If the Welfare State Is So Small, Can We Just Get Rid of It?

I’ve done multiple debates with social democrats and avowed socialists.  Both groups unfavorably contrast the United States with Western Europe.  Social democrats tend to see Scandinavia as the pinnacle of human civilization.  Socialists usually hope for something more radical; “getting to Denmark” isn’t good enough for them.  But social democrats and socialists alike condemn the hard-hearted, Scrooge-like, laissez-faire United States.

I have a standard reply.  Namely: Although I wish their description of U.S. economic policy were true, calling the U.S. “laissez-faire” is absurd – and they know it.  Even pre-Covid, the United States had Social Security, SNAP, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, free K-12, heavily subsidized college, and many other redistributive programs.

My opponents, too, have a standard reply to me.  Namely: If you actually look at the numbers, the United States government does next to nothing.  While it pretends to have a welfare state like other civilized countries, this is basically an illusion.  No matter how many programs I mention, the totality is just a rounding error designed to obscure the cruelty of American policy.

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

On reflection, however, if someone is crazy enough to claim that all U.S. social spending is a rounding error, showing them numbers is probably a waste of time.  What I really ought to say is this: “If the U.S. welfare state is just a rounding error anyway, it wouldn’t make much difference if we simply got rid of it entirely, would it?  In fact, this might even be an improvement from your point of view, because the ruse of the status quo would be exposed.”

Would this persuade my opponents?  Don’t make me laugh.  But however they respond, reasonable but undecided members of the audience will see them as hyperbolic if not dishonest.  And if you claim the U.S. “barely has a welfare state,” hyperbolic if not dishonest is precisely what you are.

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