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The End of the Social-Democratic Model: Will the Left Respond by Accepting Reality?

Levin continues to throw out his bold challenge to those who still believe in the social-democratic ideal, people such as the late Tony Judt, whose last book before his death  was an impassioned defense of that very ideal.  That ideal has had great staying power. Yuval Levin writes:

That vision was an answer to a question America must still confront: How shall we balance the competing aspirations of our society — aspirations to both  wealth and virtue, dynamism and compassion? How can we fulfill our simultaneous desires to race ahead yet leave no one behind? The answer offered by the social-democratic ideal was a technocratic welfare state that would balance these aspirations through all-encompassing programs of social insurance. We would retain a private economy, but it would be carefully managed in order to curb its ill effects, and a large portion of its output would be used by the government to address large social problems, lessen inequality, and thus also build greater social solidarity.

Of course, this vision has never been implemented in full. But it has offered a model, for good and for ill. For the left, it provided long-term goals, criteria for distinguishing progress from retreat in making short-term compromises, and a kind of definition of the just society. For the right, it was a foil to be combated and averted — an archetype of soulless, stifling bureaucratic hubris — and it helped put objections to seemingly modest individual leftward steps into a broader, more coherent context. But both ends of our politics seemed implicitly to agree that, left to its own momentum, this is where our country was headed — where history would take us if no one stood athwart it yelling stop.

Levin’s article is of importance because we need more than the kind of proposal that Rep. Ryan is putting forth. We need, in addition, a head-on challenge to the ideological hegemony of social-democratic, socialist, and Marxist views that so many of our intellectual class stand by.  Those who will read Levin’s article knows that he does just that, and indeed acknowledges that in past years that vision had legs because it took root, not during an age of decline for America, but during the years of the economy’s expansion and a rise in the standard of living. Social-democratic activism coincided with the years of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and early Great Society. The problem is that as reality flew in the face of the assumptions behind the policies of those years, few were ready to dispense with the ideology. The result is the current entitlement system, in which, as Levin writes, “age-based wealth transfers in an aging society are obviously problematic.”

So it is up to us to change course. To do that, we must have the kind of intellectual ammunition given to us by writers such as Yuval Levin. He understands that means developing serious answers to the questions that made the social-democratic ideal seem a good one. Levin knows that to develop that, conservatives cannot be made to appear to be enemies of those who need a social safety net, and who believe in making America’s wealth accessible to all in our society. He writes that it is not enough to yell "stop!" What has to be done is focus on the purposes of government itself, helping to show where it must go.

In our current age, Levin stresses as well that we need a change in nomenclature, as Roger L. Simon has argued in these very PJM pages. We must point out that liberals and most Democrats are “the reactionary party” that has its “head in the sand and its mind adrift in false nostalgia,” and is content with minor tinkering at the edges of our welfare state. Conservatives must do more than fight old enemies; they must do more than simply repeat that we have too much government.  What they must do is develop real alternatives that the public can grasp and adopt, and to work so that others, not just the wealthy, gain access to capitalism’s benefits. To me, he makes the point well in this key sentence: “It would seek to help the poor not with an empty promise of material equality but with a fervent commitment to upward mobility.”

Most social-democratic programs and arguments, as we know, seek mechanisms they believe will promote material equality, such as a continuing increase of the minimum wage. They do not realize that such policies make things worse for the poor, force businesses to higher fewer people, and in states which had followed suit, force them to shut down or leave for other states that have not mandated such foolish social policies. So, I heartily endorse Levin’s call for a new “policy-oriented conservatism,”  whose proponents will work to achieve its ends gradually, through both persuasion and proof, and in accord with the ways in which conservatives know that change can take place.

America, Yuval Levin warns, cannot be allowed to fail along with the social-democratic model. So read his article and pass it on. What he offers is precisely the kind of medicine we have long been in need of. We ignore his arguments at our own peril.