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Amid record debt, we need a welfare state we can believe in – and afford

For decades, liberals have promised us more and more government benefits, a trend that is bankrupting America with record debt. To serve the truly needy, conservatives must work to craft a leaner welfare system that we can actually sustain.

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'Liberalism has always promised more," but it must now "become less generous and more rigorous," writes William Galston, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution. The prospect of annual federal deficits averaging $1 trillion for the next decade requires no less.

It's doubtful that many other liberals are going to heed Mr. Galston's call. As President Johnson said in 1964, "We're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few." The liberal position has always been that whatever the size of the welfare state, we'd be better off if it were larger.

Liberals certainly won't enlist in the effort to make the welfare state less generous and more rigorous if they doubt the voters will follow. There are ample reasons for such doubts. Promising more has a long, successful history.

It is not by happenstance that federal spending on "human resources," the social insurance and welfare programs at the heart of the liberal enterprise, was 15 times higher in 2007 than in 1940, adjusting for inflation and population growth. This rate of increase was nearly twice the growth rate of the US economy: We view greater prosperity as a development that makes more government spending possible, rather than one making it unnecessary.

There's not much conservatives can do to help or force liberals to be more rigorous. Conservatives cannot plausibly offer themselves as the best custodians of an endeavor that they seek to dismantle.

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