Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Restoring Meaning and Satisfaction to Life

Many philosophies exist as to the purpose of government. Most of us believe in a mix of ideas extracted variously from four schools of thought. There is a constant struggle to enthrone the mix we believe to be the most correct. Charles Murray asserts in this WSJ op-ed piece that the purpose of government is to help “human existence [acquire] weight and consequence.”

Murray argues in his new book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State that our modern welfare state robs vitality from “some of our sources of life's most important satisfactions.” He postulates that human nature makes us more than happy to allow the state to remove many individual burdens, but he says that many of these burdens are what actually make life meaningful.

Murray also takes an economical approach to the welfare state, showing that it will collapse on itself during this century. He argues that, although our affluent society has plenty of resources to care for all, our current redistribution system is incredibly wasteful and ineffective. Murray offers a counter proposal that he calls (here) simply, “the Plan, a radical new approach to social policy that defies any partisan label.”

Murray’s plan seems incredibly utopian, and he admits as much in this National Review interview. It would provide an annual stipend of $10,000 to every adult U.S. citizen. $3000 would have to be spent on an approved health insurance plan, thereby, making the entire country a single insurance pool. He suggests that $2000 be put into retirement savings. The rest could be spent as desired. But the last $5000 would phase out on a sliding scale starting at incomes over $25,000 down to $0 for incomes over $50,000.

A major hitch in Murray’s plan is that it would require the complete dismantling of all government transfer payments—welfare, food stamps, student loans, everything (not including earned payments such as military and government pensions). That would require “a constitutional [amendment], written in language that even Supreme Court justices can’t ignore.” He worries that this might not be possible. I’d agree with him there.

Murray says that the result of this plan will be to return raw materials to individuals, re-enshrine individual responsibility, promote marriage and strong families (particularly among the lower classes), reduce government involvement in individuals’ lives, and restore meaningful value to life. He has thought of almost every argument that could be employed against his plan and disarmingly addresses each one throughout his book, making the plan sound practical and desirable. The law of unintended consequenses suggests that Murray has not thought of every possible outcome of his plan.

When challenged that the plan seems wildly unfeasible politically, Murray retorts that people said that about his 1984 book Losing Ground that called for welfare reform. Yet, welfare reform came about 12 years later. He also claims that plans to reform our welfare bureaucracies are far less practical that his plan, as the bureaucracies are not fixable. He defends his writing by saying, “All you can do, if you’re in my line of work, is write books and hope that something happens. If I were forced to write about politically practical reforms, I’d be face down on my keyboard, fast asleep.”

I think it is unlikely that Murray’s plan or anything remotely resembling it will become reality. (I could be wrong.) However, I believe that getting these ideas into the public arena is a good thing. Who knows? Perhaps they can help shape future policy.


Bradley Ross said...

Yours is the second article I've read about Murray's Plan. It sounds enticing on so many levels, but having everyone in the country explicitly on the dole is ... well, it certainly causes one to pause. I realize that all of are on the dole in a variety of ways. I'm not too sure I'd be very comfortable with that if I thought about it for very long.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I think Murray makes some very important points that are currently left on the sidelines in our policy debates. I think it would be good to include these elements in our debates. But the libertarian side of me abhors the idea of everyone being on the dole or of forcing people to make certain choices with their funds. In other words, while I agree with Murray's take on the problems with our current welfare state, I can't say I agree with his proposed solution. But, by all means, let's at least try to address the problems rather than merely letting them simmer until they come to a boil.