A friend who is knowledgeable in Federal agriculture policy recently sent me an article from The New York Times which reminded me of the failures of policy in this area and the political difficulties in dealing with them. Since the passage of the acclaimed Freedom To Farm Act in the mid-1990’s, which was supposed to wean food producers off their heavy government subsidies, annual direct payments to farmers in the U.S. have tripled to $28 billion in 2000, one-half of all the money made by farmers! Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman admitted that farming has “become largely an income transfer program”, with the government underwriting rural businesses and requiring very little in return. These subsidies, of course, are not about food supply but about keeping rural areas afloat, and they are kept in place by what I call the “agricultural way of life lobby”. The huge dependencies are a problem for President Bush and the Republicans because a large majority of the money goes to states that sent Republicans to Congress (and Bush to the White House). If Social Security is the “third rail” of American politics, this may be the fourth. Still, it’s time for intellectual honesty in agricultural policy and I haven’t heard much of it lately.
Of all President Bush’s proposals to date, the most difficult and potentially most transformational is the centerpiece of his compassionate conservatism, the plan for Federal support of faith-based social programs. Fully competitive school choice and full privatization of Social Security would certainly be more dramatic, but these aren’t in the cards for awhile and don’t represent as bold a leap into the unknown. Not that it will be brand new; Catholic Charities USA has been receiving government funds for years. But the ambition for this plan and its ultimate scope could be quite sweeping.
There are problems to address, of course, and the usual secular humanist and First Amendment crowds will be out in droves. My concern would be more about the corruption or impairment of the mission of the faith-based organizations by government than any church-state or proselytization problems. In fact, some of the latter will no doubt be beneficial in the often necessary behavior modification of the recipients. And there are operating details to be worked out, but we should not fear innovations that have the power to transform lives if they are well structured and offered as an option to public programs on a competitive basis. This is compassionate, but also empowerment conservatism, much like school choice, because it is bottom-up driven, not top-down. Alexis de Tocqueville noted over 160 years ago that the genius of America lay not in its government but in its free associations. To a large extent we have allowed government to supplant independent charities and have come to rely on a coercive one-size-fits-all approach to treating social pathologies that usually creates dependence. We have often forgotten that many of these pathologies have as their root cause a spiritual void that must be filled, that behavior matters, and that true welfare reform requires more than money.
In my October, 2000 Special Pre-Election Issue, paraphrasing Pat Buchanan, I wrote that the 2000 election was not to be about who gets what or the details of policy, but rather was to be about who we are. Now, three months after Election Day, I’m even more convinced. The post-election fight in Florida and the Ashcroft confirmation process have combined to highlight for me the opposing forces in the war for cultural hegemony that is raging in our public life at every level of policy deliberation. These opposing forces have been characterized as the Beautiful vs. the Dutiful, Old vs. New America, urban vs. rural America, coastal vs. middle America, and the hedonistic/individualistic/secular vs. the puritanical/family-centered/religious America. However the forces are characterized, the real underlying issues that are driving our politics have become cultural ones that can only indirectly be addressed through public policy. As an example, the Ashcroft nomination fight was an impasse of the type not before experienced (with the possible exception of the Bork hearings), not of the type that the “let’s make a deal”, LBJ-style political processes can deal with. The left is a religion and its adherents believe that conservatives are evil and, to some conservatives, the reverse is true. These differences won’t be worked out over bourbon and water in the cloak room.
Several books have helped me understand this phenomenon, notably Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. She describes an assimilation process in which the former adversary culture of the bohemians has been democratized and popularized as a major factor in the dominant culture over the past thirty years. One of the results is that once honorific words are now pejorative, so that the worst transgressions are to be “moralistic” or “judgmental”, tolerance is the only virtue, and morality itself is trivialized. The most visible element of this dominant culture, the elite, generally conforms to traditional ideals of propriety, but with no firm confidence in the principles underlying their behavior, and they find it difficult to transmit their own principles to their children. In fact, they are unable to judge what is right or wrong for themselves. I call this the “Dr. Laura syndrome” and if you’ve ever listened to her call-in radio program, you know what I mean.
This ignorance of the grounding of our morality and the resulting lack of conviction and assertiveness about matters that define us as a people are the sources of much of the confusion in the public policy arena. For if, as I suspect, there are no more than a small minority of energized partisans on either side of an issue in the culture war, the “diffident middle” will seem confused and disengaged, and will be subject to demagoguery.
This is a battle of ideas at the deepest level, a conflict over the foundation of the American ideal. It is a tug of war for the future of the country. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of America’s Real War, believes that the basic question is whether America is a secular or religious nation and my reading of the exit polls tells me that of all the voting patterns in the recent election, religion was the most precise determinant. Whatever your views on this, it’s pretty clear that the fault lines open along the division formed when modernity divorced humanity from its source and end in a God-centered universe. Shelby Steele says that George W. Bush is the first conservative on the presidential level to understand that he is in a culture war. I believe and hope so; he’s going to need that insight.
I have just read a short book by R. C. Sproul with the same title as this essay, in which he traces the key strains of Western philosophical thought from the Greeks to the present in order to illustrate the consequences of the ideas on our present condition (a kind of takeoff on Richard Weaver). Nothing new here, but I was struck by his highlighting of the concept of pragmatism, America’s only homegrown philosophical movement, and its dramatic impact on our system of public education. John Dewey (1859-1952) was the chief architect of the form of
pragmatism that had the most long lasting impact. Put simply, pragmatism holds
that a theory is true only insofar as its actions are “successful”. In pushing this philosophy, Dewey succeeded in revolutionizing our public school system. He did so by denouncing well founded theories of knowledge and objective truth as a waste of time and removing the norms for determining the purposes of education and even what is ultimately pragmatic. In short, he took away the question, “what kind of child are we trying to produce?” The result was the destruction of the classical method of education from which we are still struggling to recover.
California has written the book on how not to pursue utility deregulation, and now the damage is that their leaders will use the current crisis to demagogue against the concept. As Pete duPont has recently reminded us, the idea of price controls goes back at least 4,000 years and they have always failed, particularly when prices are capped at retail and allowed to float at wholesale. True deregulation would have allowed the price structure of supply and demand to balance the market, and would have included market entry by new competitors. Deregulation should mean less political control, not more, but California’s liberal establishment wants “consumerism” and “environmentalism” simultaneously, an impossibility which has led to policies encouraging unlimited demand without incentives for growth in supply. The solutions now will be difficult, but re-regulation is not a viable option, nor is more cost-plus rate setting, a flawed concept that left us with much of the “stranded cost” debacle from the nuclear plant construction fiasco of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The only remaining choices are anathema to the left: back off on their long held hostility to new power plants or pay increasingly higher prices for electricity. Welcome to the realities of the market.