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Public Policy and Political Philosophy

Yuval Levin, the indispensible editor of an indispensible magazine, National Affairs, has written a newly published essay, “Beyond the Welfare State.”

Yuval writes that the vision of social democracy that has dominated our political life for many decades is now failing us. Moreover, he says, the economic crisis of 2008 might well be seen as having marked the beginning of the end of the social democratic welfare state by “making suddenly urgent what was otherwise a gradually oncoming problem” (our crushing deficit and debt).

Democratic capitalism, Levin argues, is the ideal that must guide the work for American domestic policy in the coming years. If the Republican Party is to be a truly conservative party, my Ethics and Public Policy center colleague writes, “it will need to think its way to an agenda of conservative reform.” He lays out his thoughts on the tax system, discretionary and entitlement spending, our health care system, and the administrative state. But there’s one part of the essay I want to tease out a bit. Among the major failings of the modern welfare state is what Yuval calls “a kind of spiritual failing.” In his words:

Under the rules of the modern welfare state, we give up a portion of the capacity to provide for ourselves and in return are freed from a portion of the obligation to discipline ourselves. Increasing economic collectivism enables increasing moral individualism, both of which leave us with less responsibility, and therefore with less grounded and meaningful lives. Moreover, because all citizens — not only the poor — become recipients of benefits, people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens, and to approach the social safety net not as a great majority of givers eager to make sure that a small minority of recipients are spared from devastating poverty but as a mass of dependents demanding what they are owed. It is hard to imagine an ethic better suited to undermining the moral basis of a free society.

At the core of the problem of the social democracy vision is that its proponents’ “understanding of the human person was far too shallow and emaciated. They assumed that moral problems were functions of material problems, so that addressing the latter would resolve the former, when the opposite is more often the case.”

Walter Lippmann wrote that at the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature. The premises we assume shape almost everything we do. The reason that the Founder’s conception of the American political system and Adam Smith’s vision of capitalism succeeded is that their understanding of the human person was essentially right; the systems they argued for conformed to basic human truths (men are not angels but are capable of virtue, people are driven by self-interest more than altruism, et cetera).

As we undertake the difficult task of self-government, lawmakers and citizens should from time to time step back and reflect on some of these deeper questions about human nature. This exercise isn’t a luxury, a diversion, or a distraction; it is absolutely central to the type of society we are and aspire to be. Public policy cannot be separated from political philosophy. That is, I think, in part what Yuval is saying in his significant essay.



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