Should Conservatives Oppose a Welfare State? Why Charles Krauthammer is Correct and Andy McCarthy is Wrong

Editor’s Note: PJ Lifestyle seeks to promote dialogue and debate across ideologies, cultures, and religions. This debate in particular — within the conservative movement regarding goals and tactics — is vital. Both Ron Radosh and Andrew C. McCarthy are exemplary exponents of their positions. I would like to encourage more debate and discussion on this subject, inviting others to respond to Krauthammer’s Daily Show appearance, McCarthy’s NRO article, and Ron’s PJM article cross-posted from his blog. I will attempt to weigh in soon. – DMS



If you want to know how to have a serious and respectful discussion with liberals, look no further than Charles Krauthammer’s lengthy discussion with Jon Stewart that took place last week on The Daily Show. Dr. Krauthammer is, as I am certain all PJM readers know, America’s most well-known and highly regarded spokesman for conservatism. In this three-part extended discussion, he manages to point to the serious flaws in the Obama plan for a federal takeover of the health care system, highlight why it is doomed to fail, and challenge all the liberal shibboleths that Stewart cogently asserts. There is no animosity between the discussants—only serious, well thought-out exchanges of opinion.

It is clear to anyone who watches the exchange that Krauthammer makes the case for a conservative critique of Obamacare, about which, he says in part three of the discussion with Stewart, all conservatives share a consensus. So it is unsettling to say the least to find PJMedia’s Andy McCarthy write on NRO that, like the Republican establishment, Krauthammer “is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty.”

McCarthy chastises Krauthammer for going on Stewart’s program, arguing that he and other Republicans “say what they think” so that they might win over a “receptive” liberal audience; hence they endorse a “mature progressivism” that they say is what “conservatives really think.”

Anyone watching Charles Krauthammer’s entire interview will immediately learn that he does not say what he thinks Stewart wants to hear; indeed, he argues strongly against Stewart’s liberal ideological preconceptions, and shows him, and hence his audience, the total folly of a government health program based on taking over one-sixth of the economy.


McCarthy takes particular umbrage to the following passage from the interview, in which Charles Krauthammer says that conservatives today accept,

the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. The idea that you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution is a consensual idea [accepted by] conservatives, at least the mainstream of conservatives.

Book Cover_0

How, he asks, can Krauthammer say that these are “great achievements,” and that conservatives accept them? Unlike Krauthammer, McCarthy, like many of the Hillsdale College group of conservatives and those from the Claremont Institute as well, believes that the Progressive Era of Woodrow Wilson and FDR’s subsequent New Deal were both the start of “the centralized welfare state,” which McCarthy says no mainstream Republican accepts. McCarthy argues not against “social welfare for the truly needy,” which he asserts should be left to the states and most likely private charities, rather than to the central government, which is intrinsically an abuse of the U.S. Constitution.

Krauthammer, as he makes clear himself, moved from Left to Right because he dissented from the big-government liberalism he once adhered to. As he writes in an introduction to his new book, excerpted in NRO, first he began to change his views because of the foreign policy of the Democratic Party, whose adherents “went even further left” than they had been in the ’60s by the 1970s and ’80s. On domestic policy, he writes, the Democratic Party  “remained true to itself. I changed.” What changed him is his understanding, based on empirical evidence, that “the results of the Great Society experiments started coming in and began showing that, for all its good intentions, the War on Poverty was causing irreparable damage to the very communities it was designed to help.” So now, he writes, he supports “a vision of limited government that, while providing for the helpless, is committed above all to guaranteeing individual liberty and the pursuit of one’s own Millian ‘ends of life.’”


What Krauthammer understands, and what Andy McCarthy disagrees with, is that liberalism developed programs with wide bi-partisan support that did things like end child labor, and instituted programs like Social Security, which at its start was not meant as a welfare program but as aid to elderly retirees that would be based on funds taken from their own paychecks that would be given to them upon retirement, and that seemed to be feasible when the average age of death was 62 years.

Now, as he tells Jon Stewart, the current programs are fiscally impossible to sustain, and are bound to bankrupt the government and produce even more insoluble problems in the future. He makes a distinction between the early programs that he finds defensible and positive, while McCarthy believes that all of them are “prosperity killers” and basically unconstitutional and unnecessary.8138571

So, by implication, if one accepts McCarthy’s argument, conservatives should not only be arguing against Obamacare and against new entitlements, but to repeal the New Deal-era laws as well. Krauthammer argues, I think, that even those who supported the original programs can be made to see, through empirical evidence as he did himself, that the current programs create something that cannot be sustained. To those who accept Krauthammer’s logic, as I do, it is more than foolish to argue that all the old New Deal programs “are frauds designed to create permanent dependency on government.” Indeed, FDR said as much, when he pointed out that Social Security was not meant to be a welfare program that would create dependency. One can agree with Roosevelt and not see a welfare state as “a betrayal of our constitutional traditions,” as McCarthy does.

