The 'Civic Liberalism' That Lies Beyond Equality


Back in his younger and more vibrant days, Muhammad Ali observed: "Wars against nations are fought to change maps; wars against poverty are fought to map change." This summer's most talked-about road map out of poverty's quagmire may be "The End of Equality" (Basic Books), by New Republic senior editor Mickey Kaus.

It is an important Washington book because important Washington people are reading it. And ideological opponents are agreeing that they like it, even when they don't agree on much else. Rob Shapiro, vice president of Bill Clinton's favorite think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, calls its author "brilliant." James P. Pinkerton, who advises President Bush on domestic policy, calls it "an important contribution to the debate."

That pretty well hits the mark. Mr. Kaus' book benefits from his years of experience among Washington's deep thinkers. Unfortunately, it also suffers from it.

Mr. Kaus assails the failures of "money liberalism," his term for tax-and-spend policies that try to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. He prefers "civic liberalism," which would expand and strengthen the "public spheres" where the social classes rub shoulders with each other and share the common good, as they do in public schools, libraries, highways, parks, jury duty and the military draft.

Mr. Kaus would restore the draft, create a national service requirement as an alternative and institute a national health-care plan that would leave no American uncovered. He would replace welfare with a national guaranteed-jobs program and other supports, like communal day care (where the children of corporate executives would mingle with those of secretaries and mail-room clerks), so able-bodied jobless men or women would have little excuse not to work.

With that, Mr. Kaus has figured out an important characteristic of the American temperament. We like inequality, at least some of the time. We may gripe about the arrogance of Rolex-flashing yuppies, but we are not troubled by income differences as much as we are troubled by inequities in opportunities to earn an income. The yuppie does not trouble us as much as the homeless beggar does. As John F. Kennedy once said, "All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent."

Unfortunately, even as Kennedy spoke, terrible fault lines of unequal opportunity were opening up between the upwardly and outwardly mobile middle class and the left-behind poor who lacked the bare minimum in schools, libraries and values that a truly equitable society would guarantee.

Such were the conditions Mickey Kaus hoped to improve when he came to Washington as a young, idealistic, left-leaning Carter administration lawyer in 1977. But, like countless other young and restless Washington achievers, he smacked up against the cruel realities of how things really work in the capital city.

He saw "the best minds of the Democratic Party . . . put liberalism on the side of welfare rather than work." He saw tons of money poured into hell-on-earth public housing projects. He saw billions funneled to big-city mayors who parceled it out to politically connected developers of useless downtown shopping malls. He saw the Education Department handed over to the teachers' unions and the Labor Department handed over to the construction unions.

Mr. Kaus hits dead on target when he describes the liberal tunnel vision that eventually caused fed-up voters to elect Ronald Reagan as a change agent, just as he would be right to say a similarly detached Bush administration is driving many of those swing voters back across the line to support Bill Clinton.

But as much as Mr. Kaus seems to have figured out what makes, say, welfare mothers tick, his book offers no evidence that he ever has actually talked to one. If he did, as I have, he might be surprised to find how many are not as lazy as he seems to think they are. He also might find that others would be considerably more clever than he figures in avoiding his efforts to force them to go to work.

The same holds for welfare dads and, for that matter, the young people Mr. Kaus would draft into military and other public services. Bill Clinton has what I think would be a more acceptable and probably less costly idea: Offer national service as a way to pay back college loans. After all, people don't like to be told what to do, especially by the government, no matter how noble the purpose. They like to be persuaded.

"The best way to inculcate values is to convince people that they thought of it themselves," the Bush administration's Mr. Pinkerton agrees. "That's easy to do, because people basically do want strong families, a good income and the other benefits good values bring."

Yet, Mr. Pinkerton praises the Kaus book for its resonance with Mr. Pinkerton's "new paradigm," which calls for transferring power and money from centralized bureaucracies (Mr. Kaus' massive jobs program would build it up) to directly "empower" the poor with school vouchers, housing vouchers, tenant management of public housing and other options.

Perhaps history has overtaken Mr. Kaus. Civic liberalism appears to be in vogue in both the Bush and Clinton camps. Mr. Shapiro, at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank established by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council when Governor Clinton was its chairman, praised Mr. Kaus, although PPI and Mr. Clinton believe the culture of poverty can be best broken up through opportunities created by "market-based mechanisms," not through Mr. Kaus' massive public jobs program. Such mechanisms include public-works programs, enterprise zones, expanded earned-income tax credits and public-private partnerships.

Still, it is encouraging to see so much agreement between the opposing camps in this year's campaigns over the map America needs to follow. Now all we need is a national leader who is willing to make the journey. We have nothing to lose but our inequality.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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