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The Welfare State Needs Abolition, Not “Reform” by DOUG BANDOW

The United States is effectively bankrupt. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures the government faces unfunded liabilities in excess of $200 trillion. Making the programs run more efficiently would be helpful. But only transforming or eliminating such programs will save the republic.

The left likes to paint conservatives as radical destroyers of the welfare state. If only.

Instead, some on the right have made peace with expansive government. Particularly notable is the movement of “reform conservatism.” The so-called “reformicons,” notes Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, “have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running commitment to free markets and limited government.”

The point is not that attempts to improve the functioning of bloated, inefficient programs are bad. But they are inadequate.

Yes, government costs too much. Government also does too much. And that cannot be remedied by lowering administrative costs, eliminating waste, improving delivery, or even reducing perverse incentives.

The worst “reform conservatism” idea is to manipulate the state to support a particular “conservative” vision. Dalmia points out that many reformicons want to use the welfare state to strengthen institutions which they favor.

For instance, “just as George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism proffered a series of special tax incentives to prop up religious institutions, reformicons want targeted tax breaks to strengthen middle-class families. Some want to restrict immigration and trade, just like unions of yore.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for instance, criticizes conservatives who “have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’.” Although he warned against overreliance on the state, he still wants to use it for his own ends, proposing greater flexibility in allowing workers to choose between comp time and overtime — by imposing such a provision on private collective bargaining agreements.

Reformicon intellectuals and politicians argue for an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for singles and increased deductions for dependents and tax credits for parents who stay at home. Some want more taxes on the wealthy, new employee-oriented public transportation, a preference for borrowing over deficit reduction, subsidies for hiring the unemployed, and punishment for colleges whose students welsh on their educational loans.

Senators Lee and Marco Rubio and Lee have introduced the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan.” It offers some corporate and individual tax reductions but raises the rates on most everyone by lowering tax thresholds. The bill also increases the child credit, even for the well-to-do.

Alas, this differs little from liberal social engineering.

As Dalmia puts it:  “Broad-based, neutral tax cuts to stimulate growth are out, markets are optional tools, the welfare state is cool, redistributive social engineering is the way forward, and class warfare is in.”

Reformicons don’t so much disagree as argue that they can do better than liberals. For instance, Yuval Levin of National Affairs contended that his movement relies on “experimentation and evaluation [and] will keep those programs that work and dump those that fail.”

What motivates this approach? After Barack Obama’s victory, Levin explained, he and other conservative thinkers “were trying to figure out what the hell this new world looked like.” They hoped to apply “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

Of course, the Judeo-Christian moral tradition didn’t arise with a focus on public policy. Jesus spoke at length on the relationship of men to God and each other, but largely avoided politics. He never advocated coercively applying his teachings — that the federal government should force men to love God and their neighbors, as long as the enforcement was efficient, for instance.

But politics drives reform conservatism. Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru contended that it’s a matter of necessity: “Times change and people need to change if they are going to remain relevant.”

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center made a fulsome pitch for conservatives to embrace social benefits for “their” voters. After all, “Many of those working-class voters are located precisely in the two places a Republican presidential candidate needs to carry to win the White House.”

He concluded:  “American conservativism at its best embraces Reagan’s thought, combining a love of liberty with an overriding love of all people. In the present crisis, antigovernment fundamentalism threatens to place the two at odds with one another, to fatal effect for conservatism and for the country.”

Expressing interest in reformicon ideas are GOP presidential contenders Rubio, Jeb Bush, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Indiana’s Mike Pence, another possible GOP candidate, recently expanded Medicaid, in a reform-oriented fashion.

Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich (yet another potential contender), grew Medicaid without reform — claiming God’s direction. However, there’s no evidence so far that technocratic “reform conservatism” is more politically attractive than simple conservatism.

Of course, no one should want policies that don’t work. But that doesn’t address the most important question: is the end itself justified? Efficient income redistribution doesn’t make the process morally right, only less wasteful on its way to being wrong.

And such measures can create new problems. For instance, author Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation warn that the Rubio-Lee plan would generate resentment by pitting individuals against families.

It also would sacrifice opportunities to spur economic growth by emphasizing group privileges over rate reductions for all. The two worry: “If the self-styled party of enterprise does not emphasize the individual, no one will.”

Big issues are at stake. The current economic system isn’t working for all. Rubio asked the right question: “How can we get to the point where we’re creating more middle-income and higher-income jobs, and how do we help people acquire the skills they need?”

Social engineering, even conservative social engineering, is not the answer.

The starting point for job creation remains what it always has been, making it easier and less costly to create businesses and jobs. Children need alternatives to the public school monopoly. Yes, the family is under pressure, but the best Washington can do is to do no harm.

For most issues the principal answer will come outside of politics, as Lee recognized: “Collective action doesn’t only — or even usually — mean government action.”

