Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bush's social vision: replacing the state with the church

I've blogged repeatedly on the relationship between the Right's religiosity and its attacks on the welfare state. While it is rare to see people openly articulate the the connection between religion and anti-statism, occasionally a piece appears that illuminates the linkages between rightwingers' desire to roll back the New Deal, and their vision of a society based on private (versus) social responsibility.

One such piece, however, is Jackie Calmes's recent WSJ opinion column, reprinted in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Calmes argues that Bush's "ownership society" would encourage individuals to take more risks. The whole piece is worth reading as a fair representation of the social vision underpinning Bush's Republican party (with the caveat that while the vision may be of smaller government, in practice Bush has led greatest the expansion of domestic government since the heyday of the Great Society).

Particularly illuminating is how Calmes connects the transformation in Bush's personal life to his political and social vision. "The president's policies," Calmes explains, "reflect his deeply held belief that 'ownership' has the power to transform people, just as he feels transformed by a midlife decision to quit drinking and embrace religion." Calmes goes on top provide the wider context for the emergence of Bush social vision:

The president's philosophy reflects a libertarian, free-market bent common to Texas and its small-town Petroleum Clubs, made up of local business leaders. As far back as the young oilman's losing bid for Congress in 1978, Mr. Bush proposed carving private accounts from Social Security.

After his defeat, Mr. Bush went back to the oil business, and then became part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. His own financial risks and business failures through the 1980s were cushioned by investors drawn from his family's circle.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, up-and-coming Republican conservatives such as future House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Jack Kemp, who later became housing secretary in the first Bush administration, were popularizing "empowerment" initiatives and a "conservative opportunity society" to shrink "the welfare state." In Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was overhauling state pensions and selling public housing to tenants. Their ideas -- shrinking government and cutting taxes so individuals would fend more for themselves -- were the basis of Mr. Bush's thinking, according to past and current advisers.

All of that, I think is historically accurate and politically fair, even though it obviously is sympathetic with Bush's program in a way I am not. (It's rare that you see defenders of Bush's "ownership society" point out that Bush's own "ownership" was the result of cronyism.) Even though Calmes doesn't quite draw out the point as much as I would, he does hint at the role that religious institutions play in providing the future alternative to the government-provided safety net, according to the Bushist vision.

Although it's rare that you see the bigtime press even hint at this connection, smaller newspapers are often more explicit. For example, the perception that social insurance programs (social security, medicare, medicaid, welfare, food stamps, maternity programs, etc etc.) have eroded the pull and appeal of religious institutions is made clear here, in the Magic City Morning Star (Maine):

Government dependence removes responsibility from the individual, and burdens the general populace. Some older folks will tell you that churches and charitable organizations give less to the poor and needy than before because they now expect the federal government to do more. Having worked as a coordinator for social justice in a former parish, I saw the same with my own eyes and could not believe the sanctimonious Pharisees that sat beside me at parish council meetings and called themselves "Christians." Family, friends, neighbors, and even individuals themselves all do less for themselves and others today because they expect the government to constantly play nursemaid to them and wipe their noses at every beckoned calling.
It's also suggested in this article in the Lahontan Valley News (Nevada):
The "Moral Hazards" created by governmental largess are manifold. The only way to avoid them is to return to what economists call "the welfare principle." The welfare principle is foundational to all charitable work carried on by churches and other private benevolent organizations.
As I say, you rarely find this point made explicitly, but it's the essential underpinning of what the Right wants to accomplish. Without appreciating this social vision, it is in my view impossible to understand what the Republicans are up to as anything other than simple wanton social destruction.

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