And the Law Shall Make You Good

March 11, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

It's an old saw that you can't legislate morality. Yet the new GOP majority in Congress seems determined to enact sweeping reforms aimed at restoring ''accountability'' and ''personal responsibility'' to those who receive welfare benefits.

There is a good bit of self-righteousness and hypocrisy here masquerading as public policy. The fact is, Congress only wants to make some people more ''accountable'' and ''responsible.''

Americans overwhelmingly say they are opposed to ''welfare.'' But when Social Security, unemployment insurance and other forms of assistance are taken into account fully half of all non-farm households in the U.S. receive benefits from one or more government programs.

Apparently, as a nation, we are not nearly so self-reliant as we would like to believe.

But the GOP zealots in Congress aren't talking about ''accountability'' and ''personal responsibility'' for middle-class homeowners who deduct their mortgage-interest payments on their federal income-tax returns.

They're not talking about the giant agribusiness companies that reap billions of dollars a year in federal farm subsidies.

No, they're talking about taking benefits away from pregnant women, infants and children who will lose medicine, milk and other nutrition when Congress wipes out the federal WIC program. They're talking about poor school kids who will try to learn on empty stomachs when Congress abolishes free school breakfasts and lunches in struggling inner-city school systems.

They're willing to do this and justify it on the grounds they are actually ''helping'' the people they are hurting most. And the worst thing about it is that this mean-spirited policy probably won't work anyway.

Why? Because government simply cannot legislate people's morality. The desire to promote socially desirable ''values'' is certainly understandable. Millions of Americans of both parties sense an unraveling of the social fabric that has produced rising rates of violent crime, out-of-wedlock births and persistent poverty.

Yet government policy can neither create moral values nor enforce them, and legislation is a blunt instrument for influencing people's behavior. Rather it is the institutions of civil society -- families, schools, churches, community and civic organizations -- that promulgate and instill values.

The problem of declining values and standards -- what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York has called ''defining deviancy down'' -- is indeed serious. But lawmakers' ability to provide solutions is actually quite limited, primarily because the instruments available to government for shaping character are coarse and relatively indiscriminate. By contrast, people in their private lives and as members of communities make the kind of fine distinctions and judgments that instill values all the time.

The GOP welfare hawks have proposed all sorts of punitive restrictions on benefits to the poor. But it is far from clear that taking money away from the poor will make them better people.

For example, among the changes being discussed are plans to remove legal immigrants from the welfare rolls, end the entitlement status of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, eliminate cash benefits to minors and require work from able- bodied welfare recipients.

Republicans also would cut benefits to women who cannot identify the fathers of their children and deny increased benefits to women bearing children while on welfare.

These moves are justified on the grounds they are in the best long-term interest of the poor: Since welfare creates ''dependency,'' the thinking goes, the best way to make people independent is to end welfare.

The fallacy of such reasoning lies in the fact that the growth of the welfare state has been only one factor in the unraveling of the social fabric. Other factors include a permissive popular culture, structural changes in the economy and demographic shifts in the U.S. population.

Simply cutting off welfare benefits won't reverse the effects of all these changes. But it will create real hardship for the poor people who are the targets of such ''reforms.''

Government has a role to play in providing incentives for people to adhere to social norms and values. It does this best, however, by supporting the institutions that actually create values, not by attempting to supplant them. The latter is just another form of government overreaching.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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