In Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, William Voegeli sets forth a somber history (the 100 years war between successful liberals and retreating conservatives) with an acute analysis of the creeping Leviathan that’s relentlessly assuming ever-more control of all aspects of American life. The book’s title reflects a 1964 Nation editorial which declared, as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society unfolded promising to complete the New Deal, that whatever it proposed was “not enough” (#556). LBJ himself insisted, in 1964: ‘”We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few'” (#570). Whatever anyone wants Uncle Sam will provide! Underlying this attitude, as Steven F. Hayward writes in his perceptive Foreword is this: “Liberalism’s irrepressible drive for an ever larger welfare state without limit arises from at least two premises upon which the left no longer reflects: the elevation of compassion to a political principle (albeit with other people’s money), and the erosion of meaningful constitutional limits on government on account of the imperatives of the idea of Progress” (Kindle #147).
Without doubt Progressives have successively enrolled a large majority of Americans in various programs, distributing benefits (from Social Security and Medicare to Food Stamps and college loans) that insure the popularity (even among conservatives) of the Welfare State. “The defining victory of the New Deal,” Voegli thinks, “was not the individual programs it created, but the evisceration of the principle that government, especially the federal government, had no rightful business undertaking a whole range of social improvements, no matter how gratifying the beneficiaries might find them. Once this ‘legitimacy barrier’ was demolished, liberals could frame the politics of the welfare state as a contest between the compassionate party that wants the government to give things to people and do things for them, and the mean-spirited party that wants to deprive people of all those indispensable and beneficial things” (#601).
So long as “someone else” will pay for all these beneficial things, the “compassionate party” maintains its lock on a large percentage of the electorate. “As the British jurish A.V. Dicey wrote in 1914, ‘The beneficial effect of State intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and so to speak, visible, whilst its evil effects are gradual and indirect, and lie out of sight. . . . Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favor upon governmental intervention'” (#3482). Thus Voegeli, though himself a committed conservative, has some somber advice for his compatriots: accept what is and compromise! Forget about abolishing the Welfare State! Republicans as well as Democrats have generally funded and enjoyed its popularity. Ronald Reagan merely tried to “curb” its growth and abjectly failed. His “‘triumph’ was to yield ground more slowly than any other political leader in the battle that conservatives consider their central mission” (#3360). The only workable strategy for those who fear its ultimate destructiveness is to point out its unworkability and support leaders such as Congressman Paul Ryan to carefully correct its abuses and prune away some of its worst excesses.
“Conservatives, in other words, need to take the position that America is going to have a welfare state, should have a welfare state, and it’s not part of the conservative project to bring about the disappearance of the welfare state, even in the distant future. The question is whether we are going to have a welfare state that uses its finite resources intelligently, concentrating on helping the people who need it most, or one that distributes benefits in an undisciplined and nearly random fashion” (#681).
Having announced his intent in writing the book, Voegeli describes the welfare state. Trying to get a handle on all of the assorted governmental programs (federal, state, and local) truly numbs the mind and tries the soul! Even with official numbers in hand (or in computer) it’s equally hard to rightly interpret them! Limiting himself to federal programs, Voegeli calculates America’s welfare state “was 472 times as big in 2007 as in 1940” (#813). We’re spending 15 times as much on “human resources” (e.g. Social Security, Medicare, Education) programs than we did 60 years ago. Since recipients want “other people” to pay for it, the easiest solution, naturally, is to both inflate the currency and shift the ultimate accounting to coming generations through deficit spending. Progressives talk much about “giving things to people, while limiting the discussion about the corresponding enterprise of taking things away” (#2413).
Undergirding all this spending is a philosophical “rationale” carefully crafted by generations of progressives. Without the historical developments clearing the way for Europe’s socialistic welfare states, Americans needed to be coaxed into accepting certain economic ideas that were foreign to their limited government, free enterprise traditions. So American Progressives (notably Woodrow Wilson) determined to fundamentally transform things. Rather than taking the Founders’ views of the Constitution—inscribed in memorable documents such as The Federalist Papers—Wilson worked to adapt it to the modern, technological world. Rather than ground government in human nature, he turned to the ever-evolving history of the state, reflecting the influence of 19th century thinkers such as Hegel, Comte and Darwin.
Thus Wilson repudiated the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” declaration that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and declared them state-dispensed. Following President Wilson’s example. Franklin Delano Roosevelt adeptly advanced the Progressive agenda. In a 1932 speech, setting forth the “manifesto” of his New Deal, he celebrated notions of historical progress, justice and equality quite detached from any mooring in the essential human nature assumed by the nation’s Founders. What were once considered “natural rights” (life, liberty, property) by the likes of Thomas Jefferson were now to be re-defined “in terms of a changing and growing social order” (#1455). A “Second Bill of Rights” were now needed and FDR spelled them out—the government should assure everyone “a useful and remunerative job,” a living wage, a “decent home,” good medical care, protection from “the economic fears of old age and sickness and accident and unemployment, and “a good education.” FDR’s expanssive list of “rights” was, of course easily lengthened as increasing numbers of individuals and groups invented them.
Under FDR’s orchestration, the Chief Executive assumed powers formerly reserved to the
Congress. He transformed the Supreme Court through intimidation and judicious appointments. Thus
began. New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg says, ‘”a revolution in jurisprudence that ended,
apparently forever, the reign of laissez-faire and legitimated the arrival of the Leviathan State'” (#1600). A
“living constitution,” yearly attuned to current conditions by the Court, replaced the one written by
Madison et al. in 1787. In practice, this meant approving virtually all expansions of federal powers.
Anything goes! “‘You’ve got a problem? We’ve got a program'” (2550). Indeed: “The New Deal
changed America’s Constitution from one where the powers of government were enumerated into one
where they were innumerable” (#1772). Yet this progressive triumph poses a very real problem: no one
really knows where we are going or how to scrupulously evaluate our success. Thus the “change” touted
by Barack Obama proves difficult to either define or measure! Just as infinity is immeasurable so too
limitless “rights” cannot be constrained! Consider, for example, the continuously evolving notion of “civil
rights.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strictly required everyone be treated equally, quickly sprouted
into dicta mandating that some folks (through affirmative action) be given special treatment! So an
intensely color-conscious rather than color-blind society quickly emerged.
Complicating the lack of coherent direction, the Progressive project has manifestly failed to fund
itself. Liberals have sought to evade the inescapable truth that everything must, in some way in due time,
be paid for, indulging in “a protracted exercise in intellectual dishonesty, borne of a conviction that the
question doesn’t need to be answered if it can be made to go away” (#2690). “Don’t worry,” we’re told,
“be happy!” Somehow things will all work out if we trust the social engineers in various branches of
government. Voegeli carefully examines the recipes (e.g. John Maynard Keynes’ economic theories and
John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society) for perpetuating the welfare state and painlessly easing
America into a European-style socialism. Yet, as Milton Friedman, among others have insisted, “There is
no such thing as a free lunch.” But just try suggesting this to Barack Obama while he was delivering his
last State of the Union Address!
Progressives from Roosevelt to Obama inevitably promise to pay for the promised goods, easing
entrance to the Promised Land, by taxing the “rich.” (Exactly what makes one rich is yet another of those
undefined and flexible standards that makes any clear evaluation of Progressive rhetoric so frustrating!).
What Obama fails to mention, however, is the utter impossibility of taking sufficient funds from the “rich”
to pay for programs, which “cannot be realized merely by making the rich less rich. Enacting any
significant portion of the liberal agenda will also require making the merely comfortable noticeably less
comfortable—and liberals are terrified that imposing tax increases on upper middle-class voters will doom
them when those voters go to the polls” (#2999). Lots of folks who never dreamed they were “rich” would
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suddenly awaken to the fact that the State officially defines them as such! To keep such voters happily
supporting the Welfare State requires they be given much and taxed very little.
Yet another Progressive strategy is to call for taxing “corporations” rather than individuals.
