Conservatives who argue to “limit” the welfare state are routinely painted as cold-hearted by welfare state supporters.
With good reason.
“I support government programs to assist those truly in need, but we must keep welfare programs from growing too big,” is the standard conservative refrain.
With that admission, however, “limited government conservatives” give up the game.
Once they’ve stated their support for the principle that the State is justified in forcibly taking money from some in order to give it to others, the debate shifts from the moral justifications of the welfare state itself to merely a disagreement over who should qualify to receive the benefits.
Who gets to define who qualifies as “truly needy?”
Defining the eligibility thresholds for welfare programs and determining what spending levels somehow make these programs “too big” are mere arbitrary markers.
In effect, these conservatives are saying: “I agree that government should take money to help this group of less-fortunate people, but extending benefits to that group of people is too much.”
At this point, there is no other logical conclusion to be drawn by the welfare statists other than these conservatives are just stingy and have no compassion for that group of people as well. What else could explain their willingness to extend government benefits for people below an arbitrarily chosen income threshold, but somehow deny benefits to people making just one dollar more than that arbitrary amount?
Take, for instance, state expansion of the Medicaid program. Conservatives have tried to fight back against expansion – successfully still in some states – largely by arguing that expansion of the program would be too expensive, while readily conceding that they support the current Medicaid program because it helps the “truly needy.”
Meanwhile, supporters of expansion point to millions of low-income people who could obtain health insurance coverage under expansion. Conservatives then are painted as the villains standing in the way of poor people obtaining health coverage, not because they have any ethical principles opposing government coercion, but just because it fits some arbitrary definition of costing “too much.”
Can you see now why “limited government conservatives” invite the label of greedy, heartless defenders of the rich?
The only effective rebuttal of the welfare state is a consistent application of libertarian principles. The very existence of the welfare state itself needs to be opposed on ethical grounds. Specifically, that it is immoral for the State to aggress against peaceful people to extract tax dollars and transfer those funds to another group of people as an unearned benefit.
Helping the less fortunate indeed is a virtuous act and should be encouraged, but only when done under the voluntarily acts of those following their conscious – not State orders.
Libertarians can paint a vision of a society which interacts by consent rather that State coercion, and charity is truly charitable; i.e. given voluntarily out of kindness and compassion for one’s fellow humans. The amount of charity and who its recipients should be should not be a political fight. It should be determined by the voluntary decisions of individuals choosing to help others the best way they see fit.
Under truly voluntary charity, tensions that arise from politicizing social services in the form of the welfare state would be eliminated, replaced by greater social harmony.
Sound utopian? No more utopian than “limited government.” Imagine granting a monopoly on the initiation of force to an institution, filling it with flawed and self-interested people, and expecting that institution to limit its own powers.
Supplementing the libertarian’s moral argument against State aggression, we can also point to how the welfare state destroys the family unit while killing incentives for recipients to engage in actual productive work, among other factors that destroy prosperity and make the living standards of the poor worse.
When conservatives concede approval to government welfare for the “truly needy,” they undercut any consistent ground on which to oppose the growth of such programs. Showing their willingness to endorse government welfare for some, but deny it for others in need enables their critics to paint them as callous and compassionless. After all, they don’t oppose the welfare state itself, so the only possible reason to limit welfare is cold-hearted stinginess.
Conservatives scoff at their critics’ labeling them heartless for the desire to limit the welfare state. But it’s their own fault. Will they ever learn?
Bradley Thomas is creator of the website Erasethestate.com, and is a libertarian activist and writer with nearly 15 years experience researching and writing on political philosophy and economics.
Follow him on twitter: ErasetheState @erasestate
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org