In late 1989, the twilight of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin visited a supermarket in Houston while on a visit to the United States. That year, the Soviet people were facing greater than usual shortages in stores of all manner of goods, with the New York Times reporting, "chocolate and chickens, coffee and tea, sugar and yeast, salami and cheese, cakes and candy ... have virtually disappeared from grocery-store shelves."
Yeltsin's visit to the American grocery store reportedly left him astonished, seeing how the free market had provided vastly more options and higher quality of life for consumers than the government-managed economy back home. Yet some 30 years later, there is now a proposal on the table to get people out of the grocery stores and into receiving government shipments of rations to their own home. And it is a proposal being pushed by the party that supposedly loves free markets and liberty.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration floated a proposal to change conventional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("food stamp") benefits into a program where poor families would instead get "a USDA foods package," a government-assembled, government-sanctioned box of food the government believes you should eat. In an attempt to make the idea sound less terribly Soviet, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney tried likening it to "Blue Apron," the popular meal kit service.
The truth is that the idea, for all its many faults, is quite likely to be popular with voters on the Right, even though it ought to be viewed as a flagrant violation of basic liberty-minded principles.
Let's take two other areas where government provides a basic service to people, where conservatives typically lobby to get government out of the business of directly providing things to people and would rather people get money from the government to go out and buy those things from private companies on their own: healthcare and education.
On healthcare, Speaker Paul Ryan has long argued for reforms to our nation's entitlement programs that would reduce the government's role in directly paying for healthcare. The idea: instead of government providing something, give people the money to go buy it for themselves. Ryan's ideas have included "premium support" to individuals so that they can make a choice for themselves in programs like Medicare, creating competition and relying on the private sector. (Republican voters are divided on whether they like the idea, but are much more supportive of it than are Democrats.)
In education, the conservative view favoring giving people funds and letting them choose how to use them is even stronger and more prevalent. The public school system — the government itself providing the service of educating people — is often lambasted by conservatives for failing to adequately educate students and for being too bureaucratic. As a result, conservatives tend to think parents should be able to take the dollars assigned to kids and use those funds to make a different choice. Just like with healthcare, the idea is that the government isn't great at providing things directly, and so giving people the funds and letting them choose how to spend it on education — including education from a private provider — is a better approach. School choice is extremely popular with Republicans, and for good reason.
Republicans lean toward giving people the cash, letting them have choice to purchase the things that are right for them from a private entity — except, it seems, when it comes to food.
Of course, when former first lady Michelle Obama made moves to make school lunches healthier, or when New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg cracked down on large sodas, Republicans saw these efforts as an attempt to violate Americans' sacred snack food liberties. But even before the USDA "Blue Apron" idea popped this week, polling suggested that Republicans are not quite so liberty-minded when it comes to provision of food benefits, with Republicans being far more likely than Democrats to believe that SNAP benefits should not be allowed to be used for things like candy, soda, and cookies.
It isn't unreasonable to think that benefits intended to keep people fed ought to go toward, well, keeping people fed. It is this view that leads many to look skeptically at ideas like a universal basic income as a replacement for the welfare state, a proposition embraced by some libertarian economists but by few elected officials on the right.
But the answer to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of our social safety net almost certainly shouldn't involve constructing a government rations program to provide food to lower-income families.
Simply dressing up a stale idea with the name of a popular brand that sounds like a thing "the kids" love these days doesn't make it fresh. While its true that many on the right will find the idea appealing, my hope is that they'll ultimately resist the siren song of the Soviet era.