What is a Conservative? And What is the Conservative View on the Welfare State?

si-GOP_platform-thumb-autox600-14449So what is the difference between conservatives, liberals, and progressives when it comes to the Welfare State? Since the New Deal Act of 1935, the political structure that provides for the welfare of its people referred to The Welfare State has been hotly debated. What I present here are some of my notes from Dr. Laura Curran’s Social Welfare Policy lectures at Rutgers University, summer 2012. As she observes, much of the vitriol results from differing beliefs and commitments concerning how political and economic institutions should interact or not. This post seeks to clarify some of the basic commitments and values that underpin conservative ideology and its social welfare policy. The same will be provided for liberal democratic, and the progressive ideologies in posts 2 and 3.

So what does the conservative view include? The central principle of American conservative political thought is the belief that human well being is best advanced through personal responsibility and private institutions. That is, the Conservative social philosophy is one that argues from three commitments: the morality of personal responsibility, the ideology of individualism, and a laissez-faire political economy.

The ideology of Individualism values the individual more than rather than collective interests and asserts that the collective interest is best served when all individuals seek their own interests. Individualism asserts that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own fate. Self-reliant persons will be rewarded with material success, and those who fail in life do so because of personal inadequacies of one kind or another.

Laissez Faire political economy literally means “to let do,” and this economic commitment is a corollary of individualism in that it suggests that society functions best when people are free to pursue their self interest, particularly their economic freedom without state interference. Laissez faire economics has its origins in Adam Smith’s writings from around the time of the American Revolution. He is heralded by many as the godfather of American capitalism. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith talked about the “Invisible Hand” that is at work in the marketplace and which allows everyone to pursue their self-interest through economic competition. Conservatives argue that competitive, unregulated capitalism is the best means of economic growth, overall prosperity and therefore the reduction of poverty. In this way, corporate growth creates job growth and thus reduces poverty. Ronald Regan captured the essence of the conservative ideology when he said “I’ve always said that the best thing government can do is nothing,” and this is because conservatives see government action as a hindrance to individual and family well-being.

Conservatives construct social issues such as homelessness, poverty, drug use, and crime as individual and family deficiencies. So for example, homeless are homeless because they have made poor family and individual choices, and they  have done so because of their own deficiencies. In this sense, homelessness is the result of refusing to make better choices. In this way, poor persons, drug users, and criminals are cast as morally irresponsible.

Conservative commitments to individual moral responsibility, the ideology of individualism, and laissez faire economics lead to constructing social issues as what results from individual and family moral failure. As a result, they advocate social welfare policies that encourage free markets and residual models. Conservatives are not fond of government intervention. Instead, they believe social welfare spending should limited because government welfare programs encourage moral deficiencies such as laziness and sap individual initiative. Alternatively, free market capitalism should be allowed to accomplish what it does best: increase and expand capital and wealth, which is the best security against poverty. Conservatives favor a residual model of social welfare. That is, social welfare should be provided through non-governmental means and private institutions, meaning institutions outside of government such as family, voluntary charities funded by non- governmental means, and religious organizations. Programs for the poor are a necessary evil, and should be kept as small as possible.

Some conservatives, however, – the religious right or cultural or social conservatives – do support and call for numerous government interventions. While they remain opposed to economic interventions, they call for government interventions to restrict abortion, gay marriage, and certain religious and speech freedoms.

Against this backdrop, conservative ideology favors four policy principles: selectivity, privatization, devolution, reciprocity/responsibility.

Conservatives favor selective social welfare programs. This means they want to focus public benefits on those with the fewest resources. If government aid is going to be available, it should be limited to the worst off in society. Thus, means tested programs (you have to qualify for them – that is, not make more than X amount of dollars, not have more than X children, work X amount of hours while receiving benefits, etc.) should replace all universal ones (such as medicare, where once you turn a certain age, it doesn’t matter how much you make or don’t make, how many children you have or don’t have, or how much you work or don’t work, you qualify for the benefit).

Conservatives attempt to reduce government intervention by putting placing the responsibility of public welfare in the hands of the non-governmental institutions such as private, voluntary organizations or commercial profit-seeking institutions. School vouchers, in which public funds would be used to support children at private schools, is a good example of this.

Devolution is another conservative principle. Also known as decentralization, devolution argues for removing power and control from the federal government and instead placing it in state and local hands. States should discern what is best for them and thus cut down on big Washington bureaucracy. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), for instance, operates on a state by state level. Making TANF benefits available at the state level rather than at the Federal level allows each state latitude in defining their programs. For instance, each state decides how much money they want to spend, and different states end up doing very different things with their programs. The idea is that the federal government in Washington is way too out of touch with citizens in Hern, Texas to know what they need. Critics argue that programs with smaller federal oversight almost unilaterally provide fewer benefits to their citizens.

Finally, conservatives argue that if you receive assistance, you should give something back. This is the principle of responsible reciprocity. Citizens are not entitled to state benefits. A nice example of this was Clinton’s PRWORA (Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reform Act) reform, which mandated that in order to receive  social welfare benefits, the recipient had to work. In this way, recipients reciprocated in a responsible way.

What have I missed or misconstrued? Thoughts welcome…


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