Democracy and Deception

There was a lot wrong with Max Sawicky’s part in his WSJ debate with Tyler. This bit in particular exemplifies a mode of thought that really bugs me, and ought to bug people who care about democracy:

. . . the mission of the public sector in my view goes well beyond aid to the poor. Even in those terms, I pity the poor who wind up isolated in a ghetto of means-tested programs. Programs for the poor isolate their beneficiaries politically and end up poorly supported.

Here we have a nice statement of the principle that it is politically necessary to delude a broad swathe of the electorate into thinking they’re getting something out of a “social insurance” scheme, when, in fact, they get less than nothing, so that they will support welfare payments to people who really need it. The problem with means-tested welfare benefits is: big benefits will not be democratically popular, so, insofar as it is possible, the issue must be taken out of the domain of democratic choice.

Last night at the AFF panel on social security, Dean Baker made some point about how popular Social Security-as-we-know-it is, and that we live in a democracy, so if you don’t like it, well, too bad. I thought this was an extremely disingenous argument. From what I could make of him, Baker is an ideologue like Sawicky, and if it turned out that the democratic public became persuaded to radically alter the historical treasure of social policy that is Social Security, Baker would not just shrug and say, “Oh well, that’s democracy. The General Will has spoken!”

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center