A Letter to my Local Paper

Ronald Reagan (Home Is Where The Story
Begins) Tampico, IL [HTMLified and slightly edited.]]

To the Editor:

Wayne H. Merrit's recent letter to the editor declared Ronald Reagan to have made a "false argument" when he said "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Mr. Merrit engages in a clear strawman fallacy; the "false argument" is therefore his. The well-known quote is from President Reagan's 1981 Inaugural Address. And it's easy enough to discover that Mr. Merrit has snipped off the first four words of the actual sentence Reagan spoke: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Let's remind ourselves of the "crisis" to which Reagan referred: a (then) historically-high unemployment rate of 7.5%; double-digit inflation in 1979 and 1980; interest rates close to 20%; negative GDP growth in the last half of 1980. It was an economically miserable time, and Reagan correctly fingered government mismanagement of its fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies as the prime culprit.

By cutting out this context, Mr. Merrit makes Reagan sound like a rabid anarchist; this is monumentally silly.

But he proceeds from this initial fallacy to rant against "GOP politicians" and "right wing politicians" and anyone else who dares to think that it might be a good idea to limit the size and scope of government. Apparently, Mr. Merrit thinks that unless government continues to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars each year (along with about a trillion borrowed), we won't have roads, or something.

And (worse) Mr. Merrit concludes that such people should not be "popping off about 'big government'"; instead they should "just get out of politics and stay out of the way of good government." I hope that everyone will decline Mr. Merrit's advice, and continue to use their First Amendment right to "pop off" about whatever they want.

Paul Sand, Rollinsford

Never Enough

[Amazon Link] True fact: if you search for "Never Enough" on Amazon, you'll come up with a bunch of titles. Including one with a description that includes the key sentence "And Adrian is even more surprised when the buttoned-up, elegant woman who's raising Miles snags his erotic and romantic attention."

But the subtitle on this book reads "America's Limitless Welfare State" and if it contained a buttoned-up, elegant woman snagging erotic and romantic attention, she was very well hidden.

William Voegeli's book came out in hardcover back in 2010, but the paperback and Kindle versions only last month. (I snagged the paperback.) It earned rave reviews from a host of conservative pundits, and deservedly so. It manages to be both insightful and depressing, especially when read in tandem with the recent campaign and election results.

Voegeli does some impressive number-crunching, tracing the increasing size of welfare spending over the past decades, also making international comparisons. He makes a compelling case that welfare programs naturally expand, invariably well beyond the promised limits claimed by their initial designers. (It's difficult to think those promises are made in good faith.)

Liberals, Voegeli says, have never had a principled theory of welfare; their ultimate goals are vague even in their own minds. Hence the book's title: there are always more schemes to implement, more "unmet needs" to meet, more dollars to be taken from Peter to give to Paul. The only limit is the mathematical one of 100%.

Being unprincipled in theory leads to being unprincipled in practice. Much welfare spending is designed for political viability, which in practice means that the beneficiaries expand well beyond the truly needy. Voegeli recalls the late William F. Buckley's picture of "the skies black with criss-crossing dollars." So much money flying around serves to obfuscate what's going on. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is so passé; the modern welfare state largely robs Peter to pay Peter, while the robber takes a decent cut off the top for himself, and tells Peter that he's being done a great favor.

Voegeli believes that the primary viable strategy for conservatives to limit the welfare state is to implement means-testing on most outlays; no more sending Social Security checks to Warren Buffett and Mike Bloomberg. In his view, conservatives need to make peace with the fact that the welfare state is here to stay, it's an inevitable feature of modern democracies, and the only hope is to figure out a feasible and equitable way to put some brakes on the juggernaut.

Interestingly, he makes some pointed criticism of libertarian critiques of the welfare state. Libertarians suffer from the flip side of "never enough": they have no principled limit to how small they would make the welfare state. Their contribution to the debate (Voegeli says) is inherently futile and unhelpful.

(Interestingly, Voegeli makes no mention of the proposal Charles Murray put forward in his 2006 book, In Our Hands: just replace all programs with a modest yearly stipend to all adult citizens for them to spend as they want. Unfortunately, this proposal went nowhere; guess it made too much sense.)