Egalite, liberte, 401(k)

Posted: Apr 07, 2006 8:05 PM

The funny part of France's latest round of riots is what they're rioting about. These rabid rebels smashing their way through people and property alike, shouting revolutionary slogans and playing Robespierre in a FCUK hoodie are demanding ... continued job security with paid vacations. Gone are the days of tearing down the system. Now is the time to burn a car for better dental benefits.

A similar, though for the time being less violent, transformation has taken place here in the United States. In the 1960s, the American leftists and liberals used to talk a big game about revolutionary change. "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask, 'Why?'" Bobby Kennedy famously declared. "I dream of things that never were, and ask, Why not?" Kennedy borrowed the line from George Bernard Shaw, another titan of the left's desire to upset the applecart of history and start radical-fresh.

Howard Dean's scream notwithstanding, today's liberalism is a lot of slide-rule wonkery. The smartest and most passionate thinkers of American liberalism are more actuary than revolutionary. Scan the pages of the New Republic or the American Prospect and you will learn that the sunny uplands of history can be reached not by sticking it to the man but by expanding the earned income tax credit and jiggling around some obscure provision of Medicare Part B. They're the rebels with a clause.

Even on the "serious" left, the revolutionary spirit is oddly bifurcated. On the one hand, we hear a lot about radical autonomy and the need for individuals to get beyond good and evil so that each of us can have our own personally defined morality and sexuality. On the other hand, a fat 401(k) would be nice too. Call them "ubermenschen mit subventionierter vaterschaftsurlaub" - supermen with subsidized paternity leave. It's all a bit reminiscent of Irving Kristol's observation that a liberal believes it's all right for an 18-year-old girl to perform in a pornographic movie as long as she gets paid minimum wage.

So where are the real radicals today? Who are the folks who want to rethink the status quo and truly liberate the masses? Pretty much where they've always been: on the libertarian right. Witness Charles Murray's exciting new book, "In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State." It's an elegant little tract that makes a sustained, sober and fact-driven case for scrapping the whole calcified edifice of the welfare state.

Under Murray's plan, all transfer payments would vanish, from Social Security and Medicare to corporate welfare and agricultural subsidies. In exchange, every low-income American over the age of 21 and not in jail would get $10,000 a year from the government. And everybody else would still get at least $5,000 a year from Uncle Sam. The only hitch is that people would be required to take out a minimal health insurance policy, and the tax code would stop favoring companies that offer health insurance.

In a flash, the working poor would be richer. Work even for a half a year at minimum wage, and the extra $10k would put you above the poverty line. The whole bloated, nannying welfare state would be a memory. Market forces would finally be introduced to the health insurance industry, driving down the absurdly high price of health care. Women who choose not to work so they can raise their kids would get the full $10,000 no matter how much their husbands earned, supporting families more than the current system and with less paperwork. Charities and local communities would be revitalized, enjoying a flexibility denied to traditional bureaucrats. Those who wanted to walk on the wild side would get pocket change to do so but would have to live with the consequences. The old problem of subsidizing out-of-wedlock birth would become an anachronism.

Obviously, removing all government safeguards, particularly for the severely disabled, is hardly going to satisfy everyone. But at least Murray is thinking big, while liberals scoff at the idea that the welfare state isn't permanent. And that's the point. The liberal imagination is weighed down by the leaden status quo. In 1955, William F. Buckley defined conservatism as "standing athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" That was when history was said to be on the side of collectivism and the state. Now that the market seems to be driving history, the left is standing athwart it, occasionally burning a Peugeot or two, yelling, "Forget liberty, give me my perks."