A Search for Ways to 'Survive the Chaos'

September 11, 1995|By MONA CHAREN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Is devolution enough? Some Republican conservatives are doubtful. Thus begins one of the truly interesting philosophical debates we are likely to see this year in Washington -- and like all the significant debates, it is taking place not between liberals and conservatives but among conservatives.

Devolution, returning power and resources to states and localities, symbolized by the block grant, was the rallying cry of the first months of the Republican Congress. For some Republicans, turning authority over to the states was seen as an end in itself. But the summer recess has afforded time for reflection, and some conservatives have given mere devolution a second look.

In the first place, the states are already engaged in the delivery of many of the services the federal government funds, and critics argue that they aren't doing a very good job. State government is still government, and states can be as (or more) bureaucratic and inefficient than the federal government.

Further, if the goal of policy in Washington is to transfer authority to the states, then the logic of the block grant becomes elusive. Why should Washington tax Virginians, collect the money and then send it on a round trip to Richmond? Why not have Virginia decide how much tax revenue it needs to fulfill its functions?

Bill Bennett and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., are worried about another effect of devolution -- the likelihood of failure. Merely asking governors and mayors to pick up the slack as the federal government retreats will not work, they argue, and will lead to disillusionment with Republican governance.

The goal of public policy, says Senator Coats, should be to revive the institutions of civil society that build character. Arguably, it is the erosion of those institutions -- the family, community organizations and private and religious charities -- that has led to the most severe pathologies we now suffer.

The question then becomes: How do you support, encourage and revive civil society? Some conservatives think the only way is by paring back government. They argue that the sprawl of government into every conceivable realm of life has caused the withering of traditional institutions. Fathers become unnecessary if the government provides Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Church charities lose their mission when the government provides food, shelter and income to the poor. And the non-poor no longer feel pressed to provide aid to those in need, be they aged parents or their unfortunate neighbors -- ''compassion'' having become the province of the state.

Bill Bennett doesn't disagree with that analysis but worries about the short-run dislocation that a government withdrawal will entail. ''The retreat of government does not always, at least immediately, result in the rebirth of civil society,'' he and Mr. Coats wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The point of devolution should be to devolve power and responsibility beyond all governments and to the institutions that can, in the words of Joel Kotkin, ''survive the chaos.''

Messrs. Bennett and Coats understand that a government initiative to rebuild civil society is a contradiction, so they call their Project for American Renewal an attempt to recognize and reward what works. They quote community activist Robert Woodson, who noted that for every social problem, no matter how severe, there are people and groups who are defeating it. The goal of the Project for American Renewal -- a series of tax credits to encourage private efforts -- is to find what works.

They propose ideas like the Mentor Schools Act, which would provide fatherless boys with male role models (and a complementary program for girls); the Family Housing Act, which would require that 15 percent of tenants in public housing units be intact families; the Educational Choice and Equity Act, which would provide school vouchers to parents; The Maternity Shelter Act, and much more.

Almost all the measures sound good. But conservatives must be particularly cautious. Recall that every liberal social project also sounded good. The law of unintended consequences has not been repealed since the Republican takeover.

I asked Senator Coats how he would measure success. He paused, and suggested that the test would be cultural trend lines like illegitimacy and violence. It's a worthy, even an urgent goal. But the question is whether more government, even in the form of tax credits, is the answer.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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