You’ve Got To Hide Your Welfare State Away


One of my longstanding pet peeves is that everyone in the US pretends we don’t have an “industrial policy” because that implies naughty state intervention in certain sectors. But of course we have lots of naughty state intervention in certain sectors, we just don’t do it even notionally for any good reason. We prop up the single family homebuilding industry and the automobile industry (even before the bailouts). We prop up certain agricultural sectors. We favor big business over small. Now we’re massively propping up one skimmer industry – the financial industry – and are about to prop up another skimmer industry – health insurance.

So, yes, by design or accident we have industry policy. We should recognize that and then decide what we should be doing instead of pretending we don’t have any.

Jamelle at The League:

This is actually related to one of my long-standing pet peeves, which is that everyone in the US pretends like we don’t have heavy government intervention in the economy, when in fact we do, but it’s in the form various tax breaks and incentives, and effectively hidden from plain sight.  In a lot of cases, the aim of liberals isn’t necessarily to massively expand the reach of government as much as it is to add some intentionality and rationality — as well as make explicit — the ways in which wealready intervene in the economy (health care reform is a perfect example of this, I think).  Of course, the concealed nature of our welfare state is the exact thing which makes it incredibly easy to demagogue liberal efforts to expand it; for the average American, an attempt to make spending explicit looks exactly like an attempt to massively expand the scope of spending.

Mark Thompson at The League:

Here’s the thing: Jamelle is claiming that liberals use the “hidden welfare state” as justification for expansion of the “visible” welfare state.  In essence, however, the logic underlying this set of preferences is precisely the same as the libertarian, and often conservative, argument for scaling back the scope of government as a way of improving net social welfare.  The broad Right has as much or more problems with the “hidden welfare state” as  do liberals.  There would be, in fact, a fairly easy coalition to be built in favor of simplifying the tax code, doing away with various subsidies, etc.  If this common logic is correct – ie, that existing social injustice is largely a result of the “hidden” welfare state – then removing the “hidden” welfare state would obviate the need for much of the “visible” welfare state.

In other words, if this critique is accurate, then social injustice may be cured either by growing the “visible” welfare state or by scaling back on the “hidden” welfare state.  Yet liberals expend virtually no effort, and seemingly take very little interest in, the latter, and seem to entirely emphasize the former.  This despite the fact that choosing the latter route would present a seemingly easier path to achieving allegedly liberal ends because of the simple fact that it is an area upon which the broad movement Left and movement Right would seem to be in virtual lockstep – if, in fact, liberals are serious when they rail against “corporate welfare” and the like.

I think it’s entirely fair to ask why this is.  Why, if the “hidden welfare state” causes so many problems, is the preferred solution the expansion of the “visible” welfare state rather than the elimination or reduction of the “hidden” welfare state?  I can think of a number of possible reasons, but foremost among them is that the cultural divide between movement liberals and movement conservatives prevents them from being willing to work together on many projects where they have actually quite a bit of ideological compatibility.

E.D. Kain at The League:

Essentially Mark is asserting that liberals attempt to build the visible welfare state on top of the hidden welfare state, whereas libertarians and conservatives try to make the hidden welfare state smaller and more visible.

Now, I think this is not really what Jamelle was saying.  I think Jamelle was saying that we have a welfare state and that many Americans both appreciate the services that this state provides while at the same time not really realizing that it’s a welfare state providing them – the whole “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” thing.  He’s saying that Americans exist in an illusion of free markets and bootstraps while in reality we have a very large state apparatus which provides safety nets, subsidies, and numerous other benefits to countless people and businesses.  What he’d like to do is make that more obvious so that people appreciated it more and then, in turn, supported a further expansion of the welfare state once they realized what a good thing it, in fact, was.  Contra Jamelle, conservatives and libertarians would like to draw down the welfare state because they see it – whether it is visible or hidden – as an encroachment upon liberties, upon the economy, and upon prosperity, job growth, and so forth.  These two goals are entirely at odds.

So I don’t think that it is simply a cultural barrier which prevents liberals and libertarians/conservatives from working together.  I think it is a fundamental political difference in core beliefs about the size and scope of the welfare state which separates the two groups.

But it’s also the culture.  After all, politics is secondary to culture.  Cultural beliefs and norms and expectations drive politics – not the other way around. While political shifts can lead to shifts in culture, this is usually unintentional. Mark is certainly correct that it is the cultural divide more than anything which keeps liberals and conservatives from forming a united front, but then again that isn’t the whole story.  I think some groups of conservatives or libertarians could align quite nicely with specific elements of the left.  We’ve seen such an alliance in economics, actually, with the stronger elements of both the right and the left embracing free trade.  But the Tea Party right and the progressive anti-corporate, anti-free-trade left have much less of a chance at uniting because of the vast, gaping cultural divide between the two sides.


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