You would think that Herbert Stein's Law - "If something can't go on forever, it will stop" - would be beyond argument. But it is not. I remember as the real estate bubble grew larger and more ridiculous, thinking to myself, "it's not a question of 'if' - it's a question of 'when'" as to its demise. Others, however, couldn't see it. They thought that the laws of logic and math could be ignored forever. As the trajectory continued, we'd have people earning $70,000 and purchasing $3 million dollar homes. Well. We almost did, didn't we?
Yet it stopped, because it could not go on forever. And, so it is with our national out of control spending and our idealistic welfare state.
The intentions of Democrats are only the best. They want all of the old to have lavish retirements, all of the young to have scholarships, verse-penning cowboys to have festivals funded by government, and everyone to have access to all the best health care, at no cost to himself. In the face of a huge wave of debt swamping all western nations, this is the core of their argument: They want a fair society, and their critics do not; they want to help, and their opponents like to see people suffer; they want a world filled with love and caring, and their opponents want one of callous indifference, in which the helpless must fend for themselves. (“We must reject both extremes, those who say we shouldn’t help the old and the sick and those who say that we should,” quips the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg.) But in fact, everyone thinks that we “should” do this; the problem, in the face of the debt crisis, is finding a way that we can. It is about the “can” part that the left is now in denial: daintily picking its way through canaries six deep on the floor of the coal mine, and conflating a “good” with a “right.”
Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt linked “freedom from want” to “freedom of speech” and “freedom of worship,” the left has been talking of everything that it thinks would be nice to have in terms of an utter and absolute right: a right to a job and a right to an income, a right to retire in comfort in Florida, a right to the most advanced health care without paying much for it, and a right to have your children taken care of while you work all day at your job. The problem is that these are all goods and services, though of varying importance, and goods and rights are not the same things. People tend to concur upon rights (except for the speech rights of those who oppose them), and they do not depend upon others to supply and pay for their rights. With goods, there is always a political argument: about the value of the good, who is to get it and who is to pay. And all this comes down to the question of “fairness,” about which there is no end of disputation and grief.
I share the desire to provide everything to everyone, to have no one denied any health care or education or housing or any of the goods and services that help to improve - or sustain - life. The difference, however, between me and my liberal friends is that I know we cannot do all for everyone. As Margaret Thatcher wisely said, "The problem with socialism is that one day, you run out of other people's money." That day is at hand.
It was not wrong to have a fling with the welfare state sixty-five years ago, when it was a noble experiment that had not yet been attempted. It is wrong to ignore the evidence that in some ways it is failing, that the model set up has become unsustainable, and that renovations are needed if its critical functions are to survive. Goods are not rights. Pensions and access to health care remain social goods that a decent society will try to provide to its -people. But goods are not rights, and the old model, which claimed that they are, is broken.
What all of us need to do now is have a national conversation about what we can do. Once we determine what that is, then we can work on what we should do, given our limitations. Nothing wrong with wanting nirvana - except for the small detail that it cannot be had, no matter how much we want it nor how much we think we ought to achieve it.
Don't ridicule the left for wanting a perfect state; aiming high is good. At the same time, don't mock the right for trying to figure out how to do the best that we can within our means. In the long run, that is all that we can do.