Why Has William F. Buckley's Best Idea Been So Universally Ignored?

I certainly don't consider myself a "Buckleyite." But I will confess that, as a grade-school kid, I was such a nerd that I used to beg my parents for permission to stay up late so that I could watch Firing Line. It was Buckley who taught me that slouching and mumbling could be effective public-speaking techniques!

In any case, I have never forgotten one particular proposal of his. The argument he sought to address with this proposal was that "safety-net" government welfare programs could not be left strictly to the states, because then residents of relatively poor states would have a much more flimsy net under them then would residents of relatively rich states. And such a situation might be held to violate the idea of "equal protection under the law."

Okay, let us set aside any question of whether government should be in the welfare provision business at all. For purposes of this post, let us just assume that this role will be taken by some level of government. And let us further assume that it is a real problem for social policy if a poor person in Mississippi only gets $4000 a year in assistance, while an equally poor person in Connecticut gets $12,000 a year in assistance. Given these two assumptions, don't we have to accept that welfare services must be largely provided at the federal level?

Buckley's brilliant (I say) answer is "No," even given the two assumptions made in the previous paragraph. All the federal government need do to avert the second problem is to tax richer states a certain amount for welfare provision, and then hand that money over to poorer states for their own welfare programs. (And the same could be done for education, by the way.)

And though I don't recall Buckley ever making this point, the same procedure could be applied at the state level to equalize resources for welfare (or education) provision among the cities and towns within a state.

Buckley's suggestion is, broadly speaking, an instantiation of the principle of Catholic social teaching called "subsidiarity": social problems should be handled at the most local level possible. Why should this be a principal guiding social policy? It is not because local government is without its flaws. Communities can be very provincial and filled with prejudice. The principle of subsidiarity does not rely upon any utopian view of local governance. And, in fact, Buckley's proposal would allow higher levels of government to exert significant checks on local malfeasance: for instance, a higher level of government could require that all compensatory grants be allotted in a race-neutral fashion, as a condition of poorer localities receiving their compensatory funding.

Given these acknowledged problems of local governance, why should we favor local solutions in general? My thoughts run back to an actual incident in my neighborhood that happened a few years ago. Two of my friends had a young son who fell out of his chair and broke his arm. Naturally, they brought him to the hospital to get treated. For the bureaucrats at the hospital, a three-year-old with a broken arm was a "red flag" signaling that an investigation of child abuse must be launched. After treating my friends' child, they held the boy in the hospital for three days, not for medical reasons, but in order to investigate this potential abuse.

If this had been handled at a more local level, everyone in our community would have immediately declared that it was absurd to think that this couple deliberately had broken their own child's arm. After treatment, he would have been right back home with them. Of course, local communities can make mistakes about such things: we see it on the news all the time, when we hear the neighbors say "I never would have imagined that X would have been capable of Y." But utopia does not exist! All possible social arrangements have flaws.

The bureaucratic decision-making body operating in this case could not take into account any local knowledge of the character of this child's parents. The end result was that this child, already traumatized by having broken his arm, was then further traumatized by not being allowed to return home to his loving parents for three days.

Ask yourself: if you were the parents in question, and that child with a broken arm was yours, who would you want to be deciding when he could come back home with you, your friends and neighbors, or some faceless bureaucrats?


  1. Thomas Paine made some interesting arguments about how the provision of material support actually should be handled an impersonal government, far removed from the family, church, and local community. He thought that the rule of the community over our daily lives can be just as toxic as the rule of a government, so that a simple welfare system handled by people who don't know you would lessen your dependence on the approval of kith and kin for basic material need. Have you read Yuval Levin's new book "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left"? It discusses Paine's views in detail, although Levin is critical of them.

    Concerning your example, I think Paine would say, "You've made the government program too similar to the forces it's supposed to check." He would probably want the impersonal government agency that provides medical services to the poor to be restrained from involvement in the kind of minutiae you're describing.

  2. Although I have federalist tendencies, I've come to appreciate decentralization (through my own hypothetical scenarios). I think Buckley's idea is a good one. The only problem that I think it could possibly run into though is the limitations on federal spending that were established in South Dakota v. Dole.

  3. Canada has just such a program: the equalization payments made between have and have-not provinces, although it's not explicitly earmarked for welfare (or for anything else, as far as I know).

  4. I remember some time ago you suggested that welfare type policies might be simplified by having, say, everyone below $80K per year eligible for free healthcare. At the time I remember thinking "Wow! He must be kind of detached from reality, because that would make about 98% of Texans eligible, including me!" And I thought (and still think) I was doing quite well at the time.

    My point being, I suppose, that it is probably not entirely reasonable to try to 'equalize' welfare, because down here $80K really is doing quite well, but not so much in Manhattan. And I think it is exactly this sentiment that causes that rather odd phenomenon that people on the left like to point to that Republican dominated states tend to absorb more from Washington in spending than they contribute in taxes, and vice versa for Democratic dominated states. The main reason, I think, being that the wealthiest parts of the country (Northeast and West Coast) are left leaning, and the poorer parts (Central and Southeast) right leaning, so that any sort of welfare of this kind results in a net transfer away from the population centers that tend to vote for it, and towards the ones that vote against it.

    Which, I suppose, is very generous on everyone's behalf...nice sentiments all around, but I don't think it's reasonable without some kind of cost of living correction.

    1. Right: it is not that hard to make cost-of-living adjustments to Buckley's scheme.

  5. Depends on whether I was maliciously responsible for it :-P