Commentary

Opting Out of Government Failure

Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, the leading theoretician of the Clinton administration, has warned college graduates not to join an isolated economic elite that is increasingly withdrawing from the general society. According to the Washington Post, he told University of Maryland graduates that the richest Americans are walling themselves off from the rest of society—living in private communities, working in the suburbs, and even (gasp!) shopping in secure suburban malls. Worse, they are resisting efforts to spend their tax dollars outside their own communities.

It’s “the secession of the successful,” Reich says, and “it threatens our nation’s prosperity and its stability.”

What a charge to a graduating class: Don’t be successful. Don’t make your family as safe and secure as you can. Cheerfully send your hard-earned dollars not just to local politicians but to politicians elected by other people.

It might be noted that the truly rich have always lived in guarded homes, sent their children to private schools, and otherwise arranged a secure and protected lifestyle for their families. What Reich objects to is the fact that, by his estimate, 20 percent of America’s wage earners—those making more than $80,000 a year—can now afford some of the perks of wealth. What he’s really complaining about is the spread of success—just like those critics who warn that the middle class is shrinking but fail to mention that that’s because so many Americans have moved into the ranks of what we used to call the rich.

To bring the argument down to a petty, personal level, one might ask whether Secretary Reich thinks only the productive should eschew the benefits of their hard work, or whether he thinks his colleagues in the ruling class should live among hoi polloi. Has he urged President and Mrs. Clinton to put Chelsea in a public school? Has he recommended that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy move into a middle-class neighborhood? Has he even advised Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary to travel with an entourage of fewer than 50?

But there is indeed a broader issue here. Why do more and more Americans want to “secede,” in Reich’s words, from community services? Do they aspire to be a Latin American elite, as critics charge, walled off from the rest of society? Are they seeking to avoid people of other races?

There’s another interpretation, of course. Americans are fleeing the declining quality of public services.

Take private communities. Four million Americans now live in 30,000 private communities—28 million people if you count privately guarded apartment houses, which are in fact small gated communities. Ivory tower critics such as Reich and MIT economist Lester Thurow complain that such communities are a throwback to the Middle Ages. Well, maybe so. In the Middle Ages, peaceful, productive people put walls around their cities to protect themselves from the bandits outside. If today’s city governments can’t protect peaceful people, then people will again choose to protect themselves with walls and guards. Not just rich people, either. Many working-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles are petitioning to block off their streets to keep out malefactors. Would Reich urge such people to put their families in harm’s way to satisfy an Ivy League notion of social justice? No, he just wants hard-working people to pay more taxes so government can make more transfer payments and thus presumably make our cities safe again. That must be the sort of logic only an Ivy Leaguer can follow. Millions of Americans have a more sensible approach: if the government can’t provide you even with physical safety, you’ll have to protect yourself—which is why Americans have hired some 1.5 million private police to guard their homes, offices, and neighborhoods.

There’s also an increasing interest in private schools and even home schooling. To social democrats, home schooling must be the most frightening social trend around: it allows people to design their own curriculums, it suggests that you don’t need years of education classes to teach children, and it reduces people’s commitment to giving the government schools ever more money in the face of declining quality. No one knows just how many children are being educated at home—which is an indication of the individualist, decentralized nature of home schooling—but estimates range from 300,000 to 1.5 million. Two-career families, of course, can’t home school their children, so more of them are deciding that it’s better to purchase a decent education at a private school than to enlist in a futile effort to reform the indifferent and unresponsive government schools.

As for Reich’s complaint that successful people shop in secure suburban malls, one can only ask, Is he kidding? Malls offer what customers want: lots of stores in one place, protection from the elements, plenty of parking, a pleasant environment, and yes, physical safety. What kind of political theory finds that a bad thing?

Civil society—all the institutions of society between the individual and the state—is an essential element of a free country, and it’s good for Americans to live, work, and even shop with people of all races and socioeconomic groups. Social democrats concerned about community values ought to reflect on what their policies have done to divide Americans. They’ve given government so many tasks, and so undermined the old notions of personal responsibility and morality, that government can no longer perform its basic function of protecting us from physical harm. They’ve centralized and bureaucratized the schools so that little learning goes on there. They’ve nationalized and bureaucratized charity. Is it any wonder that people flee the institutions they’ve created?

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.