Ideas -- not ideology -- to restore nation's civic life

September 13, 1992|By Neal Lipschutz


Mickey Kaus.

New Republic Books/Basic Books.

282 pages. $25. As the race for president heats up, there's a hunger for change, for big, meaningful ideas. There's a sense, hard to define but easy to recognize, that something important has gone wrong with the quality of American life. The spirit and expectations of its citizens seem diminished. Discussions of the monthly unemployment rate or the trade gap with Japan aren't going to do much for this malaise, this sense that coping and survival are all most Americans can hope for. It goes beyond the sluggish economy.

Mickey Kaus is not running for president, but he's got plenty of big ideas to reform America, to alter the very way we regard each other and ourselves as citizens (not to mention the Democratic Party). In "The End of Equality," this senior editor at The New Republic offers a program that's in the best tradition of American politics: straightforward, unfettered by ideological baggage and designed to appeal to a broad, enlightened middle class. One of the most heartening aspects of this book's program to change everything from welfare to health care is that it asks Americans to take their citizenship, their public life, more seriously, and expects them to respond.

Mr. Kaus' brand of Civic Liberalism is not heavy on macroeconomic policy, though he clearly recognizes how unevenly distributed wealth helped get us where we are. Early on, he writes: "We've always had rich and poor. But money is increasingly something that enables the rich, and even the merely prosperous, to live a life apart from the poor. And the rich and the semi-rich increasingly seem to want to live a life apart, in part because they are increasingly terrified of the poor, in part because they increasingly seem to feel that they deserve such a life, that they are in some sense superior to those with less."

Mr. Kaus doesn't dwell on multi-million-dollar CEO salaries or the decline of unionism. In fact, he notes trends likely to make income even more unequally distributed in the future. But he says to let capitalism be capitalism, producing its shares of economic winners and losers. His idea is to increase the power of the public sphere, those areas of our lives where money doesn't or shouldn't count, and thus let all men and women feel their citizenship and worth regardless of income.

His Civic Liberalism "tries to reduce the influence of money in politics, to revive the public schools as a common experience, to restore the draft. And it will search for new institutions that might extend the sphere of egalitarian community life."

Central to the success of Civic Liberalism is welfare reform that would make most traditional liberals (Mr. Kaus calls them "money liberals" because of their emphasis on redistributing income) shudder. One gets the feeling Mr. Kaus is not so much interested in helping the underclass as in reducing them as a threat to a society in which they seem to have little stake and with which they share few values.

He suggests an enforced workfare plan to replace cash payments to the indigent. It would be hugely expensive. The government would guarantee every able-bodied person a job. Wages would be just below minimums in the private sector, which in turn might have to be subsidized at government expense. A huge day-care program would also be needed.

Besides the optimistic claim that you could end the underclass in a couple of generations, Mr. Kaus foresees through such welfare reform a society that fully shares the ethic and value of work. There'd be less urban crime, itself a major factor in the dwindling of our public life as it scares people from the parks and playgrounds, chasing those who can afford it to the suburbs. With everyone working and coming closer to a shared value system, there'd be more mutual respect among all economic classes.

Other key ingredients to bolster the public sphere and get the classes to interact is a mandatory draft/public service plan for all the nation's young people, rich and poor, and a national health xTC program that would get the poor, middle class and rich into the same doctor's waiting rooms. Mr. Kaus nostalgically recounts the backgrounds of the men who served with future president John Kennedy when he led a PT boat in World War II as an example of how a shared experience can force people from different races and classes to acknowledge each other's humanity and worth. Lessons learned in such settings, or in schools that draw from varied classes, presumably would linger and foster social equality.

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