In between introduction and conclusion, Room to Grow parades a dozen incremental solutions to address numerous social and policy ills now debilitating the bloated federal government. The family is supported, but mostly by granting it more funds and by programs promoting “healthy choices.” The Feds would create the educational environment for local schools to succeed. Job growth would have Washington “use the market” for “positive ends.” Welfare reform would discourage early childbearing and grant vouchers to responsible parents “subject to rigorous evaluation.”
It does not seem the Feds would do fewer things under this program, but only different, more conservative things—which is fine, but just another litany of things national experts would do to determine our welfare for us. Few of the proposals seem actually to empower civic institutions. Moreover, they would be bound to end up even more watered down after the legislative discussion and debate urged by these well-meaning and earnest reformers.
A similar movement in Britain has inspired editors of Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, to declare the need for The Fourth Revolution in human history to replace an exhausted welfare state. Their book, which is subtitled The Global Race to Reinvent the State, offers a very English view of history: Thomas Hobbes’ revolution produced the nation state that was the first step toward modern law and order. John Stuart Mill added freedom to the social mix; and finally, Beatrice Webb topped if off with the welfare state.
Praising Leviathan’s creator, highlighting a Mill who, the authors admit, later seriously strayed into socialism, and identifying the late-arriving Webb with the welfare state (while marginalizing John Locke on liberty) will surprise readers on this side of the pond—but the authors are British “Liberals” after all. At least they evince a sense of urgency. They get it right that the welfare state is exhausted and in need of radical reform, and that more freedom is the solution. Their specifics, on the other hand, turn out not to be very radical or especially libertarian. (One reform they suggest for the United States is to limit its separation of powers.)
Micklethwait and Wooldridge are not inhibited from offering institutional fixes. They push major privatization of government to take advantage of market-sector technology and entrepreneurship. They propose substantial flexibility for the civil service and more contracting out to private firms. They attempt to save democracy by limiting campaign spending. They concede the difficulty of these reforms, noting that the United States has tried them with little success in changing the fundamentals. But they do recognize in theory that governmental reform must be comprehensive and swift, which is essential in a democracy with a limited time horizon. They argue that what has worked best in several nations is simply to cut spending and let local governments and lower-level bureaucrats figure how to make it work.
It is increasingly clear the welfare state is failing. The surprise is that a crisis requiring a “revolution” would be met with the (barely even) half-measures suggested in these books. How could blunting the edge of the status quo cumulate in something fundamentally different? Wouldn’t this just add another dimension of confusion to the welfare state? Patience and prudence may simply produce the 76th on top of the existing 75 jobs programs, or a 106th program to educate the young, or the 71st to feed hungry children. Real policy reform—good or bad—comes from dramatic and swift changes in social and political power by leaders like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. In a democracy, the opening for change dissipates quickly, within the first year or so after a defining election. Incrementalism only means the welfare state will continue its decline into utter immobility.
Certainly, the necessary changes are not possible today under President Obama. But neither are the Room to Grow or The Fourth Revolution proposals. What can be achieved is for reformers to create a truly radical plan if they ever get the electoral opportunity to act. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are closer to the fundamental changes required, but they bury them in their penultimate chapter. As they correctly suggest, the real historical successes were cases in which decisions were sent to the market or to local government–and people were allowed to figure things out for themselves. Direction is changed by the single stroke, not by bureaucratic policy nuance. Privatization and decentralization of governmental power are the only recipe for a genuine overhaul of the overly centralized welfare state.
If overload is the problem weighing down the welfare state, it follows that reducing the range of responsibilities and sending them elsewhere, not devising new policies for the existing bureaucracy to carry out, is the solution. For the wary, this is not institutional manipulation but restoration of the Constitution to its policy wisdom in Article I, Section 8 and the Tenth Amendment.