Lawler on Entitlement Reform

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Devon, PA. Everyone seems to be in on, and to understand, the debate between FPR and Peter Lawler’s “postmodern conservatism” except me.  I have made a few jokes and gestures in its direction, but that is because, as both Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas persuasively argue, one does not have to have a complete understanding of something in order to joke about it.  Lawler’s latest Big Think blog post efficiently lays out the realities with which the debate on entitlement must come to terms.  He outlines the political circumstances and their stakes thus:

Here are the reasons for each party’s advantage.

One health care: The Democrats have a plan for reform (that’s already law, of course). The Republicans are for its repeal. People like repeal mostly because they think Obamacare will wreck the employed-based plans they know and love to rely upon. Old people also don’t like Obamacare because it’s being paid for, apparently, by cutting Medicare.

On Medicare: The Republicans have a reform plan (Ryan’s). The Democrats are against it. People like Medicare as it now is. They don’t want the move to a “voucher.” They think they’ll pay more and get less. And being old, as a result, will become riskier than ever. They’re already more paranoid than ever (with solid evidence) that their money can’t last as long as they do.

People are conservative, in both cases, in exactly this way: They like what they have, and they think change will mean they’ll have less. Let’s face it: One of the facts of the welfare state’s erosion is that they’re right. (I’ve talked before about the demographic crisis, the rising cost of health care, and all that.)

The best spin that can be put on the middle American’s likely future is: The good news is you’ll have more choice. The bad is that risk is being transferred from government and your employer to you, and you’ll have to pay more out-of-pocket to get the care you enjoy now through your employer.

The Republicans have to convince middle Americans that the move from DEFINED BENEFITS to DEFINED CONTRIBUTION is the wave of the future. Anyone who says it can be stopped is lying. And something like Ryan’s plan offers the best deal they can get in an era of diminished resources for entitlements. It’ll be tough to convince Americans that this tough vision is change they can believe in. I actually think Ryan deserves credit for boldly trying to change our thinking in a genuinely realistic way, even if he’s clearly for going too far too fast.

Now THE TEA PARTIERS and their theorists are all excited about the coming new birth of freedom and a return to the Constitution of our Founders. But their passion–as admirable as it might be–is not going to end up animating a majority of our voters. As William Voegeli wrote in Never Enough, if people come to believe that the welfare state is unconstitutional, that’ll be at the expense of the popularity of the Constitution, not the welfare state.

We’re going to need to rely on VOLUNTARY CAREGIVING more than ever to meet this crisis. One piece of American exceptionalism is how much we rely on that even now. Yuval Levin sees this better, I think, than the Randians and even the Tea Partiers. But one result of our creeping individualism is that the infrastructure that makes such caregiving–done mainly, let’s tell the truth, by women–possible is imploding too. Maybe the new birth of freedom or personal choice we’re probably stuck with we’ll lead to a renewal of voluntary associations based on personal love or charity. Or maybe not. EMPATHY, I’ve said before, is a pitiful substitute for CHARITY (or some similar virtue rooted in personal love) as the foundation for devoting oneself to others, to,family, friends, the unfortunate (the disabled, the poor, and lonely), and the common good.

I am not sure what Lawler means in saying Rep. Ryan is moving too quickly; perhaps he intends that simply in terms of persuasion rather than policy prudence.  But his two major points are based upon two principles that ought to be present in any credible conservative program to ease America back into long-term solvency and to allow it to cultivate and depend upon the moral virtues of its people.  Namely, the in-principle shift from defined contributions for all entitlements (as Lawler has said elsewhere, you are welcome to have defined benefit entitlements, but you had better start having more children and take up smoking, if you want them to be sustainable), and the first of all the moral and theological virtues: caritas.

Two brief, unsystematic reflections on these points.

1) In principle, defined benefit entitlements might seem a logical form expressive of that eternal society between the dead, living, and still to be born that is the foundation of all real politics.  It seems to bespeak a sense of promise from one generation to the next and to refuse the short-term thinking that the “oligarchy of the living” tends to indulge in when it thinks only of itself.  But, as I have speculated elsewhere, the appearance of the welfare state to be structured for the long term benefit of its people is an illusion; the benefits it provides tend to squander the resources of future generations for the comfort of the present one, rather than to uphold a promise to present and future alike.  The talk of such programs as long term promises conceals this reality.  Defined contribution benefits, in my experience, seema healthy analogue to the purchase and caretaking of a home and land : there are no guarantees (because the future does not allow for them), but through wise habits of saving one can be reasonably prepared for the future without making others in the future the debtors for your benefits.  It speaks to the mind-numbing enticements of defined benefit welfare programs that they have lasted as long as they have (a state of anaesthesia from which Lawler understandably expect us to resist awakening).

2) Caritas is the foundation of the ethical and political virtues and, of course, the modern project has been to find a way to make all people be good and to have the state function ever more ambitiously without having to keep that foundation in place.  In lieu of it, of course, we get the sacharine simulacra of talk of empathy and “altruism” and so on, and we get technocratic systems designed to coordinate and render predictable nearly every aspect of our lives.  The fundamental question we are set to answer at FPR is, I think, what are the social and cultural conditions in which the virtue of caritas can best be cultivated and made a habitus?  We presume — perhaps unjustly — that most Americans believe that a life of virtue, including those of charity and self-government, is superior to a life of inane dependence and indigent docility ministered to by a state architecture so vast as to boggle imagination and conception alike.

Human nature does not change, and so the virtues of a good human life are relatively (though not absolutely) stable.  But, as the welfare state continues either its descent into a smaller role in American lives, or its complete dissolution in the solvant of American appetites and imprudence, what are the social forms that will make it easiest for each of us  to acquire and practice the virtue of charity?  And — in a separate but no less important question — what are the conditions that make the charity many of us anyway and already possess most efficacious?  The charity of the martyr is of the same type as the charity of Mother Teresa or as that of a grandmother who takes care of her grandchildren while the parents are at work; so, what does a society look like when the practice of charity tends not to lead to or require the witness of one’s death but merely to the daily hospitality that could offset the moribund but extensive benefits of the welfare state?

A starting point to answer these questions surely lies in the stability of a settled place and a settled community — which, when present, entail also a settled family and the close contact not of the nuclear family alone but that of extended generations.  And so, as we face the limits of the welfare state’s reach (and, pray God, its lifespan), we face the challenge of accepting those moral, political, and geographical limits that make for big families and enduring small communities.

A republic of front porches would not simply be a nice ornament to help us feel a bit more altruistic and at home in a world governed by technocrats and supranational bureaucracies.  The front porch of every house would be a synecdoche for the basic moral and political unit that makes possible the good life lived together.  Charity is a theological virtue, says the Tradition, and so only God makes it actual in us.  But the possession of charity and its cultivation and efficacy are distinct questions of nature and of state (or essence and condition).  The freedom of love takes root and grows most fruitfully, I believe, in the good earth of necessity — and no necessity is more auspicious than that state of a single place inhabited by a single people over generations.  Under such circumstances, the children, the elderly, and the infirm get taken care of and — miracle of miracles — that care is bound up with the pursuit of the good life in this world and the next.

Our civilization has just about concluded its grand experiment in seeing with how few virtues and how little of each it can make do, and in discovering how free of dependence on place and people a state technocracy can render a human being.  Lawler’s post, as always, is modest and prudential in its approach, but behind it lies as invitation to reevaluate what our society ought to conserve of its present wreck and what it ought to recover from its past flourishing.

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