Commentary

Expansive Solutions

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on September 27, 1995.
David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author ofLibertarianism: A Primer.

In 1994 the American people resoundingly expressed their concern about big government and deteriorating families. Unfortunately, both Democrats and Republicans seem to find it more appealing to offer yet more government programs that would ostensibly strengthen the family than to downsize the federal government.

Take Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, one of the most accomplished politicians in the Clinton administration, for instance. He can talk the talk. In a new essay written with National Park Director Roger Kennedy, Cisneros says the first step toward civic reform is to “decentralize with vengeance”. He points out that many churches, neighborhood groups and small businesses “know at least as much and are better positioned than the organizationally encumbered government in Washington” to improve their own communities.

But Cisneros can’t walk the walk. His latest HUD program would put classrooms in public housing developments. According to The Post, “Cisneros said he envisions housing development modeled after college campuses, with units wired for computers and all residents required to attend classes each day - in prenatal training, educational day care, high school equivalency sessions or seminars for the elderly” (emphasis added).

Does he think that is what Americans voted in 1994? Welfare creates dependency and fatherlessness; government schools government students who can’t read and write; government housing projects are wrecked by crime; and Cisneros proposes to have the federal government extend even further its control over the lives of the hapless poor.

Perhaps this sort of breathtaking expansion of government is to be expected of Democrats, even “new Democrats” who promise to “end welfare as we know it” and “decentralize with vengeance.” Like alcoholics returning to the bottle, they can promise to lay off the hard stuff, but one whiff of a government program and they are hooked again.

But it seems Republicans suffer from the same weakness. The latest example is the Project for American Renewal, launched Sept. 6 by William Bennett and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). Bennett and Coats endorse “devolution of federal authority and funding to state governments” but go on to argue that Republicans “need to offer a vision of rebuilding broken communities - not through government, but through those private institutions and ideals that nurture lives.” They stress that “even if government undermined civil society, it cannot directly reconstruct it.”

They talk the anti-big government talk even better than new Democrats, which is why the 1994 election saw a historic shift toward GOP. But look at the “be it enacted” clauses that follow of Bennett and Coats’s libertarian whereases.

As part of the Project for American Renewal, Coats has introduced 19 bills. They include:

  • The Mentor Schools Act, to provide grants of $1 million to school districts to develop “same gender” schools.
  • The Role Model Academy Act, to establish an innovative residential academy for at-risk youth.
  • The Kinship Care Act, to create a $30 million demonstration program for states to use adult relatives as the preferred placement option for children separated from their parents.
  • The Restitution and Responsibility Act, to provide grants to states for programs to make restitution to victims of crime.
  • The Assets for Independence Act, to create a four-year, $100 million demonstration program to establish 50,000 Individual Development Accounts, to be used for the purchase of home, college education or small business.
  • The Community Partnership Act, to institute demonstration grants for programs to match communities of faith with welfare recipients and nonviolent criminal offenders.

And on and on it goes. Most of the goals are good: Some students do better in all-boys or all-girls schools; children who lose their parents should ideally live with other adult relatives; restitution is a valuable aspect of dealing with a crime. But why does the federal government need to do any of those things? If the 10th Amendment and the new-found commitment to devolution of power mean anything, they mean that residential academies, victim restitution and welfare reform should be undertaken by state governments - if not local communities or even nongovernment groups.

And surely the First Amendment would recommend that such a worthy goal as matching “communities of faith” - that is, churches - with people in need should be undertaken without government support. As for 50,000 Individual Development Accounts, I’d like one - wouldn’t you?

Like the Democrats, the Republicans just don’t get it. They’re still living in the Washington that Roosevelt built, the Washington where if you think of a good idea you create a government program. But conservative social engineering, like liberal social engineering, will fail. Worse, it will create new problems.

The message of 1994 - like the message of the 1776 and 1789, one might add - is not that the federal government should rebuild families and communities. It is that federal government should get out of our lives.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute