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COLUMN RIGHT/ TOM BETHELL : Utopian Liberalism Is on the Ropes : 'Inner-city programs' can barely be discussed without cynicism or ridicule.

May 14, 1992|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The end of the Cold War showed that conservatives needed the glue of anti-communism to stay united. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, however, a new and potentially unifying issue has emerged. There is a strong conviction among the warring parties of the right that well-meaning government programs for alleviating poverty do not work, and in fact harm their intended beneficiaries. There is a consensus, not yet fully articulated, that the utopian brand of liberalism that demands ever more funding for such programs is doing immense damage to the country. Nonetheless, the existing political alignment makes it unlikely that conservatives will be able to prevail in reshaping public policy.

Within the liberal ranks, there is, at least, uneasiness about these explosive issues. When presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said recently that "the social welfare programs of the '60s and '70s did not work," there was real, if short-lived concern in Washington. It's getting more and more difficult to talk about "inner-city programs" without encountering cynicism or even ridicule. A friend of mine said the other day that if Dostoevsky had been a liberal his novel would have been called "Crime and Programs."

Liberals know that at some point programs must be judged by results, not by good intentions. That is the big change since Watts: We have tried so many programs since 1965, and spent billions of dollars on them. And no, they have not worked. Nicholas Lemann, the author of "The Promised Land," a history of black migration to the cities, tirelessly reminds us that welfare programs have at least provided jobs for those who administer them. But they can hardly be justified on such grounds. They are expected to help the poor, not politicians and social workers.

Government redistribution cannot give dignity and self-respect. In fact, it detracts from it. It says to the recipient: Here is something free for you--because you cannot be expected to make it on your own. The recipient also gets the message that the powers-that-be have their own mysterious reasons for viewing errant behavior in an exculpatory light, and are in fact ready to reward it with more money. Here is Gov. Bill Clinton speaking at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco last Sunday: "Oh, to be sure, it was heart-breaking to see some little children going into the stores in Los Angeles and stealing from their neighbors. But they live in a country where the top 1% of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90%."

At its core, liberal thought is dominated by this desire to shift responsibility for personal behavior from the individual to the social level. "Liberals have invented whole college majors--psychology, sociology and women's studies--to prove that nothing is anybody's fault," writes P.J. O'Rourke in his new book, "Give War a Chance."

It is unlikely that conservatives will be able to do anything about all this, because there is no effective political machinery through which they can act. President Bush, upset by network TV reports about his supposed indifference to the urban poor, recently ordered his aides to deliver the statistics that prove how "compassionate" he has been. "The Congressional Budget Office confirms that spending on benefits to poor people is expected to be about $70 billion--or 80%--higher next year than it was when Mr. Bush took office," the Wall Street Journal reported.

Thus, it is difficult for Republicans to argue that poverty programs have not worked. They are immediately exposed to the riposte: Why, then, have you been supporting them? Why has spending on them been allowed to increase? This explains why there was no follow-through to Fitzwater's comment. Only if the GOP's position had been one of principled resistance, rather than pragmatic support, would they now be in a position to say, "I told you so." This illustrates the political paradox that Republicans never seem to learn: Pragmatism doesn't work.

At a meeting of prominent conservatives recently, presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan was asked to tell the group what the country could expect in the 1990s. She mentioned that the defining events of recent decades only began to unfold two or three years into the decade in question; and so it is now. "The '90s started last week in Los Angeles," she said, adding that she didn't know how things would turn out.

It is unlikely that we shall be so fortunate that utopian liberalism, like communism, will give up without a fight. If, however, the liberal ethos continues to dominate the national debate--as it has done for the past 60 years--giving us more programs, more spending and more excuses, the problems of our inner cities will only increase with the funding and there will be bigger riots in the future.

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