On balance, the investments approach represents an improvement over existing social programs with respect to core American values. It is reasonable to ask whether this approach will work. Clearly, no set of proposals will meet each and every person's needs. But within the context of American political culture, the programs I have recommended would demonstrably facilitate and supplement socially desirable efforts at self-help.
It is also reasonable to ask whether the investments approach is a neat theory that bears little relation in practice to the day-to-day lives of taxpayers, program beneficiaries, program bureaucrats, or prominent public officials. The investments approach, it might be argued, is just labeling. But in political matters, labeling and perceptions are crucial. And from the standpoint of the personal dignity and societal membership of program recipients, an earned income supplement is far preferable to an imposed work-fare assignment or public assistance that is viewed by fellow citizens as a handout.
Compared to current practices in other advanced industrial societies, my proposals may be criticized as being too narrow. The child allowances, for example, assure only poverty-level incomes for parents who work full time. This degree of generosity is not exactly stunning. And American society would probably be the better for it if we could bring ourselves to be more generous, by including, for instance, rearing children and housework among the contributions to the social product that would merit support. However, our political culture would not accept the establishment of the broader programs that many other advanced industrial societies take for granted.
I conclude that we have the moral, political, and economic tools
necessary to reduce social problems through the improvement of social insurance and the development of social merging programs. I will now turn to the question as to whether we will choose to use these tools. Can we expect a set of proposals such as these to be adopted in the near future?
For several reasons, I think the best we can expect is a slow incremental reform of current policies and procedures. One source of opposition to the investments approach will come from people committed to a highly limited state. People for whom market distribution, negative liberty, and the economic efficiency of unadorned market operations are extremely important will be far less impressed by the proposals offered here than people for whom these values represent only a portion or a limited conception of "the good." Further, although the design features of the proposed programs fit important American values, experience has shown us that compatibility or incompatibility is not a good predictor of the ease in adopting new social programs. Despite its compatibility with American values, Medicare faced decades of opposition, while the notably incompatible AFDC was adopted far earlier. Value compatibility does appear to have eased problems for Medicare's operation once it was adopted, however.
Yet even if we set aside lingering value conflicts, my proposals would have to compete with a host of meritorious projects for scarce public resources. The dollar cost of the investments approach is high, and so, too, therefore is the opportunity cost of implementing it. Successful adoption of the investments approach would require a fairly broad cross-section of prominent American public officials—the president and key members of Congress—to place it high on their priorities and political agendas. But a constellation of factors makes a broad consensus on reform a relatively rare event in American politics. Some of these factors are cyclical. Samuel P. Huntington describes sixty-year cycles in American politics that involve impressive reform efforts at one juncture, but he conceives of these reform periods largely in terms of attacks on state power. (For that reason, he does not include the New Deal—an effort to use state power to solve social problems—among his reform periods.) Even if Huntington is incorrect about the duration or motive of reform movements, clearly the mood of American political elites during the last decade has not been sup-
portive of social program reform in any sense other than cutting costs.
Hugh Heclo detects another historical pattern, identifying four periods in the development of social programs in advanced industrial societies: experimentation (1870s–1920s), consolidation (1930s–1940s), expansion (1950s–1960s), and reformulation (1970s–?). The dates fit Western European history better than American, but the last two phases of this pattern are relevant to recent American experience. The United States expanded social provision sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it did so in ways that fit poorly with American political culture. As would be expected, these expanded activities—at odds with cherished values—have drawn increasing attention and raised a hue and cry for reformulation. But these dissatisfactions began precisely at a time when the postwar economic boom yielded to the stagflation of the mid-1970s. As a consequence, social programs have had to compete for resources in a more constant-sum economic environment.
Yet another set of obstacles to comprehensive social program reform is posed by the relatively meager capacities American national political institutions have for sorting out diverse claims and forging a coherent national agenda. As social programs have become more prominent in American politics, their development has become a focus for more numerous interest groups, none inclined to compromise. In this light the interlocking character of my various proposals probably represents a political liability. Failing an unexpected cataclysm, such as war or depression, the current political environment is much more likely to allow piecemeal changes rather than a systematic renovation of American social programs.
The relative impotence of American political parties further muddles the characteristically American situation of highly fragmented, competing priorities and agendas among prominent political officials. A determined president joined by key congressional leaders could, for instance, establish the bargaining council that is prerequisite to national medical-care insurance. But the presence of a private insurance system for the upper middle class and well-organized workers siphons off much of the voice that would help prompt such widespread determination among preeminent political officials. And while social programs sometimes draw unex-
pected benefits from the interaction of competing elites, it is unlikely that the side effects of contention will produce an integrated scheme of proposals.
For all these reasons, the best we can expect is that any new policy increments will follow principles more in accordance with important American values than was characteristic of the changes enacted in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. This forecast may frustrate proponents of public social provision, but it would certainly be preferable to the recent calls among political elites for a general retreat from social programs. The call to retreat is hardly worthy of political theories and practices that profess to place significant value on the individual. Weaknesses in social programs do not discredit the underlying needs that socioeconomic rights address, and we have seen that these rights are crucial to individuals living in an advanced industrial society. In a rush to rectify poorly designed programs, we must be careful not to abdicate our responsibility or abandon our principles about defending individuals. Rather than retreat from the difficult issues of public social provision, we need to make more careful determinations of what forms of defense are appropriate, supported by a clearer vision of the limits of state capacities.