However, as Voegeli says: “The distinction between taxes paid by corporations and taxes paid by flesh-
and-blood voters falls apart when analyzed” (#3211). When taxed, corporations immediately pass along
their loss to consumers who thus pay the taxes by way of higher prices—a sales tax, to be precise. If the
corporation cuts its profits in order to maintain prices, then investors (many of them moderate-income folks
saving for retirement) pay for the welfare programs. Liberals surely know that taxing corporations is
nothing more than passing along the tax burden to the people who buy their products without admitting to
actually “taxing” the electorate. They also know the average voter fails to fully grasp this simple truth.
Despite the many problems evident when “never enough” sets the agenda, American conservatives
have done little to effectively constrain the expanding Welfare State. So rather than trying to destroy or
even significantly diminish it, conservatives should take a more modest and potentially useful approach.
The voters, who now regard programs such as Social Security as their inalienable right, will not accept any
curtailment of such entitlements. So let them be! Just try to find ways to make the entitlement programs
more efficient, less abused, and financially sound. “Starving the beast” by making careful cuts in certain
areas—locating duplicate or antiquated programs—will inject a bit of financial integrity to the system.
“Means-testing” some programs—requiring recipients be clearly worthy of their benefits—is another
technique capable of enlisting voters’ support. Wisely pursued, such modus operandi may even enlist the
support of thoughtful liberals as well as voters. “If liberals and conservatives decide they can do business
with each other it will be because conservatives accept they’ll never sell voters on ther huge benefit
reductions they ultimately seek, and because liberals decide they’ll never sell the huge tax increases they
ultimately need” (#4230).
William Voegeli has followed up his examination of “America’s limitless welfare state” in Never
Enough with The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe against Liberal Compassion (New York:
HarperCollins, c. 2014). He has nothing but praise for the classic compassion found in Scripture or moral
philosophers of antiquity. To personally feel sorrow in the face of others’ pain is always commendable.
But today’s “liberal compassion” is a new phenomenon. Anyone attentive to public life has easily noted
the increasing attention given various kinds of victims and the “compassion” urged with regard to them.
Bill Clinton’s famous words, “I feel your pain” have become a formidable plank in various political
platforms, and exit polls indicate Barack Obama won the 2012 election primarily because a majority of
voters (who thought Romney would do better in many ways as Chief Executive) thought Obama better
understood and identified with them. “Romney won clear victories among the three-fourths of the
electorate who believed a presidential candidate’s most important quality was whether his ‘vision for the
future’ (54 percent to President Obama’s 45 percent), whether he ‘shares my values’ (56 percent to 42
percent), or was ‘a strong leader’ (61 percent to 38 percent). Obama carried the one remaining category so
decisively, however, as to win reelection. Of the 21 out of every 100 voters who believed the most
important quality in a presidential candidate was that ‘he cares a bout people like me,’ 17 voted for Obama
and 4 voted for Romney” (#2321).
Obama routinely reduces his political principles and objectives to kindness. Thus he appointed
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor not because she was a distinguished jurist but because she could
empathize with people. Such empathy, said George Lakoffin defense of her nomination, ‘”is at the heart of
progressive thought. It is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others—not just individuals, but whole
categories of people: one’s countrymen, those of other countries, other living beings, especially those who
are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed” (#368). Liberal politicians’ claims—e.g. Al Gore
sorrowing at his sister dying of tobacco-induced cancer and Obama lamenting his dying mother’s problems
with health care insurance—are frequently fudged (if not fabricated) to elicit maximum audience response.
But such rhetorical indulgences guarantee votes, and the Democrat Party has, Voegeli insists, effectively
turned into the Pity Party! Thus we’re witnessing “the Oprahfication of America, evident in the way
political conventions now aspire to be empathy-tests that can hold their own with daytime talk shows”
(#2195). Sadly enough, “A nation increasingly dependent on heartrending anecdotes to focus and activate
its sense of justice is one that’s losing the capacity for moral and abstract reasoning” (#2220).
