Are our government social programs designed in a way that destroys American social trust? A post at The Burkean Conservative’s Facebook page got me thinking about that question today.
The post was a link to a Bloomberg article by Vox’s Ezra Klein (whose psuedo-intellectual, quasi-moderate liberalism is usually a turn-off for me) in which Klein reviews a book, now five years old (as is the review), entitled The Submerged State and written by a political scientist named Suzanne Mettler. The premise of the book is that most Americans are hostile to government social programs, even as most — 96 percent, according to her survey — benefit from such programs unaware.
Of course, this is a problem for people like Klein, because it means that no one knows how amazing government is. That is an argument to destroy another time, but there is reason to be worried about this disconnect.
That reason is social capital. Most readers are probably at least familiar in passing with the concept made famous by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, who warned that the breakdown of voluntary organizations in America spelled trouble for community and representative government, or indirectly by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.
Bo Rothstein, a Swedish political scientist, has studied social capital extensively, understood particularly as accumulated social trust. His conclusion is that social trust — necessary for a functioning system of self-government, as well as a healthy civil society, safe and prosperous neighborhoods, and unity — is built and reinforced by universal government programs, as opposed to means-tested ones.
By universal, I (and he) don’t mean to imply only massive, government-run sectors and the like. I mean programs from which everyone who pay into them can potentially benefit. In the thinking of free market economists like Milton Friedman, government intervention is basically only justified in pursuit of a public good, something that benefits or potentially benefits everyone, but that cannot be achieved by having people pay individually. Some classic examples are the military, firefighters and “muh roads”. My point here is that there is an argument friendly to libertarians (broadly understood) here, not just one that appeals to the premises of European welfare statists.
Klein says that most of the social programs that make the so-called “submerged state” are tax breaks. Leave it to a liberal to call it a government program when you’re allowed to keep more of the money you earned. That bone picked, the fact that they are mostly tax breaks does not deflect the question. The people who get to keep more of their money are those who do something the state deems desirable or are of some preferred status. (Economics 101: if you want more of something, subsidize it.)
This is still government picking winners and losers, though this time not in relation to business, and I argue there is reason to believe that this undermines social trust, because people believe government is unfairly benefitting others over themselves. Instead of one unified American society, there are those the government favors and those it doesn’t. Conservatives generally view the unfair treatment as benefitting Muslims over Christians, illegal immigrants over legal immigrants, or homosexuals over proponents of traditional marriage, for example.
Liberals see it as benefitting men over women, whites over blacks, or corporations over “the little guy,” among others.
(I believe this could be one factor in success of Donald Trump. The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone noted that the areas in which he polled best also scored low on social connectedness, essentially what Putnam was warning about. If Rothstein’s hypothesis is correct, these would be areas in which there is a perception that the beneficiaries of social program are not them, while they eat the economic costs of government policy, which lines up with a lot of the less articulate rhetoric from supporters who were not primarily traditional conservatives)
But the question Klein’s review sparked in me is somewhat different: if there is an invisible middle-class welfare state, does that mean that the design of government programs benefit the middle class while creating the illusion that it is unjustly and unfairly taking from the middle class only to benefit others? In other words, are we burdened with the inefficiencies and costs of a welfare state without the benefits of Scandinavian-like social solidarity?
Whether the perception is that the middle class is being hollowed out by social programs that benefit immigrants here illegally or the “one percent”, ultimately they appear to spread costs and benefits unfairly. Again, if Rothstein is correct, this means that the interpersonal trust of the perceived middle class, which makes up nearly 90 percent of the American population, is being eroded.
There is a further problem. Klein explains in closing, “It is in part because these policies aren’t visible that they’re so difficult to change. That’s the thing about submerging a large part of your welfare state. Sink it deep enough, and it becomes almost impossible to dredge up.” Entitlements are difficult to reform as it is. If they are to be saved from their unsustainable track, their problems must be made known and discussed. On the other hand, if more Americans become aware that they benefit from these programs, will they become more possessive of them and make necessary reforms that much less politically tenable.
The Submerged State brings up a final, difficult question for conservatives. No one but an extreme libertarian commenting from his parents’ basement about some abstract concept he read in an Ayn Rand book will object to (well-functioning) programs to serve as safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable among us, even assuming functional private charity. But such programs by their very nature are means-tested, not universal; according to Rothstein’s hypothesis they don’t support — and may even undercut — social trust.
The status quo appears unsustainable, but which of the alternatives should the Right embrace: universal social programs that don’t involve some benefitting at the expense of others and that build social trust, or minimal programs that efficiently help the vulnerable back on their feet, but must take from the rest of us involuntarily? Either one involves costs as well as benefits, tradeoffs that the considerate person cannot lightly brush away. There is no perfect or even easy answer.