by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Brink Lindsey makes some good points as he explains “why libertarians and conservatives should stop opposing the welfare state,” and cites one of my favorite books, Richard Cornuelle’s Reclaiming the American Dream. We have to replace the welfare state before we can repeal it. I disagree with Lindsey’s conclusion about the competitive abilities of the independent sector, but do agree that there has been a failure of effort, which is one reason why people think we don’t care about poor people—we haven’t really shown that we do. It’s worth following both links in the quote below.
But if libertarians and conservatives are really serious about reducing demand for the welfare state, they will need to go beyond politics and create new non-state institutions and organizations that provide a viable alternative. Over fifty years ago, Richard Cornuelle issued a challenge to small-government supporters in his book Reclaiming the American Dream: roll back the welfare state, not by complaining about it, but by outcompeting it. Cornuelle urged libertarians and conservatives to turn their energies to what he called the “independent sector,” building new institutions and organizations in civil society to meet the public needs currently addressed by government. “The independent sector will grow strong again when its leaders realize that its unique indispensable natural role in America is to compete with government,” he argued. “It must be as eager as government to take on new public problems.”
A half-century after Cornuelle wrote those words, the gap between public needs and the capacity of civil society has only grown. I have concluded that this fact discloses a failure of libertarian ideas: I don’t believe it is possible for the nonprofit sector to outperform government in protecting people from certain downside risks of life in a complex, highly urbanized, individualistic society. At the very least, though, it reveals a failure of effort. I would be happy for opponents of the welfare state to prove me wrong. But first they have to try.