In a 2013 speech President Obama endorsed film critic Roger Ebert’s words (“Kindness covers all
of my political beliefs”) and declared “when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every
single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a
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stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not
enough—I want your kids to do well also'” (#146). Unfortunately, as C.S. Lewis presciently said, a tender
kindness that wants others to be “happy” often lacks specificity. ‘”Kindness, merely as such,” wrote
Lewis, “cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. …. It
is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our
lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible
and estranging modes'” (#1374).
Since “compassion” is so widely touted as the core value for Progressives—Garrison Keiller
defines his brand of liberalism as “the politics of kindness”—Voegeli insists we rightly define and
understand the word. “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘compassion’ means, literally,
‘suffering together with another,’ and is also defined, more substantively, as the ‘feeling or emotion, when
a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines
one to spare or to succor.’ The OED notes a subtle but significant distinction between those two senses of
the term: the first is an emotion shared by ‘equals or fellow-sufferers,’ while the second ‘is shown toward a
person in distress by one who is free from it, who, is, in this respect, his superior'” (#275).
Thus fee ling compassion marks one as a good person. To support politicians and policies stamped
compassionate enables one join the righteous crowd. “The term ‘compassion’—or ’empathy,’ or even
‘kindness’—is routinely used not just to name a moral virtue, but to designate the pinnacle or even the
entirety of moral excellence. Precisely because this moral conviction is ambient, with so many Americans
taking for granted that moral growth requires little else than feeling, acting, and being more compassionate,
it’s an important yet difficult subject to analyze. Compassion is the moral sea we swim in, which works
against our awareness of it, much less efforts to chart its depths and currents” (#136). Importantly, it’s
feeling something rather than doing anything! To “feel your pain” (as tearfully as possible) was sufficient
for President Clinton! Compassion is all about one’s own feelings, not about doing something to help
someone—that would require personally doing acts of mercy or charity. Wealthy liberals love to support
taxes on others to help the poor while evading such taxes themselves through various loopholes.
This kind of compassion began with the birth of “modernity” in the 18th century. Feeling good
about our good feelings gained credence in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in many ways the
architect of the French Revolution and many subsequent socio-political movements. When he identified
with someone else, he said, ‘”and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not
want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself” (#611). Loving ourselves, we feel better
about ourselves when we feel empathetic or compassionate for others. If we give something to someone in
need, it’s not to actually help him but to inflate our own self-esteem! In the wake of Rousseau, says
historian Michael Kazin, “liberal modernism” has boosted self-expression and self-discovery and self-
esteem rather than self-sacrifice and self-denial: it prescribes ‘”the unchaining of sexual pleasure from
procreation, the liberation of art and literature from the didactic imperative, empathy with ethnic and racial
outsiders and an identification with the rougher aspects of life'” (#707).
Voegeli charts this form of compassion as applied to such concerns as humanitarian aid, “higher
patriotism,” immigration, poverty programs, race relations etc. Inevitably it promises more than it delivers,
if one judges the actual assistance given needy people. Since they “always want America to be more
compassionate than it is,” (#1532) the needy must be perpetually needy. “Empathizers who get to feel like
good people because of their empathy, however, may prefer to regard empathizees’ sufferings as chronic
conditions to be managed rather than transitory ones to be solved. ‘Pity is about how deeply I can feel,’
[Jean Bethke] Elshtain argued. ‘And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious
reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs'” (#1871). This is especially true today when the
plight of America’s blacks is considered. However much “progress” may have occurred, white liberals feel
guilt for the problems plaguing the black community. Highly privileged themselves, they talk about
abolishing privilege! Since slavery is “America’s original sin,” all symptoms of its survival must be cut out
from the human heart as well as various institutions.
So it seems, to Susan Sontag, that the great achievements of Western Civilization—Mozart’s
music, Newton’s science—cannot “‘redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.'”
Inasmuch as Westerners had abused non-Western cultures and the environment itself, the “white race is the
cancer of human history'” (#1814). Cancer patients, of course, can do little to save themselves! Seriously
sick people can do little on their own to improve their lot. Appeals to self-reliance or self-sacrifice are
branded hard-hearted and lacking compassion. Victims can neither be blamed for their status nor expected
to escape it. But in feeling pity for them the Susan Sontags of the world feel pleased with themselves!