A brief coda to the new culture war

As a sort of coda to my three-part culture war series, I’d like to highlight this excellent post over at Democracy in America by Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson directs us to this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Alan Brooks (head of the American Enterprise Institute, and author of The Battle) and Representative Paul Ryan, in which Brooks defends his call to a ‘new culture war’ rooted in economics.

The authors of this op-ed write:

 

“[W]hile 70% of Americans told pollsters at the Pew Research Center in 2009 they agreed that “people are better off in a free market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time,” large majorities favor keeping our social insurance programs intact. This leads conventional thinkers to claim that a welfare state is what we truly want, regardless of whether or not we mouth platitudes about “freedom” and “entrepreneurship.” […]

However, finding the right level of government for Americans is simply impossible unless we decide which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with a solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistributive welfare state. Most Americans believe in assisting those temporarily down on their luck and those who cannot help themselves, as well as a public-private system of pensions for a secure retirement. But a clear majority believes that income redistribution and government care should be the exception and not the rule.”

To which Wilkinson responds:

 

“This is remarkably unhelpful. Messrs Brooks and Ryan say Americans must choose between two ideals. But these ideals aren't mutually exclusive. Nothing at all is clarified by asking us to choose between them.

 

I'm sure they're weary of hearing about Denmark, but what about Denmark? Here we have a society in many ways friendlier to free enterprise than the United States. Yet it is also the very model of the modern cradle-to-grave redistributive welfare state. Of course, all liberal-democratic welfare states are both “limited” and “cradle-to-grave”. The real questions concern what kind of solid but limited redistributive welfare state we want. How can we design anti-poverty and unemployment programmes that are effective but do not encourage too much dependency? Are mandatory health- and retirement-savings programmes superior to risk-pooling, universal social-insurance schemes such as Social Security and Medicare?

Perhaps Messrs Brooks and Ryan think there is some symbolic significance in refusing to characterise America's status quo cradle-to-grave redistributive welfare state as such, and surely there is. But surely both men are intelligent enough to see that this rhetorical difference does not reflect a substantive one. Like Messrs Brooks and Ryan, I strongly favour the culture of dynamism and innovation that thrives when markets are left relatively unfettered, but it is a straightforward mistake to confuse questions of economic freedom and entrepreneurial dynamism with questions about the size of the redistributive state.”

I have said much the same thing before. Indeed, where I think Brooks and Ryan come short in their analysis is in misunderstanding the usefulness – or rather, the necessity – of strong safety nets in a free market economy. I believe the vitality of a market economy actually relies on effective, responsive safety nets to help workers get back on their feet when they need it most, and to boost labor mobility for the middle and working classes – segments of our society which are becoming increasingly uncertain in the face of modern economic crisis.

Like Brooks and Wilkinson, I prefer a dynamic, free market society to one rife with state interventions, regulations, and so forth. But in order to achieve the freest economic conditions possible, I believe that some form of redistributive state is not only important, but critical. And while there are many fine debates to be had about the nature of the redistribution in question, confusing economic dynamism with redistribution and safety nets is not only misleading, but ultimately unhelpful even for advocates of the free market like Brooks and Ryan.

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