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The Unconservatism of Micromanaging the Poor

04/05/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood...

There are horrors to which no man should be subjected, but State Representative Rick Brattin, Republican of Missouri, has seen a side of humanity that would test the faith of even the most charitable among us. He says he saw a poor person buy steak with food stamps. Crab legs too. Cue Brando.

Brattin's response to this must qualify as one of the least conservative bills pending before a legislature in America today. He wants to ban the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits for "cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak."

What Brattin, having read neither his Tocqueville nor his Daniel Patrick Moynihan, does not realize is the extent to which he is making common cause with the Great Society he doubtless despises. Seeing poverty as a disease to be eradicated rather than a condition to be alleviated, its approach was micromanaging the lives of the poor. Moynihan, a New Deal liberal, instead sought the extension of the New Deal principle of alleviation -- so successful in the case of Social Security -- to the poor in the form of a guaranteed income.

Brattin's silliness -- make that "perniciousness" -- shows why Moynihan was right. The guaranteed income, operated as a negative income tax, originated as a conservative idea. Milton Friedman said it would work outside, and thus not distort, the market, as would, say, a subsidy that told its recipients how to spend it.

The guaranteed income, which would simply transfer money to the poor and allow them to spend it as they chose -- as opposed to the panoply of directed subsidies they receive today -- also has the advantage of dignity, which is to say of treating the poor like adults, as moral agents capable of making both advantageous and mistaken choices without legislators looking into their grocery carts.

Conservatives have typically been heedful of Tocqueville's warning of "soft despotism," the kind that originates in a relationship of dependence between the individual and the state and in which the latter acts not, in the Frenchman's famous phrase, as a tyrant but rather as a schoolmaster. The worry is that people treated like children inevitably act that way. People treated like adults make adult choices.

Therein also lies the distinction, which was vital to Moynihan, between New Deal and Great Society liberalism. The latter attempts to rearrange society by means of micromanaging individuals; the former to ameliorate suffering, with ample room for argument as to the generosity and endurance of relief.

Brattin's approach, on the other hand, can be called many things, but surely not "conservative." It involves the state in making individual choices, which conservatives have generally, and properly, regarded as anathema.

There is no conservative exception to this disposition for the poor. Indeed, they are neither the only nor the primary recipients of subsidies from the state.

Surely, for instance, Brattin has also seen, in the same shop-of-horrors grocery store where his innocent eyes were exposed to the filet-and-crab-legs incident, upper-middle-class taxpayers using their medical savings accounts -- intended to encourage the reservation of resources for substantial medical expenses -- to deduct the cost of Tylenol from their income taxes instead. No one has so far suggested that their subsidized purchases be directed. Brando is cued for the poor alone.

Of course, all subsidies, including charitable ones, are liable to abuse. That is not, of itself, a reason not to give them. Crucially, on conservative premises, that is also not a reason to attempt to eliminate all exploitation.

On the contrary, the desire to suppress every evil in every place is what leads to the hyper-regulatory state conservatism opposes but which, with respect to the poor, Brattin would institute. The moral hazard of abuse requires a prudential calculation as to whether subsidies are worthwhile; if they are, the hazard must be incurred. Put the otherwise, the costs of suppressing moral hazard often exceed the hazard itself.

It would do conservatives equal good to confront the fact that, as my former boss Senator Bob Kerrey used to say, few people go out and get poor because the benefits are so good.

Some, to be sure, are trapped in dependency. Vilifying them is not a solution. Nor is what might be called the insufficient-misery thesis, which contends that people will withdraw from poverty -- presto! -- if only it is made a little more wretched. By contrast, treating the poor like adults might be a start. It would also be the most conservative solution.