The Conservative Welfare State

by | Feb 5, 2001

In 1960, the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand pronounced conservatism dead. The conservatives’ refusal to challenge the fundamental ideas behind the welfare state, she argued, would doom them to a policy of appeasement and timidity. Sometimes it may seem as if her verdict was premature. Once each decade, conservatism’s corpse twitches theatrically, as it did […]

In 1960, the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand pronounced conservatism dead. The conservatives’ refusal to challenge the fundamental ideas behind the welfare state, she argued, would doom them to a policy of appeasement and timidity.

Sometimes it may seem as if her verdict was premature. Once each decade, conservatism’s corpse twitches theatrically, as it did in 1994, and everyone calls it a “revolution.” But then something happens to remind us that the victim is indeed dead.

One of those reminders came last Monday, when President Bush unveiled his proposal to set aside billions of dollars in federal welfare spending for “faith-based” charities. Here’s how Bush described the goal of these programs: “Government will never be replaced by charities and community groups. Yet when we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs.”

It was an official declaration that conservatives have given up fighting against the welfare state. They have given up fighting for smaller government, less spending or significantly lower taxes. Instead, they seek only to reform the welfare state to make it more palatable.

This approach was explained almost a decade ago by Irving Kristol, in an article titled “A Conservative Welfare State.” We must acknowledge, Kristol asserted, “that the welfare state is with us, for better or worse,” and all we can seek is “a welfare state consistent with the basic moral principles of our civilization and … our nation.”

These words were echoed last Friday by another conservative icon, William F. Buckley. “What conservatives are going to have to get used to,” he intoned, “is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost.” This means, he continues, that it is necessary to “make prudent accommodations” and use the welfare state for conservative ends.

If we can’t fight against the bloated federal bureaucracy, the argument goes, at least we can use it to promote conservative values and organizations. We can have a welfare state for conservatives. That’s precisely what Bush’s faith-based initiative will do. It preserves every dollar of welfare spending and just diverts some of it to bankroll religious organizations.

Of course, Bush promises there will be safeguards, so that no federal funds pay directly for proselytizing. But doesn’t that contradict the whole rationale for these programs? Aren’t they supposed to be “faith-based”? Such programs are claimed to be more effective precisely because they promote religion and thus “change people from the inside out,” as one supporter puts it. So what is the point of these programs if they are not allowed to be religious?

The point is this: federal funds will be used to employ thousands of people who are part of a religious organization, who are selected for their religious views, and who will do what they see as “God’s work” on the federal payroll. The specific activities that receive federal funding may not be religious — but the religious organization as a whole will be supported, enlarged and promoted.

In fact, this is how the Left has used the welfare state for decades. They used federal funding to feed an army of “social activists,” “advocates for the homeless” and other pro-welfare lobbyists. The Left’s great advantage in this money-grab was that their charitable organizations were usually secular, so there were no pesky church-state objections to keep them from collecting their checks.

President Bush has apparently decided that it’s time for conservatives to break into this racket — even if that means bending the rules against government funding for religion. The resulting program gives us the worst of both worlds: the Left’s desire to reach into our pocketbooks, combined with the Right’s desire to seek government support for religion.

And this is proof that, despite the fact that it’s still moving, the heart of conservatism is dead. It is dead when its leaders endorse a total surrender to the welfare state — and announce that, if we can’t beat the Left, we should join them at the federal trough.

Ayn Rand didn’t just diagnose conservatism’s condition, she also gave a prescription for reviving the political Right. What was necessary, she said, was to reject the idea at the root of the welfare state: the belief that the individual’s wealth and freedom must be sacrificed to “social needs.” The solution, she said, was to embrace “the argument (for) man’s right to exist — (for) man ‘s inalienable individual right to his own life.”

It is not too late to administer this remedy; and we should start by opposing the creation of the conservative welfare state.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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