-expenditure cuts away in even more regressive tax cuts. Likewise, Voegeli's book never mentions the mortgage tax deduction or any of the other big tax expenditure giveaways in his definition of the welfare state. The vision Salam's describing -- of an efficient, well-managed public sector with fewer tax breaks for the well-off -- may be his own, and I could live happily in his world. But it has nothing at all to do with the new conservative consensus represented by Romney, Ryan, and Voegeli.

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Voegeli himself weighs in to take issue with a different article, part of a debate with Stephen Hayward, who drew heavily from Voegeli to make the claim that liberals want essentially a limitless welfare state. Again, this is an argument adopted by Romney, so it's not purely academic. I didn't think that was an accurate description of liberalism, which I argued is all about finding the right limits or boundaries between public and private, government and market. If sometimes those limits are not based on an abstract principle, but on living in a democratic society and paring our aspirations to reality, those contingent limits are no less real than "principled" ones. I used as an example single-payer health care, which I'm not for, and never have been for, even though I've never had a good answer for people who point out that it would be fairer and more efficient. I just think pursuing it is a waste of effort.

Voegeli sees a "gotcha" -- the actual liberal principle is "whatever we can get away with." So if I'm setting aside single-payer in part for political reasons, "conservatives have every reason to go on Fox News and rant about socialized medicine, but zero reason to sit down for an edifying, collegial seminar that hammers out the details of the next incremental expansion of federal authority and spending."

I don't see how that follows at all. If, say, I were president and proposed a market-based expansion of health coverage, it is what it is and not something else. It's not a secret incremental plan to get to single-payer. "Ranting about socialized medicine" in this case would simply be dishonest. (And, obviously, this is not hypothetical, except for the fact that I'm not the president.) And refusing to sit down and negotiate about an actual proposal on the table, especially one similar to what conservatives had advocated for years, is simply a defection from democracy. The fact that some supporters of the actual proposal on the table might have trimmed their original aspirations is no justification for treating them as if they had not.

In plenty of cases, the limitations to my liberalism might be "principled" (which is to say, I could articulate a principle), but other people might have different principles. That's politics in a democracy -- an unending effort to balance various people's principles and aspirations and find what John Rawls called the "overlapping consensus" that works for most of us.

As Voegeli notes, sometimes the range of political possibility, or the overlapping consensus, changes. Fifteen years ago, gay marriage seemed as unlikely as single-payer health care and even most liberal politicians voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. Within a few months from now, a quarter of the population might live in states that allow them to marry the person they love. But Voegeli uses this to change the subject entirely, to what he regards as liberals' commitment to "rigging or nullifying" the democratic process through court decisions. That's not something I'd written about, but it doesn't seem to help Voegeli's argument at all. First, it has nothing to do with the "welfare state" or expansion of public benefits. Second, the democracy card cuts both ways. The Ninth Circuit did just throw out a California constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that had passed with 52 percent of the vote, but by the same token, the constitutional provision would have barred the democratic process in California from ever recognizing same-sex marriage -- and the legislature has twice passed same-sex marriage. And as Jeff Toobin points out, liberals for at least twenty years have been very wary of making gains in courts that they can't achieve through other democratic means. Almost everyone who favors gay marriage (with the interesting exception of Ted Olson, apparently) was gratified that the decision did not go further and actually declare a constitutional right to marry.

But I'm not sure what Voegeli's point is here. Does he object to judicial review in all cases? Citizens United was no less a nullification of a democratic decision. Possibly, like Newt Gingrich, he objects only when the decision goes against his own political preferences. That's hardly principled, though I hope he doesn't go so far as Gingrich, who would eliminate entire circuits if he didn't like their rulings. (Talk about no limits!)

I should conclude by saying that I engaged with Voegeli because I found his book fascinating and challenging. It's far more worthy of your time and money than, say, Charles Murray's latest bit of hackwork. In a sense, my frustration with Voegeli when he says liberals and conservatives have "nothing to talk about" is that it is such a potentially interesting conversation, whether in the form of an "edifying, collegial seminar" or something more raucous.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.

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