Jason Soon thinks welfare payments should be replaced by a guaranteed minimum income scheme. Rather than subjecting welfare recipients to a regime of case management and workfare, Soon thinks they should be free to make their own decisions about work and lifestyle. ‘Bad‘ Peter Saunders disagrees. While Soon thinks that deregulating the labour market is the best strategy for reducing welfare dependency, Saunders thinks that regulating welfare recipients ought to be the first priority.
Soon and Saunders are taking sides in a debate between two of America’s best known critics of the welfare state — Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead. This debate is part of a larger conflict between libertarians and conservatives. The American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Kass talks about the division between libertarians and free market economists on one hand and values oriented conservatives on the other as a "deep fissure in the conservative movement".
Both Murray and Mead have been supported by the Olin and Bradley foundations (pdf). Both have been warmly received as guests of Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies. As Soon says, the right is "is not a homogenous beast engaged in groupthink". In America’s war of ideas sharing an enemy has always been more important than agreeing on a policy platform.
Charles Murray takes the libertarian position. In his 1984 book Losing Ground he argued that welfare dependency could be explained by the incentives created by the welfare state. By subsidising joblessness and fatherless families well intentioned policy makers were making the poverty problem worse. And as underclass neighbourhoods slid further into social dysfunction Murray was worried that policy makers would refuse to confront the cause of the problem — that instead of doing less, they would do more. In a 1988 article he warned that America was drifting towards a regime of ‘custodial democracy‘:
“Custodial democracy, a term I introduced in 1988 or 1989, refers to the notion that the United States is increasingly trying to maintain the system we think of as the American system. At the same time, the country says there is a large chunk of the population that cannot be expected to act as responsible citizens, so we will take care of them. We will take care of them in some cases by incarcerating them. We will take care of them in other cases by providing them with support. We have become increasingly intrusive in that support by the way, becoming more and more controlling.”
Becoming more controlling is exactly what Lawrence Mead has in mind. In a string of books and papers Mead has advocated a policy regime he calls the ‘new paternalism‘. As Mead explains:
paternalism means social policies aimed at the poor that attempt to reduce poverty and other social problems by directive and supervisory means. Programs based on these policies help the needy but also require that they meet certain behavioral requirements, which the programs enforce through close supervision. These measures assume that the people concerned need assistance but that they also need direction if they are to live constructively.
Mead is under no illusions about bureaucracy’s ability to change lives. In The New Politics of Poverty he admits that it is doubtful that policies like workfare and case management can "alter attitudes in any fundamental way, or even influence behavior once clients leave their purview" (p 183). His position is that because some Americans are incapable of living up to the obligations of citizenship they must give up the privileges of citizenship in return for access to state support.
The reason Mead is unconcerned about new paternalism’s ability to reform its clients is that his policy prescriptions are not meant primarily as a solution to social problems but as a solution to the political problems they cause. It’s worth remembering that Mead is a political scientist, not a sociologist or anthropologist. He argues that while the public are opposed to unconditional handouts to the non-working poor they do not want government to simply abandon poor adults and their children. Neither abolishing welfare nor replacing it with a negative income tax are politically feasible options.
Mead’s policy prescriptions will make government bigger rather than smaller. Supervision requires bureaucracy. It is this aspect of the new paternalism that most disturbs libertarians and free market economists. For economists like Milton Friedman bureaucracy has always been more of a problem than the underclass. For decades he has supported replacing welfare state programs with a negative income tax. And in turn, the idea of unconditional handouts to non-working adults has always horrified conservatives. Conservatives like Irving Kristol argue that the free market is living off the accumulated moral capital of bourgeois society. Unless our social institutions reinforce the values of work, personal responsibility and self discipline society risks collapse.
Some conservatives go even further. The political philosopher Leo Strauss argued that:
The habit of looking at social or human phenomena without making value judgments has a corroding influence on any preferences. The more serious we are as social scientists, the more completely we develop within ourselves a state of indifference to any goal, or of aimlessness and drifting, a state which may be called nihilism (p 14).
It is on this issue of values that Soon and Saunders disagree. Like most economists Soon worries more about the growth of government than the erosion of the work ethic. He sees values as a private matter. Saunders does not. He believes that welfare policies have undermined values and institutions. For him, preserving the work ethic and the family are legitimate policy aims — they are public issues not just private ones.