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Expert OpinionExpert Opinion




GUEST ESSAY

A Conservative Case for the Welfare State

By Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett held senior policy roles in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and served on the staffs of Representatives Jack Kemp and Ron Paul. He is the author of “The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take.”

At the root of much of the dispute between Democrats and Republicans over the so-called fiscal cliff is a deep disagreement over the welfare state. Republicans continue to fight a long-running war against Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and many other social-welfare programs that most Americans support overwhelmingly and oppose cutting.

Republicans in Congress opposed the New Deal and the Great Society, but Republican presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state and sought to manage it properly and fund it adequately. When Republicans regained control of Congress in 1994 they nevertheless sought to repeal the New Deal and Great Society programs they had always opposed.

Energized by their success in abolishing the principal federal welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, in 1996, Republicans tried to abolish Social Security as well, through partial privatization during the George W. Bush administration, and they more recently have attempted to change Medicaid into a block grant program with funds going to the states and to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

In the 40th anniversary edition of his book, "Capitalism and Freedom," Milton Friedman advised conservatives to use crises as opportunities to advance their agenda. "Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change," he contended.

Thus Republicans are now using the fiscal impasse to try to raise the age for Medicare and reduce Social Security benefits by changing the index used to adjust them for inflation. They know that such programs will be easier to abolish in the future if the number of people who qualify can be reduced and benefits are cut so that privatization becomes more attractive.

This is foolish and reactionary. Moreover, there are sound reasons why a conservative would support a welfare state. Historically, it has been conservatives like the 19th century chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, who established the welfare state in Europe. They did so because masses of poor people create social instability and become breeding grounds for radical movements.

In postwar Europe, conservative parties were the principal supporters of welfare-state policies in order to counter efforts by socialists and communists to abolish capitalism altogether. The welfare state was devised to shave off the rough edges of capitalism and make it sustainable. Indeed, the conservative icon Winston Churchill was among the founders of the British welfare state.

American conservatives, being far more libertarian than their continental counterparts, reject the welfare state for both moral and efficiency reasons. It creates unhappiness, they believe, and inevitably becomes bloated, undermining incentives and economic growth.

One problem with this conservative view is its lack of an empirical foundation. Research by Peter H. Lindert of the University of California, Davis, shows clearly that the welfare state is not incompatible with growth while providing a superior quality of life to many of those left to sink or swim in America.

In a new paper for the New America Foundation, Professor Lindert summarizes his findings. He points out that there are huge efficiencies in providing pensions and health care publicly rather than privately. A main reason is that in a properly run welfare state, benefits are nearly universal, which eliminates vast amounts of administrative overhead necessary to decide who is entitled to benefits and who isn't, as is the case in America, and eliminates the disincentives to work resulting from benefit phase-outs.

A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Canada's single-payer health system had less than a third of the per-capita administrative cost of the United States system, with its many private insurance companies and overlapping government programs - $307 per year in Canada versus $1,059 in the United States. And although American conservatives are fond of pointing to cases where Canadians come to the United States for treatment, a 2009 Harris poll found that 82 percent of Canadians favor their health system over the American one.

Americans believe that their health system is the best in the world, but in fact it is not. According to the Commonwealth Fund, many countries achieve superior health quality at much lower cost than paid by Americans. A detailed study of the United States and England in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2011 found that over a lifetime the English have better health than Americans at a fraction of the cost.

The one area where the United States tops all other countries in terms of health is cost. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent more than any other country - 17.4 percent of gross domestic product on health in 2009, 8.3 percent through government programs such as Medicare and 9.1 percent privately. By contrast, Britain spent only 9.8 percent of G.D.P. on health, 8.2 percent publicly and 1.6 privately.

Thus, for no more than the United States already spends through government, we could have a national health-insurance system equal to that in Britain. The 7.6 percent of G.D.P. difference between American and British total health spending is about equal to the revenue raised by the Social Security tax. So, in effect, having a single-payer health system like Britain's could theoretically give Americans 7.6 percent of G.D.P. to spend on something else - equivalent to abolishing the payroll tax.

This is a powerful conservative argument for national health insurance. There are many other ways, as well, in which what the conservatives call bloated European welfare states are actually very efficient. This fact is disguised in commonly cited data for spending as a share of G.D.P. because so much social spending in the United States takes the form of tax expenditures, which are de facto spending.

The O.E.C.D. recently calculated net social spending in its member countries, taking account of tax expenditures and outlays that individuals are forced to make to compensate for the lack of commonly available public programs. On a gross basis, the United States ranks 23rd of 27 countries in the study, with social spending at 17.4 percent of G.D.P. versus an average of 22.4 percent. But based on adjusted data that accounts for tax expenditures, United States social spending rises to 27.5 percent of G.D.P., putting us in fifth place, well above the average of 22.2 percent.

American conservatives routinely assert that the people of Europe live in virtual destitution because of their swollen welfare states. But according to a commonly accepted index of life satisfaction, many heavily taxed European countries rank well above the United States, including the Netherlands (where total taxes were 38.7 percent of G.D.P. in 2010 compared with 24.8 percent in the United States), Norway (42.9 percent), Sweden (45.5 percent) and Denmark (47.6 percent).