"Social Security is the belly of the beast," Moore says. "Ask any liberal to name a program that works and they'll immediately point to Social Security. It's a symbol that the New Deal works. If we can bring down that empire, the rest of the empire will crumble soon after."
Crane and his colleagues long ago left behind any Randian talk of the "virtue of selfishness" or "greed is good." Instead, they make the case that, left to their own devices, most individuals will act in a spirit of goodwill and community. Drawing heavily on the work of Charles Murray, Crane argues that government poverty programs merely bureaucratize "a very positive charitable instinct" on the part of most citizens and place "a giant magnetic field over the moral compass" of the poor, "saying you're a sucker if you work for chump change."
While critics say it is unrealistic to expect the voluntary sector to address adequately the huge swathes of need in this country, Cato health and welfare director Tanner contends that the private charity can be more flexible, personal and, in the end, more successful in lifting clients out of poverty. "People will fall through the cracks" if welfare is eliminated, Tanner says. "A lot of people will suffer. That's something I agonize about. But the situation is so bad now, if you don't make a change, far more will suffer."
Halting the war on drugs would also help cities rebound, Cato staffers assert, insisting that criminalizing drugs has spawned a violent subculture similar to what existed during Prohibition. In arguing that drugs should be treated as a medical and moral issue rather than a legal one, they are joined by such conservative figures as former secretary of state George P. Shultz, economist Milton Friedman, sociologist Thomas Sowell, columnist William F. Buckley Jr. and the Bar Assn. of New York City. But Cato insiders are the first to concede that their position remains politically unpalatable.
Crane views the IRS as an intrusive, arbitrary agency whose functions would never be missed. He supports replacing the corporate and personal income tax structure, along with capital gains levies, with one retail sales tax designed to be progressive. He asserts that this move would not only boost the economy by taxing consumption rather than savings, but that it would also provide a psychological boost "to the American people, who would suddenly find themselves living in a nation where it was none of the government's business how much money they made or how they made or spent it."
At one end of the Cato spectrum, chairman Niskanen likens government to fire: "Dangerous but potentially useful." At the other end, Boaz asserts that a "true patriot loves his country and hates his government."
That may reflect the true sentiment of many of the Founding Fathers, rebelling as they were against an oppressive monarchy. But Americans historically have been more conflicted about their feelings toward government. They turn to it in times of crisis, as they do in earthquakes and hurricanes and, now, terrorist attacks. They turn to it to force social progress, as they did during the struggle for civil rights. And they turn to it to level the playing field, as they did in a host of attempts to feed, house, train and employ the poor.
Crane's view that unfettered personal liberty will lead to a more fair and just society is dismissed as "utopian" by outspoken critics such as E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and author of the influential book "Why Americans Hate Politics." Cato's philosophy, says Dionne, fails to address America's life as a community, rather than just a collection of individuals. "We don't just live in a household," Dionne adds. "We live in a society."
Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute insists that the answer to government's troubles in the 1990s lies not in dismissing it but rather in rewriting the terms of its contract with the citizenry to demand personal responsibility and reciprocity, such as work in return for welfare checks or college aid. "We live in an incredibly complex, postmodern, postindustrial era," Marshall says. "Government is inescapably one of the tools we use to organize our lives."
But if the Will Marshalls of the world cannot rescue government from its current ill grace with the American public, Ed Crane is certain to broaden his audience. "Liberals and progressives need to take their critique seriously," says Dionne. "The purpose of the state should not be to oppress individuals. it should be to expand choice. The libertarian impulse could go further if government continues to fail.
With that possibility high on his mind, Crane sits atop his grand ice cube, turning back a page in history while stubbornly insisting that the cries of the American Revolution will move the country forward. "What is unique about the American experiment is that we left the Old World," he says, "where the individual was treated like dirt. And here all of a sudden is a society where people are supposed to be treated with dignity--that existence as an individual means something. There is nothing inconsistent about that and concern for your fellow man. If you respect yourself as a human being, then you have to respect the value of human life in general."