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.

Murray embraces the view of the old egalitarian liberals: that the rich are different from you and me, but only insofar as they have more money. The pathologies of the inner city are a function of perverse incentives. Why embrace the demanding and difficult bourgeois virtues when the deck is stacked against you, and the prospects of climbing out of poverty are slim? Providing a clear and visible lifeline changes everything. More would be expected of the listless, passive young men who are the source of so much turmoil, from mothers and girlfriends, and, over time, perhaps even wives.

Consider that the rich associational life of the early United States (a recurring theme of In Our Hands) was devised by individuals with far less education and far less free time than modern Americans. The vast expansion of literacy in the early 19th century, a historic achievement, occurred in the absence of any centralized plan. The expansion of the franchise and the changing nature of economic life made the value of literacy plain. In due time, literacy spread.

Yet today we assume that young people will only learn if they are poked, prodded, and tested into submission. Our educational system--like our welfare system--has become a nightmarish inversion of democracy, where passive students prepare for life as passive citizens, or rather passive consumers.

You can dismiss Murray as a romantic, with his heroic view of what the so-called common man could be. But this deeply unfashionable perspective also makes him one of our most powerful social critics. Like Christopher Lasch, Murray stands against the progressive surrender of decision-making authority to a highly mobile, credentialed class of experts.

But Lasch was a pessimist; Murray, champion of markets and choice and freedom, believes that history is on his side, and that the days of the stultifying welfare state are numbered.

Yet in the past he entertained darker views. In The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein concluded that American society had taken a dangerous turn. Returns to intelligence narrowly conceived had sharply increased, and would likely increase unabated, reinforcing--and, indeed, exacerbating--existing inequalities. The end result would be a deeply divided society, with a fabulously wealthy cognitive elite using some combination of bribery and force of arms to pacify an unruly, violent, and impoverished underclass.

Since then, there has been a great and significant change in the social landscape. Though the problems plaguing the inner-city poor remain formidable, the Clinton boom and the sharp decrease in crime made them seem far less intractable. Perhaps more important, the rise of offshore outsourcing points to a future in which the "impersonal services" offered by members of the cognitive elite have increasingly become tradable commodities.

Whereas global trade has, until recently, only affected those working in the manufacturing sector, we can now easily imagine a not-distant future in which members of the credentialed, salaried upper-middle-class face the same pressures. Some will counsel the creation of new entitlements to guarantee economic security, to make the American economy a museum piece, preserving our particular standard of life and distribution of income. Others, including Murray, will see this as an opportunity for a reinvigorated conservatism--one dedicated to restoring the practice of self-reliance and self-help.

This effort will not, in all likelihood, take the form of one fell swoop, as Murray would have it. But how we get to Murray's intended end is going to be the central question for conservatives in the years to come.

Reihan Salam is a writer in Washington.