Indeed, as William F. Buckley Jr. said in 2001, conservatives “need to make prudent accommodations. What conservatives are going to have to get used to is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost. It is fine, in our little seminars, to make the case against a federal Social Security system, but it pays to remind ourselves that nobody outside the walls of that classroom is going to pay much attention to our Platonic exercises.” So I ask Andy, does he really want to make Social Security a political issue in this new century?


This brings me to what I regard as one of the most important books written by a conservative writer, Bill Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. The author addresses these very issues, from a philosophical standpoint buttressed by tough economic analysis.

Only libertarians, Voegli writes, “view discussions about how conservatism makes its peace with the welfare state’s permanence as a betrayal of the imperative to protect liberty by limiting government.” Such a hardline position, he argues, encourages futility, to the exclusion of acting in order to be politically consequential.


As Steve Hayward writes in his introduction to Voegeli’s book, the argument conservatives should make is that the welfare state failed to reach its own set objectives, a tactic which led to the successful welfare reform enacted by Bill Clinton in 1996. What Americans want, he argues, is a “welfare state, but not too much of one.” When conservatives argue in the manner that Andy McCarthy does, which he calls “the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum,” it assumes that the louder they yell the likelier it is that the American people will change their minds. Hence Voegeli asks us to embrace the seeming paradox that conservatives’ only hope of limiting the welfare state is to overcome their categorical opposition to it.

Hence the need for conservatives to accept a “grand bargain.” Its nature is simply one proposing that “major program benefits should be means-tested so that they are directed to the truly needy, in exchange for defined limits on the extent of the welfare state.” And as it turns out, such a bargain was almost made, only to be derailed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The historian Steven Gillon, in The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation, revealed that both political leaders were about to go against the base of their own parties. Gingrich agreed to allow the government to use the surplus to save Social Security, instead of for a massive tax cut, while Clinton agreed to support private health accounts, to raise the minimum age required to get Social Security, and to reduce the cost-of-living adjustments. Clinton had agreed moreover to pressure Democrats to make painful compromises to get a deal with Republicans, and to sell it to the left of the Democratic Party. Medicare would, according to a commission about the future of Medicare, have been converted from a universal fee-for-service plan into a defined-benefit subsidy towards the purchase of a private or public health insurance plan.


The impeachment scandal simply ended this one chance for genuine entitlement reform, in which both sides would have had to accept compromises to make progress.


What we need is an agreement by conservatives on behalf of a conservative welfare state; the hope of Andy McCarthy for a turn-back to before the New Deal is not politically realistic, and would be a futile and self-defeating program for Republicans to adopt. We should be, as Voegeli argues, “against the regulatory state rather than the welfare state.”  Or in the words of the late godfather of neoconservatism Irving Kristol, “in our dynamic, urbanized, industrial society, some kind of welfare state is a permanent feature of the industrial landscape.” Voegli also cites the words of the late James Q. Wilson, who wrote:

Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.

Indeed, one of the very problems about Obamacare is that it regulates too much, and does not allow people to pick and choose from plans that offer catastrophe major medical insurance, but forces people to sign up for plans that include items an applicant does not want or need. Why, for example, would a 60-year-old woman need a plan that forces her to buy one that costs more because it includes coverage for childbirth?

So, let me return to the debate between Krauthammer and McCarthy, and the issue of whether it was wrong for Krauthammer to cite and praise the liberal achievements of the past. Here, Voegeli makes the essential point: “whatever philosophical commitments or policy proposals they bring to the table, the American experiment in self-government is the precarious undertaking conservatives defend. The past and, in many ways, astounding triumphs of that experiment do not guarantee its perpetual success going forward.” And to do that, wise conservatives understand that “defending self-government more often requires opposing than accommodating liberalism,” which explains the consensus to oppose ObamaCare.


It does not, however, entail an all-out assault against the welfare state and many of its popular programs enacted in the past with bi-partisan support. What conservatives must do is show the populace that there are points of no return, and there can be no limitless, ever-expanding welfare state that will leave our nation financially overextended. To the liberal and the leftist, the welfare state is never enough. It must be expanded forever, despite the costs. The conservative knows this is suicidal, and can explain that to the American people. There is a point long past beyond which it must stop. But to oppose the entire liberal project from its beginning is political suicide. This course, which Andy McCarthy proposes, is wrong, and Charles Krauthammer, I argue, wins against McCarthy hands down.


Cross-Posted at PJ Lifestyle – Visit for additional comments and more debate!


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