Ideology is as much about understanding the past as shaping the future. And conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies. This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again.
This vision has always been implicit in the conservative ascendancy. It existed in the 1980s, when President Reagan announced, “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern,” and called for voluntarism to fill in the yawning gaps in the social safety net. It was made explicit in the 1990s, notably through Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, a treatise hailed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, which argued that a purely private nineteenth-century system of charitable and voluntary organizations did a better job providing for the common good than the twentieth-century welfare state. This idea is also the basis of Paul Ryan’s budget, which seeks to devolve and shrink the federal government at a rapid pace, lest the safety net turn “into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” It’s what Utah Senator Mike Lee references when he says that the “alternative to big government is not small government” but instead “a voluntary civil society.” As conservatives face the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority fueled by changing demographics, they understand that time is running out on their cherished project to dismantle the federal welfare state.
But this conservative vision of social insurance is wrong. It’s incorrect as a matter of history; it ignores the complex interaction between public and private social insurance that has always existed in the United States. It completely misses why the old system collapsed and why a new one was put in its place. It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. Most importantly, it points us in the wrong direction.
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