the national interest

The One Argument Conservatives Have Made Against Every New Social Program

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The right has mostly been too distracted by fights over culture or voting rights to engage with President Biden’s ambitious plans to expand the safety net. One conservative who is paying attention is AEI director of economic policy Michael Strain. In his Bloomberg column, Strain derides Biden’s expanded child tax credit on the grounds that, by extending benefits to the middle class, it “has the potential to change the relationship between the citizen and the state.”

Progressives say things like this in a positive sense, but Strain means it in a negative sense:

The poor and the elderly already receive regular assistance from the government in the form of, say, Social Security checks or monthly deposits to their food stamp accounts. But government assistance to the vast middle is more opaque, hidden in places like tax breaks for health insurance, college savings and mortgage interest. And while the middle class welcomes this assistance, it is notably tied to specific expenses.


Cash is different. Monthly child-allowance checks would bring assistance front and center. And this could change the way the middle class thinks about the role of government in their lives. After a few years, it might become commonly assumed that the government should provide regular cash assistance to households with kids, even to those earning six-figure salaries.

This is an important argument that you’re likely to hear more of.

Biden’s child tax credit expansion is mainly designed as an anti-poverty program. So why does so much of it (more than three-fifths) go to households that are not in poverty?

The answer is that giving money exclusively to poor families is a design choice that creates problems of its own. One is political: Programs with narrow, politically disempowered constituencies are easy to cut, and Republicans have long focused their welfare state rollbacks on programs targeted to the poor.

The second is economic. If you create a benefit that only poor people can receive, then by definition you have to remove that benefit as they become nonpoor. This creates a work disincentive: People who earn more money are punished by having their benefits taken away. If you want to encourage poor people to move up the economic ladder, work disincentives are an important barrier. This was the best conservative argument against the old welfare program: Some low-income people faced effective tax rates close to 100 percent — meaning every additional dollar they could earn at work would be offset by losing a dollar of welfare.

The only solution to that problem is to extend benefits to people higher up the income ladder. Biden’s child tax credit plan does phase out, but only by extending the phaseout well into the comfortable middle-class income range. Strain is right that the money spent on sending checks to relatively affluent families is wasted or, at least not an optimal use of public funds. But that is the cost of avoiding an even worse problem. If conservatives won’t accept either giving checks to the middle class or disincentivizing work by the poor, then they’re not going to accept any program to lift up people at the bottom.

But Strain isn’t merely concerned about waste. He frets that giving middle-class people regular checks will broaden their expectations of government. “These monthly checks would be front-of-mind and popular among a large group of Americans who are likely to vote in elections,” he imagines. “That would tempt politicians to crank them up, making them more generous, and to argue that the government should also be picking up part of the tab for other expenses.” Once you hook these voters on checks from Uncle Sam, they’ll never give it up.

The reason this critique is likely to pop up again and again is that conservatives have made it against every new social benefit. Whatever next step in the welfare state was never just a single step but an unstoppable slide down an icy slope toward socialism.

In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan warned that if Medicare was enacted, “behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until, one day, as Norman Thomas said, we will awake to find that we have socialism.”

Conservatives later conceded that health-care entitlements had ensnared the elderly, through Medicare, and the poor, through Medicaid, but it remained vital to wall off the working-age middle class. In 1993, William Kristol wrote what became a famous memo urging Republicans not to negotiate health-care reform with Bill Clinton because any reform would “relegitimize middle-class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation” and “revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests.”

What’s notable about these critiques is, first, they assume a political dynamic that is little in evidence. There are instances where the establishment of a new benefit creates political demand for still more benefits. (The paradigmatic example is Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which seemingly established a constituency for bigger government but is also historically sui generis.) But it is just as common for welfare-state expansions to sate voters’ appetites. The establishment of Medicare sawed off a potential constituency for universal health care. The most potent argument Republicans mounted against Obamacare was that it threatened Medicare; angry voters in 2009 were appearing at rallies demanding the government keep its hands off their Medicare.

Every other industrialized democracy in the world has implemented universal health insurance, yet none of them has created a permanent left-wing majority. Indeed, parties on the left have been in broad retreat across the western world. If anything, the Republican party has performed unusually badly in comparison with other parties of the right; if America’s meager welfare state is not the cause, it certainly isn’t helping much.

Second, the slippery slope critique of any welfare-state expansion relieves conservatives of any obligation to debate the merits of a specific program. Their target is not just Biden’s child tax credit or Obama’s health-care reforms, it is all the other programs that will inevitably follow. You don’t need to argue that Biden writing checks to families will do more harm than good; you can add to the debit side of the ledger the costs of imaginary future programs that are surely worse.

This insistence on turning every specific programmatic design question into an abstract conflict over socialism is one of the defining pathologies of the American right. (Strain is one of the more thoughtful conservatives, which makes his endorsement all the more revealing.) A mature governing party can make practical distinctions between market failures that require correction and government overreach. The conservative movement has never developed any interest in doing so. The Republican party won’t be able to govern until it lets go of its fear that any new social benefit would send us hurtling down the road to serfdom.

One Argument Has Been Made Against Every New Social Program