Liberalism's urban ruins


NEW YORK -- After 25 years of earnestness in the service of liberalism, it has come to this for Ruth Messinger.

She is Manhattan borough president and wants to be the city's mayor. But she barely got the requisite 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote because of Al Sharpton, who might with excessive politeness be termed picaresque. He got 32 percent of the vote in the lowest turnout (18 percent of eligible voters) since the Second World War.

So en route to an almost certain shellacking in November by the incumbent, Rudolph E. Giuliani, a nominal Republican, she just got by Mr. Sharpton, the African-American racial racketeer and tax evader (the federal government is inquiring after $100,000) who has consorted with mobsters, racists and anti-Semites while acting as impresario of the street theater of the lunatic left. Welcome to the picturesque ruins of urban liberalism, in which Democrats cannot field a formidable candidate in either of the nation's two largest cities. (Remember Tom Hayden in Los Angeles last year?)

Ms. Messinger's jalopy of a campaign, operating out of a suitably threadbare office on lower Broadway, has suffered some fender-benders. Her TV commercial about school overcrowding -- it depicted a class being taught in a bathroom, one child next to a urinal -- turned out to have been staged, in a private school. And she denounced Mr. Giuliani's dismissive rhetoric about her (he has said she cannot count, the cad) as "gender-bashing."

Like the immigrants who made this city, she is trying to let herself become acculturated to a bewilderingly foreign environment -- the post-liberalism of a city undergoing detoxification. It is recovering from long overindulgence in liberalism's lethal cocktail of suffocating statism in economic life and moral laissez-faire regarding behavior.

Nowadays she speaks of "efficiency" more than compassion, and by the standards of recent decades (the city's budget tripled in the 1980s), her proposals are worthy of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens' "Hard Times." She would reduce public school teachers' sabbaticals, force the Department of Sanitation to compete with private carters, increase the average municipal employee's workweek from 35 to 37.5 hours a week. Gosh.

However, her subtext is that her efficiencies will save $1.1 billion that will find its way back to the public employees who constitute what are called (by themselves) the "caring professions."

That is a low priority in a city where 3 percent of the people hit by cars in the 1980s were already lying in the streets, a city unable to deliver orderly public spaces and unwilling to stop delivering condoms to eighth-graders, where under the previous mayor (David N. Dinkins) welfare rolls increased by 273,000 to Depression-era levels, where Mr. Giuliani inherited a deficit ($2.8 billion) larger than the budgets of four states, and where the population is what it was in 1961 but with 400,000 fewer private-sector jobs.

The former future

A map of New York's downhill path to these conditions is Fred Siegel's illuminating new book "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities." Mr. Siegel is a professor of history and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, that nest of "new," centrist Democrats. He says the city was driven down by policies "simultaneously morally libertarian and statist," by "antipathy to economic markets and faith in a free market in morals."

Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1953-65) set the postwar tone: "Human needs are greater than budgetary needs" and "I do not propose to permit our fiscal problems to set the limits of our commitments to meet the essential needs of the people of the city."

The ratio of employed people to those on welfare went from 10-to-1 in 1960 to 5-to-1 in 1970. The aim, as liberal theoreticians put it, was to "make dependency legitimate" so the poor could "consume with integrity," and would not have to "go the hard route, to be . . . taxi drivers, restaurant employees . . . and factory hands."

Mayor John V. Lindsay's (1965-72) first commissioner of social services, Mitchell Ginsberg (nicknamed "Come-and-get-it Ginsberg"), said, "I have always viewed the cost of welfare to be whatever it is." The real cost, says Mr. Siegel, was erasure of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the rise of the culture of "dependent individualists," people who feel entitled to public support without reciprocal obligations.

Mr. Siegel says that the 1945 mayoralty election was "fought over who was more liberal." Ms. Messinger's problem is that the 1997 election is being fought over the same thing.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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