American conservatives have discovered the will-and-morale-sapping properties of political power. A Republican president and a Republican Congress have lost control of the federal budget and cannot resist the temptation to stop raiding the public fisc.
George W. Bush and his colleagues have become not merely the custodians of the largest government in the history of humankind, but also exponents of its vigorous expansion. The president has taken lately to crowing that the Medicare prescription drug benefit will cover 95 percent of all drug expenditures for some of the nation's old and poor, and is telling younger Americans they have a duty to enroll their parents in the new regime of socialized pharmaceuticals.
USA Today reported last week that enrollments in welfare programs have grown 17 percent since 2000, even though the population has increased only 5 percent. Another study shows that enhanced unemployment benefits have produced the predictable result — longer periods of unemployment. Those who accept the benefits stay off the job more than twice as long as those who don't.
Compassionate conservatism thus has produced a Leviathan administered by guys who say, "Don't worry, we'll try to cut your taxes." (Not true: The Senate Budget Committee refused last week to make permanent tax cuts enacted several years ago by Congress.)
It need not be this way. Charles Murray, whose book "Losing Ground" made manifest the profound failures of the welfare state, has published a new book, "In Our Hands," that suggests an alternative to the present mess.
Murray wants to abolish every major federal program concerned with health care, food, housing, education, jobs, job training, energy assistance, social services, retirement, unemployment insurance and income security. In their stead, he would give every American citizen over the age of 21 $10,000 per year from Uncle Sam, to be deposited directly into the person's bank account, with the stipulation that $3,000 of that sum must go directly into a retirement account.
Murray crunches the numbers to ensure his idea wouldn't break the bank. More importantly, he poses questions nobody asks anymore. In the words of the Baltimore Catechism, "What is the end of man?" What ought we to do with this gift of life? How can we best build a society congenial to virtue and conducive to happiness? How can government be a help — or at least, not a hindrance?
In recent years, Americans have embraced the belief that government can make us happier and more comfortable. Thus, whenever somebody suggests so much as tinkering with the ever-expanding lattice of federal programs and initiatives, critics howl about "cruelty" and "insensitivity."
Murray turns this on its head, noting that our Bureaucracy of Compassion has become a Ministry of Misery. He defines happiness not as comfortable lucre, but as "lasting and justified satisfaction with one's life as a whole." You can't experience happiness, he argues, if you don't have deep and affectionate relations with others, activities that give your life meaning and enough power over your fate to enable you to say at the end of your days, "I did well."
The welfare system actively prevents our pursuit of happiness. It discourages enterprise, innovation, risk, work, marriage, and personal responsibility for procuring medical care, caring for loved ones and saving for the future. It outsources compassion and criminalizes common sense.
Murray's idea would demolish this system. Gone would be the perverse incentives built into the present system. Gone would be the rules and regulations that stand in the way of everything from marriage to charity. Gone would be excuses not to do the things necessary to produce the kind of great and vibrant society that caused de Toqueville and other observers of early America to gape with awe.
Liberated from the dominion of federal help, we could take a more active role in helping ourselves, cooperating with others and feeling good not only about our earnings statements, but the society in which we live.
Bureaucracy is a lumbering, unsubtle thing — more suited to issuing orders than considering the special concerns of hundreds of millions of individuals. Bureaucracy does not beget compassion. It demands conformity.
Murray is right. The welfare state is both a snare and a delusion — and an active obstacle to the American dream. A compassionate conservative would suggest what Murray urges: Don't fix the system. Tear it down — and set free the ember of greatness that smolders in every free heart. Or, as our grandparents used to say, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."