The Government Habit

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In the November 1 Washington Times, former HUD secretary Jack Kemp, now a leader of the conservative grassroots group Empower America, had a letter to the editor bemoaning the fact that a rental voucher program he developed in the Bush administration “had been transformed by HUD into a massive new fair‐​housing program to disperse low‐​income families to middle‐​income suburban neighborhoods.” Most Cato supporters would question the constitutional authority of Congress to spend tax dollars on rental vouchers or public housing in the first place. None would be surprised that Jack Kemp’s good intentions — to get people out of the disastrous public housing projects HUD created — have been “distorted,” in Kemp’s words, into “social engineering.”

I mention that little episode because it is illustrative of a certain wide‐ eyed innocence on the part of many of our conservative friends. The most recent example is the Project for American Renewal being put forth by Sen. Dan Coats (R‐​Ind.) and neoconservative intellectual Bill Bennett, also of Empower America. It consists of some 19 bills that Coats has submitted in the Senate in an effort “to find some ways to nurture civil society.”

Most of the bills have vaguely Orwellian titles like the Compassion Credit Act, the Community Partnership Act, or the Family Reconciliation Act. Almost all of them amount to nothing more than conservative social engineering. The last bill, for instance, “would provide additional federal funding to states under the Family Preservation and Social Services Act, to implement pre‐​divorce counseling.” The Assets for Independence Act “would create a four‐​year $100 million demonstration program to establish 50,000 Individual Development Accounts.”

Never mind that, again, one would search in vain for the enumerated power in the Constitution that says most of those initiatives are within the purview of the federal government. Never mind even that conservatives who celebrated James Buchanan’s Nobel Prize for his work in public‐​choice theory should recognize that those little conservative policy gems will one day grow into the liberal monsters that so disappoint Jack Kemp.

The concern here is that some conservatives have in the post‐​Reagan era adopted what might be called the government habit. That is particularly true of neoconservatives, who trace their intellectual heritage to the left and who, for the most part, have a fundamentally benign view of the state. The problem to them has not been the power of government but the misuse of that power by wrongheaded politicians and bureaucrats.

Thus, Bill Bennett writes in the introduction to a booklet promoting the Project for American Renewal, “If the liberal fallacy is an abiding faith in the all‐​sufficiency of government, then the conservative fallacy could easily become an abiding faith in the all‐​sufficiency of nongovernment.” Well, not if Dan Coats has anything to say about it. And Coats is more of a traditional conservative.

The argument one hears from many conservatives, particularly inside the Beltway, is that you can’t replace something with nothing. But that sentiment simply reflects the government habit. After all, the American people are not “nothing.” Why not rephrase the issue: you can replace a failed government welfare program that has wasted billions, created dependency, and destroyed lives with the responsiveness, compassion, and prudence of a free people.

The left, of course, is hopelessly committed to the government habit. Even liberals who admit the current governmental approach has failed can’t shake the habit. David Osborne writes in the preface to his Clinton administration bible, Reinventing Government, “We believe deeply in government. We do not look at government as a necessary evil.”

All in all, the field for those who have confidence in freedom is left to the libertarians — market liberals or classical liberals — and conservatives who believe in strictly limited government. They are the ones to whom all the talk of “revolution” in Washington refers. As former Delaware governor Pete du Pont puts it, “We must break free of the idea that only government — at whatever level, federal, state, or local — holds the answer to social problems. Generally it’s not so.”

The ideological battle that lies ahead among those on the right should be more constructive than the old left‐​right divide. Conservatives who criticize libertarians for ignoring values and the workings of civil society have a valid point. But they also have much to learn from libertarians on the dangers of the benign view of the state. Perhaps the one intellectual who has the most to contribute to this debate is Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Respected by both camps, his book In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government describes how government “severs the tendrils of community” with one program after another designed to do good. It is a book his friend Bill Bennett should read, as should any conservative interested in breaking the government habit.