Between the Lines: The Conservative Welfare State
Conservative Ann Coulter has made a career out of bad manners, so it was no surprise when she slammed her libertarian hosts at the annual International Students for Liberty confab in February as “pussies.” That was almost a compliment compared to “drunks” and “horny hicks,” two other terms Coulter has used to describe her political opponents.
A student raised Coulter’s ire by questioning her hawkish drug war stance: “How is it your business what I choose to put in my body?”
“It is my business when we are living in a welfare state,” Coulter responded. “Right now, I have to pay for your health care. I have to pay your unemployment. I have to pay for your food, for your housing. Get rid of the welfare state, then we’ll talk about drug legalization.”
One doesn’t have to choose between the drug war and the welfare state. But if one must, the drug war is worse. The welfare state confiscates one individual’s wealth to give to another. That’s unfair. But putting people behind bars for smoking a joint that is less harmful than the alcohol and tobacco that Coulter pumps into her body is a travesty.
Before Richard Nixon kicked off the drug war in 1971, nonviolent drug offenders constituted less than 10 percent of Americans in state and federal prisons. Now they are more than 25 percent of the (much larger) prison population.
What’s really rich about Coulter’s jeremiad is that had it not been for libertarians, her anti-welfare-state sentiment might have been banished from respectable company. In the six decades between the New Deal and the 1996 welfare reform, Republicans had been largely content to play tax collectors for the welfare system.
As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley has noted, many of FDR’s New Deal redistributionist programs, such as Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had their roots in Republican initiatives, including those of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. GOP presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford expanded Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Even Ronald Reagan, a conservative hero, refused to touch Social Security or Medicare. And George W. Bush boosted everything from food stamps to prescription drug coverage.
This didn’t happen in an intellectual vacuum. Conservative intellectuals over the decades criticized the welfare state, but mostly on prudential grounds. Irving Kristol, the founding father of neoconservativism, averred in 1976 that the GOP must “fully reconcile” itself to the welfare state if it were to have a political future. Even National Review founder William F. Buckley, who came closer to being a principled advocate of liberty, mostly recommended petty reforms like requiring recipients to do “street cleaning or general prettification work.”
Through all of this, libertarians were making the lonely, principled argument against the welfare state, noting that a government that habitually takes from one to give to another hurts both. It was this central insight that libertarian Charles Murray deployed to demonstrate welfare’s soul-killing consequences for its beneficiaries, paving the way for something resembling its genuine recalibration in 1996.
The welfare state suits conservatives just fine. Its existence gives them an excuse to regulate individual choices. And it’s their trump card for stopping liberty-oriented reforms they dislike.
Refusing to end the drug war is one example. But conservatives also have used the welfare state to rally public sentiment against immigration reforms, portraying poor Latino workers as welfare queens. And in the name of stopping abuse of taxpayer dollars, Republicans have enthusiastically backed invasive drug testing of welfare recipients and prohibited them from using cash assistance to buy morally dubious goods such as alcohol and lottery tickets.
The liberal welfare state and the conservative anti-sin state are two arms of the same statist pincer, squeezing out individual liberty. Libertarians should raise hell against both, because Ann Coulter doesn’t have the cojones to do so.•