If the welfare state is so small, can we just get rid of it?


I have had several debates with social democrats and declared socialists. Both groups oppose the United States unfavorably to Western Europe. Social Democrats tend to view Scandinavia as the pinnacle of human civilization. Socialists generally hope for something more radical; “going to Denmark” is not enough for them. But social democrats and socialists condemn a hard-hearted, Scrooge-style, laissez-faire America.

I have a standard answer. To wit: While I wish their description of US economic policy were true, calling the US laissez-faire is nonsense – and they know it. Even before Covid, the United States had Social Security, SNAP, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, free K-12, a heavily subsidized college, and many other redistributive programs.

My opponents also have a standard answer. Namely: If you actually look at the numbers, the United States government following to nothing. While it claims to have a welfare state like other civilized countries, this is basically an illusion. No matter how many programs I mention, the totality is a rounding error intended to mask the cruelty of American politics.

My knee-jerk reaction is to go for the numbers. The United States spends trillions on these programs every year; can they seriously deny it?

On second thought, though, if someone is crazy enough to claim that all US social spending is a rounding error, showing them numbers is probably a waste of time. What I should really say is this: “If the American welfare state is just a rounding error anyway, it wouldn’t matter much if we got rid of it altogether, is this not ? In fact, it might even be an improvement from your point of view, as the status quo trickery would be exposed.

Would that convince my opponents? Do not make me laugh. But whatever their answer, reasonable but indecisive viewers will see them as hyperbolic, even dishonest. And if you claim that the United States “barely has a welfare state”, hyperbolic if not dishonest, that is precisely what you are.


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