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The Work-Ethic Welfare State

Paul Krugman famously called the federal government “an insurance company with an army.” In this, unlike most things, he is not entirely wrong. When it comes to domestic policy, the lion’s share of government spending is social insurance payments (Medicare, Social Security, the SSDI disability program, unemployment insurance) and social assistance via the safety net (TANF, food stamps, housing vouchers, the SSI disability program, and so on). Many of our most contentious political debates concern how and why to expand, contract, supplement, or reform these various programs: from welfare reform in the 1990s, Social Security privatization and Obamacare in the 2000s, entitlement reform (mainly Medicare “premium support”) in the 2010s, and now proposals for a child allowance or universal basic income.

Underlying these debates, though rarely examined explicitly, are competing moral philosophies about what citizens owe to their community and to each other, what a community owes to its citizens, and when government should reinforce or supplant those obligations. In The Government Should Keep Its Hands Off Your Medicare, Michael Lind explains the conflict between the elite preference for universal programs of support funded by progressive taxes on higher-income households and the popular preference for programs of contributory social insurance to support working families and a separate system of social assistance for the poor. Lind provides a broad framework that helps make sense of our debates, a persuasive case for the popular view based on the “work ethic” over the elite view based on the “consumption ethic,” and an overwhelming array of provocative observations along the way.

What I find most compelling about Lind’s analysis is his insistence that social insurance is a type of government program entirely different from the safety net. “Medicare may be administered by the government,” he writes, “but it is a program of, by, and for the working people who pay for and receive it.” I had always thought that an obvious step in making programs like Medicare and Social Security solvent would be to fund them more like other government programs through taxation that lands disproportionately on higher-income households, but Lind persuades me that this is wrong. His framework also gives context to the bizarre neoliberal habit of trying to define all government transfer payments, up to and including a universal basic income, as benign “social insurance.” I have derided such “social insurance salesmen” in the past for being so obviously wrong, but Lind provides the vocabulary for explaining why they are so wrong.

Lind’s essay marks the launch of a new series, The Compass Point, that will present in-depth commentary from leading scholars and writers on topics vital to the future of conservatism. Expect them most Fridays over the next couple of months.

Read The Government Should Keep Its Hands Off Your Medicare.

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Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.


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