Back to 1900!

January 01, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Now begins what may be the most interesting month here since March 1933.

Then a charismatic president, produced by a desperate crisis, accelerated a process begun with intellectual ferment earlier in the century -- an alteration of the relationship of the citizen to the central government. Now, with neither a crisis nor a charismatic leader, the nation, increasingly irritated by that post-New Deal relationship, is re-opening questions long considered closed.

Recently at a panel discussion ebulliently entitled ''What to Kill First: Agencies to Dismantle, Programs to Eliminate and Regulations to Stop,'' Christopher DeMuth of the American Enterprise Institute playfully said that given Washington's suddenly expansive sense of the possible, perhaps we should ''simply go back to the Articles of Confederation and start over.''

No, but ''back to 1900'' is a serviceable summation of the conservatives' goal, which is to reverse many results of the liberal project first formulated around the turn of the century. That project was to concentrate political power in Washington, and Washington power in the presidency (and later also in the Supreme Court) in order to correct the incompetence of the people and the anachronistic -- or worse -- nature of their local allegiances and institutions.

With the new century came burgeoning faith in ''scientific management'' of society, a celebration of elites of experts who could direct the rationalization of society. Progress, said ''progressives,'' was being retarded by unqualified, amateurish citizens encumbered by retrograde, parochial values. Progressive presidents should be galvanizing articulators of the ''national purpose.''

Walter Lippmann noted that World War I had ''given Americans a new instinct for order, purpose and discipline.'' In his first Inaugural Address, FDR began mobilizing Americans for leadership from Washington, urging them to ''move as a trained and loyal army to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.''

This intellectual pedigree of the liberal project is traced in an essay by Michael Joyce and William Schambra, for a book forthcoming from the Hudson Institute. They note that ''national wealth has been steadily siphoned upward for decades to support vast bureaucracies of social-service providers.'' Today ''the towering bureaucracies and sprawling public-sector unions are full of clever, articulate, lavishly financed apologists for the state.'' These apologists argue that ''the modern world is far too harsh and complex for its 'victims' to survive beyond the walls of dependency on professional elites and government services.''

''Our elites,'' write Messrs. Joyce and Schambra, ''have spent eight decades explaining to the American people that modern circumstances are far too complex for them to hope to govern themselves -- far better to shift public decisions upward to sophisticated, rational elites.'' But by now these elites are associated in the public mind with what the authors call a campaign to sap the authority of local institutions, including the family, by celebrating unfettered self-expression and by arguing ''that children are better off without pedantry about right and wrong, or that disruptively immoral behavior is just an alternative lifestyle.''

Today the nation is in revolt against ''liberalism's campaign of civil eradication.'' The revolt reflects widespread worry about the unraveling of the orderly, coherent moral communities that Americans once built around themselves with strong local institutions. Messrs. Joyce and Schambra agree with De Tocqueville who, marveling at Americans' talent for local organization, believed that a weak central government was an aim of the Founders. They understood that the civic commitments and social skills essential to a free society are developed only in small, intimate settings.

Today's liberal disdain for state and local governments derives partly from the disreputable record of those governments regarding racial matters during the formative decades of today's elites. But just as conservatives can no longer organize their programmatic thinking around detestation of the Soviet Union, liberals must accept that the Mississippi of the 1960s is as gone as the Soviet Union is. The phrase ''states' rights'' is no longer encoded racism, it is a reaffirmation of constitutional and philosophic principles older than and superior to the liberal project.

Robert Merry of Congressional Quarterly recalls Pat Moynihan's first Senate campaign, in 1976, against the conservative incumbent, James Buckley. Addressing a labor audience, Mr. Moynihan said, ''Look, there's this particular fringe, and their one fundamental problem is they simply never accepted the New Deal.'' He added: ''Didn't Franklin Roosevelt settle this issue once and for all? I mean, do we really have to go over it again?''

Yes, we do, because the fringe is marginal no more.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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