The Conservative Welfare State

The Social Security Administration has a Web page dedicated to the creator of modern government retirement programs, Otto von Bismarck, the late 19th century militarist chancellor of Prussia. The page explains:

Bismarck was motivated to introduce social insurance in Germany both in order to promote the well-being of workers in order to keep the German economy operating at maximum efficiency, and to stave-off calls for more radical socialist alternatives. Despite his impeccable right-wing credentials, Bismarck would be called a socialist for introducing these programs, as would President Roosevelt 70 years later. In his own speech to the Reichstag during the 1881 debates, Bismarck would reply: “Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me.”

Now, one might paraphrase about the current situation and say, "Despite his impeccable right-wing credentials, President Bush could be called a socialist for introducing his welfare programs, as was President Roosevelt 70 years earlier."

But considering the rich history of right-wing nationalist rulers from Bismarck to Bush, and their affinity to a certain type of socialism, perhaps "despite" would not be the most appropriate preposition to use in discussing Bismarck’s or Bush’s conservative welfare state. Like Bismarck, Bush does seem to advocate his social programs to ensure "maximum efficiency," and the president’s belief in business-state relationships to "save Social Security" reveals a distinctly conservative desire to make socialism work better by injecting a bit of capitalism into the mix.

In many ways, Bismarck is the inspiration behind America’s greatest socialist experiments: Social Security, Medicare, and nationalized public schooling. The German tyrant saw the people he ruled as a collective social organism, to be molded, conditioned and regimented toward the furtherance of Prussian nationalism and the consolidated state he envisioned. The central state would control people from cradle grave, take charge of the education and development of young people’s minds, consume a sizable portion of the private economy for its military conquests and promise to take care of the old when they retired. The nation-state ruled supreme; the people, mere cogs in the machine.

Bush’s expansion of Medicare, his housing subsidies, his federal subsidies for families and churches, and his desire to "save Social Security" are not leftist diversions from conservatism, nor are they reactionary diversions from Progressive welfare statism: Bush is simply the most passionate and consistent spokesman for the conservative welfare state that has occupied the White House in recent years.

Republicans have always done a lot of meddling in the American economy. Nixon imposed wage and price controls, Reagan practiced protectionism, Bush the First signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. The regulatory neo-mercantilism of the Republican Party, especially as it ties in to the warfare state, has been a core feature of its program since the 1860s. Before that, it was the conservative Hamiltonians who desired a national bank and government funding for national infrastructure. In recent administrations, Republicans have been famous for agricultural welfare, corporate subsidies, and other giveaways to certain friends of theirs.

The purer welfare-state proposals, however, have not appeared as much on the foreground until recently. Bush’s talk about giving money to Africa, to religious charities, to single Americans on the condition that they marry — none of this sounds particularly Republican, even to many libertarians well versed in the historic evils of the party. It is too socialistic, too interested in social engineering rather than simply giving cushy contracts and pork to cronies. It is too idealistic, much like Bush’s war to make the world safe for American foreign policy, rather than more realistic but brutal, like Reagan’s funding of death squads in Latin America to contain Communism. And unlike his father, who, for example, raised unemployment benefits, Bush seems to believe truly in his own Great Society, as opposed to simply advancing the welfare state out of political pragmatism.

If any of this seems confusing, it shouldn’t. Like Bismarck, Bush is a true believer in the right-wing welfare state. Like Bismarck, Bush’s loyalty lies first with the militarized nation state and second with the national health of the subjects it comprises. Bismarck wanted to foster a perfect Prussian culture, indoctrinated and devoted to the state, stripped of any individuality that would interrupt the state’s military ends. Bush wants the same, except to the ends of nationalized Americanism. Like the Progressives of 100 years ago, many of today’s conservatives tie together nationalism, nativism, and faith in the federal government’s power to improve society, keep it distinctly American, and spread American values worldwide through a belligerent foreign policy.

The welfare state is a right-wing invention, developed first and most characteristically by imperialist rulers as a method of shaping and controlling the masses. The Marxist dreams of abolishing markets, hierarchy and private property have little in common with the social engineering of the conservative welfare state, the one that we have here in America.

Indeed, welfare statism does not at all clash with modern conservatism. Depending on the conservative’s particular agenda, it either fits in consonantly with the whole program, or it is an essential feature in it. The use of redistributive power to engineer society, to nurture dependence on the state, including its police and military segments, to bribe voters and tame down bitterness toward the ruling class while doing nothing to address the fundamental origins of poverty, is a conservative endeavor.

To understand this helps libertarians to better recognize the nature of government interventionism as it occurs under Republican administrations.

As Murray Rothbard so well put it forty years ago (as if he were writing today):

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the "left" of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the-road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the-road because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means….

Socialism, like liberalism and against conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within socialism: one was the right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism; but especially the smashing of the state apparatus to achieve the "withering away of the State" and the "end of the exploitation of man by man."

When a conservative like George W. Bush expands Medicare to the benefit of connected pharmaceutical companies or increases Department of Education spending to rid local schools of leftist tendencies, he is not using liberal means to achieve conservative ends. He is using conservative means to achieve conservative ends. It is the liberals who are confused when they try to use the state to protect the poor masses against the wealthy and powerful, for such a thing has never been accomplished. Certainly, leftist revolutions can be among the bloodiest and most despotic, and they simply yield a new power elite. Conservatives, on the other hand, wish to maintain and conserve the power elite as it is.

Still, libertarians continue to make one of two errors in contemplating the Bush regime’s spendthrift policies. One is to assume that if a Republican is so bad, a Democrat will obviously be much worse, and that, in fact, Bush is probably doing all of this as a matter of playing politics and to keep far more injurious Democratic programs at bay. The other mistake is to assume that Bush is an aberration in his party or movement, a Republican In Name Only, and that real conservatives don’t believe in the welfare state but somehow he does.

Liberals make a different kind of error, of course: they laughably assert that Bush has cut spending or navely assume that he wants to destroy Social Security. They seem to have a problem understanding that Bush, like all power-mongering rulers, likes to spend other people’s money and enjoys the power that welfare statism provides to the presidency. One reason for the misunderstanding is the rhetorical cloak of the Republican Party as a party of smaller government, freer markets, and rugged individualism.

Libertarians need to refrain from perpetuating this myth. Many libertarians have a tendency, when addressing the left, to assume that all their reasons for disliking Republican rule emanate from a core philosophy of statism and a greater hostility to liberty than can be found on the right. So libertarians often find themselves perversely defending the Republican state against leftist critiques, standing up for power against dissent and doing so most bizarrely in the name of liberty. Instead, we should encourage liberal skepticism of Bush’s Social Security and Medicare programs, agree with the critiques of Republican corporatism and explain how it all ties together with the conservative welfare state. As long as the rulers feed and clothe the people, the people will never be free to do what they want with their bodies, their lives and their dreams. A state in charge of your health has a vested interest in regulating your behavior. Without economic liberty, there is no civil liberty.

Bush, like many conservative nationalists, sees the state as a foolproof instrument for managing and improving upon society, and he has acted upon that principle like no other president in recent history. The welfare state he champions has a conservative flavor — religious, nationalist, patriotic, and old-fashioned in its emphasis on family values and a back-to-basics educational curriculum — but, like warfare statism, it is also conservative in its means, just like Bismarck’s welfare state more than 100 years ago.

For liberty to prevail, one realization we need to make is that conservatism is not libertarianism, not even, and perhaps especially, as it concerns the welfare state.