Spreading the Wealth (II)

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Another thing on this subject - is opposition to wealth-spreading in principle really now a litmus test for being a conservative? I thought that being on the right meant that you wanted a welfare state that's small in size and limited in scope - that's what I signed up for, at least - and the most just and reasonable way to shrink and/or restrain the American welfare state that I can see is to make it more redistributive, rather than less so. To quote William Voegeli quoting Paul Pierson in a fine essay on the dilemmas of small government conservatism: "If conservatives could design their ideal welfare state, it would consist of nothing but means-tested programs." In other words, a conservative welfare state would eliminate our current network of universal entitlement programs, and replace them with cheaper, means-tested programs that, well, spread the wealth - that spend your tax dollars to provide temporary assistance to the unemployed, underwrite health care costs for the aged and very poor, set an income floor underneath American seniors, and so forth, rather than taking money from the middle class with one hand and giving it back to them with the other.

Whereas if conservatives back themselves into a corner where they're denouncing any kind of redistributionism as pure socialism, they're undercutting their ability to push for this vision of a more means-tested welfare state - because that push, if it ever has any chance of succeeding politically, will have to rely on explicitly redistributionist arguments to succeed. For instance, when John McCain proposed - correctly, in my view - that we should consider means-testing the Medicare prescription drug benefit, he justified the proposal on the grounds that "people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett don't need their prescriptions underwritten by taxpayers." In other words, McCain was proposing a leaner Medicare that spreads the wealth to seniors who can't afford their prescription, and uses Warren Buffett's tax dollars to do it - rather than a more bloated, inefficient Medicare that makes less of a distinction between rich and poor in how it spends taxpayer dollars. I thought that was a conservative proposal. But maybe it's just creeping socialism.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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