How to Successfully Dismantle the Welfare State

A slug on my doorstep.


The amount of government we have now compared to the streamlined variety of government we need is so different, and the political forces pushing for large government — the modern welfare state, for example — so strong and persistent, it is hard to imagine any real, substantial movement in the direction of less government.

Bill Clinton said he had “ended welfare as we know it.” But only one program was really affected. The “food stamp” program, recently cut back, is still going strong. Many people have been farmed out to the Social Security Administration under the vague grounds of “disability.” The  ranks of adult “wards of the state” grow every day. Where would be the will to really cut back?

And yet many libertarians say that they do not want cutbacks: such programs must be “abolished,” like slavery was abolished. Easier said than done. For one, it took a bloody civil war — a war of suppression, a war against secession — to bring that about. I cannot imagine anyone suggesting that, today. The political forces that would mount against any large attack on the welfare state would be insurmountable. It strikes me that only a complete financial collapse would allow such a thing in America.

And it strikes me that our current batch of politicians may be, inadvertently, working towards that.

But that is hard to plan for. And the usual outcome of a catastrophe is tyranny. So maybe I am wrong. Would there be a less intrusive, less socially divisive way of getting rid of, say, federal aid to the poor?

First, my libertarian friends might as well recognize the obvious: if the federal government got out of the “welfare” biz, most state governments would continue the job, at least to some extent. So there is almost certainly no immediate cessation, across the board, of state aid as such. Once again, not barring a complete collapse.

And it is also the case that cutting off aid to the poor before cutting off bailouts of the rich would also be politically unpopular, and, in fact, hard to argue for. I know libertarians who say that all subsidy is equally immoral, but try convincing a non-doctrinaire citizen of that. Try.

So, imagine Social Security reformed in a few strategic ways. Imagine . . . what next? How should one go about cutting back on what used to be called the Food Stamp program?

Well, for every major cutback to federal assistance to the poor, there must first be cut assistance to the rich. If one does it in a concerted, rational way, one might make headway. Explicitly tie cuts to the welfare state to cuts to dirigiste state capitalism. End agribiz subsidies, then go after subsidies to the poor.

Second, instead of making immediate cut-backs, announce a future freeze. In your bill, which you will promote in Congress, declare that all benefit hikes to any person or family will be prohibited. This second step is Freeze One.

Third, there’s Freeze Two. You stipulate that nine months after the bill is signed into law, or Congress over-rides a presidential veto, new recipients will not be enrolled. The nine-month delay is there for the simple reason of due warning, to allow time for sexually active poor people to reappraise their lifestyles. Start using double protection in coitus. That sort of thing.

Taking the fourth and fifth steps (whatever they may be) depends on how society and the several states react to the program of Big Business cutoffs and the two freezes in the poverty programs.

What is required? Time. Time for people to accommodate to the new incentives and disincentives. Those who have already wrecked their lives with multiple children while living off the taxpayer have time to figure out something new to do. Those who have not yet wrecked their lives will think twice before engaging in risky behavior.

Nothing will guarantee that there will be no unwed pregnancies, or pregnancies of impoverished-if-married mothers. But the disincentive will have been established, and the states — scrambling to pay for increased demands for aid — will find themselves engaging in less lax attitudes about help, and in more supervision of the profligate population. And therefore adding pressure to better behavior.

Further, a new attitude would have to emerge in society, one that I used to see on a bumper sticker in Port Townsend, Washington: If you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em. That is simple prudence, combined with respect for more responsible taxpayers.

But this morality could go further. A modification of an old ethic might even emerge: It is wrong to bring children into this world that you cannot afford to house, clothe, and feed. Not merely wrong, but morally wrong. Wicked. Immoral.

Without that general attitude, there is little hope to decrease the welfare state. And that attitude will not develop if the dismantling of the state happens too fast.

The pace may be that of a slug.

There are few animals slower than a slug. But slugs do get around.

When I was young, on the family homestead, there existed nothing but green slugs. Black slugs and red-orange slugs were something that surprised me, in my travels. They lived far away from home.

And yet now that same doorstep sports black and these new, red-orange slugs. The black ones, I know, traveled, somehow, from the north, from hundreds of miles north.

It took a human generation to get here, but get here they did.

So it will be, I think, with dismantling the welfare state. It will take time.

With a stretch of the imagination, it seems possible, now that I think about it, but it still strikes me as very unlikely that it will be done in good times. But I believe it would be healthier if we dismantled it in good times than in bad. So, consider the slug, its migration, its slow pace across vast terrains.

I suspect that the fastest way to dismantle the welfare state is to do it slowly, to slow down. Start with the rich. Then do the double freeze. Let it begin with the attrition of dependents, and continue with adaptation to the new system. If coupled with repeal sessions where the poor would be unburdened as the rich were, too — as regulatory hurdles to enterprise and coöperation are knifed, and knifed as quickly as possible — then there would be time for sped-up later stages: the actual whittling away of the ranks of the dependents, as other institutions, private and community, arise to take their place.

And as individuals begin to wise up in general. For, the old wisdom still holds: The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools. That is today, a world of fools. It would be great to work towards less folly, not more. For a change. For real change.