The Magazine

Gaining Ground

Instead of the Welfare State, a check for $10,000.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By REIHAN SALAM
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In Our Hands

A Plan to Replace the Welfare State

by Charles Murray

AEI, 140 pp., $20

AT FIRST GLANCE, Charles Murray and Christopher Lasch have very little in common. Murray, the libertarian provocateur, is an avowed partisan of progress, and a devout believer in the constructive power of the market economy. Lasch, who died shortly before the publication of Murray and Richard Herrnstein's celebrated and reviled The Bell Curve, would have bristled at any comparison. After all, Lasch sought to redeem an inchoate intellectual tradition that stood against progress. Libertarianism struck Lasch as an infantile, if not pernicious, ideology of the smug and successful. A self-described populist, Lasch believed that the chief evil facing the modern United States was corporate control of the government and untrammeled free markets, which, in his view, undermined public trust.

So it's more than a little strange that Murray, in his latest incarnation, is reviving the Laschian notion of "democratic competence"--the idea that self-government ultimately rests on self-reliance and self-help, for individuals and for communities.

This is, of course, old hat for believers in small government. And yet Murray's latest book is more than standard-issue libertarian boilerplate, a useful if drearily familiar genre. Like the best of Murray's earlier work, it rests on a deeply moralistic, deeply conservative understanding of human nature. In a book that is, in truth, more of a pamphlet, he sketches out the broad outlines of an uncompassionate conservatism, or rather a conservatism of mutual respect.

But why "uncompassionate"? In his later writings, Lasch warned against the dangers of "compassion," a sentiment that degrades its supposed beneficiaries by making them objects of pity and not respect. "Compassion" entails the rejection of impersonal standards, and indeed the rejection of a common standard for citizenship. Once this common standard of citizenship is lost, democracy is reduced to mere procedure, a process by which one set of bums are, on rare occasion, thrown out and replaced by another. Individuals become objects of compassion or concern. They are no longer citizens in any meaningful sense.

To restore citizenship rightly understood, Murray has devised an ingenious plan that will strike most readers as impracticable, if not simply unwise. Rather than reform the welfare state, he suggests that we do away with it root and branch. Whether it's poverty relief or middle-class entitlements or corporate subsidies, all existing transfer payments would be eliminated and replaced by a $10,000 annual cash grant to every individual over the age of 21, subject to progressive taxation.

Because the temptation to resurrect the panoply of popular programs will be strong, Murray also calls for a constitutional amendment enshrining the grant as the only permissible form of redistribution. The one thing government does efficiently and well is write checks; under "the Plan," as he calls it, that is essentially all that government would be allowed to do.

Murray acknowledges early on that the Plan would, in the short term, cost considerably more than the existing system, to the tune of $355 billion. But over time, it would cost considerably less. Still, it's fair to say that the size of government is not Murray's primary concern. Were the Plan to prove consistently more expensive than the status quo into the distant future, I suspect that Murray would barely bat an eyelash. His concern is not so much the expense of one approach versus the other, but rather the implications for self-government.

The real question behind In Our Hands is whether or not self-government is possible under modern conditions. Not self-government in the trivial, procedural sense--can we hold periodic elections, sparsely attended, in which one set of bums is occasionally thrown out in favor of another?--but in the sense of giving individuals and communities meaningful control over the shape of their lives.

Assuming Murray is more concerned about the prospects for self-government than the size of government, objections to the Plan will take on a different character. Far from a heartless proposal that will leave the poor defenseless, the Plan treats "the less fortunate" as citizens worthy of respect. To a "compassionate" conservative, and to most modern progressives, merely handing over a cash grant, without strings attached, will invite disaster. Surely the very poor lack the capacity to make decisions about education and health care and saving.