Some reformicon ideas might make some conservatives appear more presentable to the public, but this approach will win few converts from committed statists. But reform conservatism fails to provide a coherent answer to the most important problems facing America.

Government is not just inefficient: it is doing the wrong things.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Unanimously Approves Iran Nuke Review Legislation

Our Iconoclast post title about a denouement today on the P5+1 Iran Nuke agreement review legislation was realized this afternoon in a unanimous Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote approving a compromise measure. The Committee action reasserted   Constitutional prerogatives forcing President Obama to relent his opposition. The vote was 19 to 0 based on the compromise language worked out between Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). Assenting to the new version of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review  Act of 2015, originally co-sponsored by embattled  New Jersey U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and Sen. Corker, were two Committee Members, announced GOP Presidential Contenders, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).  Corker had not been a signatory to Arkansas Tom Cotton’s letter that was sent to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic in Tehran apprising them of the Senate’s advice and consent on major treaties and agreements.

This legislative victory preserves the right of the Congress to review changes in the prevailing sanctions against Iran occasioned by the presentation of the Administration of any definitive agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran by the intended date of June 30, 2015.  Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif announced at a ministerial meeting in Spain today, that negotiations leading towards a possible definitive agreement would start April 21st in Lausanne, Switzerland.  U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the House would approve the veto proof measure. A vote on the measure should reach the floor of the Senate shortly, at which time Amendments might be introduced for possible consideration.

Tower report noted:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, said that the legislation, which passed 19-0, “absolutely, 100% keeps the congressional review process — the integrity of it — in place.”

The compromise language, which was worked out by Corker and ranking Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin (D – Md.), shortened the amount of time of Congress would get to review a nuclear agreement with Iran from 60 days to 30, and softened some other provisions of the bill.

The bill is consistent with a poll released today by Suffolk University showing that Americans favor congressional review of any nuclear deal with Iran by a wide margin—72% to 19%.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama would sign the compromise bill, reversing the administration’s longstanding objection to any congressional oversight of a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

The New York Times reported how quickly Administration opposition to the legislation had folded:

Why Mr. Obama gave in after fierce opposition was the last real dispute of what became a rout. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Obama was not “particularly thrilled” with the bill, but had decided that a new proposal put together by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made enough changes to make it acceptable.

“We’ve gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to a piece of legislation that’s undergone substantial revision such that it’s now in the form of a compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” Mr. Earnest said. “That would certainly be an improvement.”

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, had a far different interpretation. As late as 11:30 a.m., in a classified briefing at the Capitol, Mr. Kerry was urging senators to oppose the bill. The “change occurred when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this, and only when that occurred,” Mr. Corker said.

Mr. Cardin said that the “fundamental provisions” of the legislation had not changed.

But the compromise between him and Mr. Corker did shorten a review period of a final Iran nuclear deal and soften language that would make the lifting of sanctions dependent on Iran’s ending support for terrorism.

The agreement almost certainly means Congress will muscle its way into nuclear negotiations that Mr. Obama sees as a legacy-defining foreign policy achievement.

Under the agreement, the president would still have to send periodic reports to Congress on Iran’s activities regarding ballistic missiles and terrorism, but those reports could not trigger another round of sanctions.

The Times reported possible floor actions that might resurrect original provisions:

The measure still faces hurdles. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, fresh off the opening of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, dropped plans to push for an amendment to make any Iran deal dependent on the Islamic Republic’s recognition of the State of Israel, a diplomatic nonstarter.

But he hinted that he could try on the Senate floor.

“Not getting anything done plays right into the hands of the administration,” Mr. Rubio said.

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, abandoned an amendment to make any Iran accord into a formal international treaty needing two-thirds of the Senate for its ratification, but he, too, said it could be revived before the full Senate.

The measure will be brought up for a floor vote later this month and is expected to pass both the Senate and the House in near veto proof form.

It is clear that the victors in this battle are the Republican Majority and concerned Democrats who have been monitoring polls and constituent opinions regarding Congressional Review prerogatives.  In retrospect  Sen. Cotton’s letter and the March 3rd address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Meeting of Congress alerted  Americans to problems with the P5+1 framework for a deal  announced on April 2nd despite the objections of President Obama and certain leading Democratic minority members of both the Senate and House. Perhaps the diktats announced last Thursday by Ayatollah Khamenei demanding the lifting of all sanctions upon signing of an agreement and denial of intrusive IAEA inspections of military nuclear weapons development sites conveyed to Senate Democrats that there were different opinions about the two Facts Statements. The one released by the State Department versus that of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Add to that was Monday’s removal of a 2010 moratorium on the sale of an advanced Russian S-300 air defense system to Iran an indication that President Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei could void weapons sanctions agreements at will.

The losers in this episode are Secretary Kerry and President Obama. How those negotiations go starting April 21st will determine if Congress will have anything to review on June 30th.

RELATED ARTICLE: Commentators On Arab TV: Obama Supports Iran Because His Father Was A Shi’ite

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). Source: Politico