Ross Douthat asks, “is opposition to wealth-spreading in principle really now a litmus test for being a conservative?” The short answer is an emphatic: Yes.
But I’ll let Ross have his say first:
I thought that being on the right meant that you wanted a welfare state that’s small in size and limited in scope – that’s what I signed up for, at least – and the most just and reasonable way to shrink and/or restrain the American welfare state that I can see is to make it more redistributive, rather than less so. To quote William Voegeli quoting Paul Pierson in a fine essay on the dilemmas of small government conservatism: “If conservatives could design their ideal welfare state, it would consist of nothing but means-tested programs.” In other words, a conservative welfare state would eliminate our current network of universal entitlement programs, and replace them with cheaper, means-tested programs that, well, spread the wealth – that spend your tax dollars to provide temporary assistance to the unemployed, underwrite health care costs for the aged and very poor, set an income floor underneath American seniors, and so forth, rather than taking money from the middle class with one hand and giving it back to them with the other.
You can read more here.
Despite the best efforts of Douthat to turn conservatism into a watered-down form of progressivism, the term “conservative welfare state” is contradictory. Conservatism, at its core, abhors the welfare state, because it goes far beyond the scope of government — or any role envisioned by our founders — to take money from the most successful members of society and have a governing class redistribute it as they see fit. It’s true that modern day conservatives tolerate a limited welfare state, but Douthat is mistaken in identifying this as a core principle of conservatism rather than a pragmatic concession. Conservatives understand that given prevailing popular attitudes, it would be impossible to dismantle to the welfare state entirely, and so they seek to reform the existing welfare state structure and prevent its further expansion. But if, per Douthat’s wishes, intellectual conservatism abandons any principled stand against the welfare state and merely exists as an idea factory for how we can build an “ideal welfare state,” there will be no remaining bulwark against our nation’s steady descent into socialism.