Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Compassionate Conservative or Cowboy Capitalist?

The War on Poverty rests on the false premise that capitalism creates a permanent class of poor, Myron Magnet writes, and War on Poverty attitudes have a deeply harmful effect on those entrammeled in America’s current welfare state: so the second Bush term is bringing the War on Poverty—demonstrably a cataclysmic mistake—to an end.

Implicit in compassionate conservatism was an epochal paradigm shift that is now all but explicit. Taken together, compassionate conservatism’s elements added up to a sweeping rejection of liberal orthodoxy about how to help the poor, which a half-century’s worth of experience had discredited. If you want to help the poor, compassionate conservatives argued, liberate them from dependency through welfare reform, free their communities from criminal anarchy through activist policing, give them the education they need to succeed in a modern economy by holding their schools accountable, and let them enjoy the rewards of work by taxing their modest wages lightly or not at all. For the worst off—those hampered by addiction or alcohol or faulty socialization—let the government pay private organizations, especially religious ones, to help. Such people need a change of heart to solve their problems, the president himself deeply believed; and while a clergyman or a therapist might help them, a bureaucrat couldn’t.

In fact, a welfare-department worker might do harm even beyond providing money to fuel self-destructive behavior. Rather than understanding that an inner transformation is what such a person needs, the welfare worker might well try to convince him that his plight stems from an unjust economy, which provides him insufficient opportunity, or even purposely keeps a fraction of the population unemployed, so as to hold down the wages of those who are working. His problem thus is the result of vast, impersonal forces of which he is the victim (and doubly the victim if he is black in supposedly racist America).

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