In Praise of One-Size-Fits-All Social PolicyRoundup
tags: welfare state, Joe Biden, Social Policy, Means Testing
Lawrence B. Glickman is Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History and Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.
In declining to lift a stay on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate on November 12, the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared that “the Mandate is a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer” that takes away Americans’ ability to make what the judges called “intensely personal decisions.”
This was far from the first time this year the phrase “one size fits all” has been used as a cudgel against government-mandated public goods and programs. In February 2021, for example, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) argued against Biden’s proposed $15 hourly minimum wage by declaring, “We should not have a one-size-fits-all policy set by Washington politicians.”
But uses of the phrase have a longer history dating back to 1980s critiques of public goods. In particular, over the last few decades, “one size fits all” has become a cliché political talking point, a conservative rhetorical flourish meant to put the kibosh on any and all government social welfare policies.
In our current moment, however, the “one-size-fits-all” charge is confusing, if not incoherent. After all, if they are to prevent the worsening of a deadly epidemic, public health measures must apply to everyone. To call a vaccine mandate a constraint on an “intensely personal decision” is to obfuscate the fundamental reality that pandemics are intensely social.
Moreover, what Senator Ernst calls a “policy set by Washington politicians” is, by its proper name, a federal law, the making of which is the primary job of our legislators. To gain legitimacy, laws are generally expected to “fit all.” Everyone who exceeds the speed limit can expect to be fined. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., described “just law” as “a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself.” He called this principle “sameness made legal,” which sounds quite a lot like “one size fits all.”
Before it became an epithet, “one size fits all” appeared in advertising as a symbol of U.S. technological ingenuity. The age of mass production saw the innovation of new stretchable materials, which became integral to garments such as the one-size-fits-all “kimono-style robes of polyester-acetate-nylon velour” advertised by Bradlees department store in 1985. Companies sold a wide range of products—hats, gloves, robes, “motor seats covers,” “bath kilts,” and so on—that they proudly advertised to customers as “one size fits all.” This flexibility was something to be celebrated, as in a 1937 ad for a women’s bathing suit made of “two-way stretch latex” that “fits all figures from 12 to 20.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the period when ad men celebrated “one size fits all” as a consumer ideal in the private economy was also the era of the “New Deal Order” (from the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 through the 1970s), during which the country showed its greatest commitment to broadly distributed public goods, including electricity, dams, parks, and government buildings as well as publicly funded theater, music, dance, and state guides and histories, such as the WPA Slave Narratives.
In his second inaugural address, FDR celebrated government as an institution that “has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable.” For decades after he died in 1945, the federal government showed itself to be capable of promoting the general welfare not only via programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and through ambitious infrastructure programs (such as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956), but in its promotion of civil and voting rights, which, for the first time since Reconstruction, made the United States a true democracy in which all adult citizens had “one-size-fits-all” rights.
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