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Compassionate Aversionism | The Nation

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Compassionate Aversionism

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Within weeks of taking office, President Bush started to dispense compassionate conservatism with a vengeance. As the first order of business, he moved to give a massive tax windfall to the rich, who got richer in the now-precarious boom economy. By impact and perhaps by design, this would hobble the capacity of the federal government to respond to escalating human need in the harder times that lie ahead. To get a head start on that, Bush asked Congress to shrink funding for Head Start, childcare block grants for poor families and programs to combat child abuse. If this seems like--to use another "c" word--old-fashioned cruelty instead of compassion, it should come as no surprise. The President did his best during last year's campaign, with the complicity of a timid press and a triangulating Democratic Party, to blur his intentions. But the blueprint for the second Bush Administration has been available to anyone who has followed the work of The Manhattan Institute and read its quarterly publication, City Journal.

About the Author

Gara LaMarche
Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, previously headed the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society...

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Two recent books, both published by the Chicago-based Ivan R. Dee, bring together articles originally published in City Journal. At the risk of providing unwitting copy for a rave blurb, they are must reading for anyone who wants a window into the thinking of the people running all three branches of government in these trying days. (Or, as Bill Moyers is quoted as saying on the back of What Makes Charity Work?, "Even when I disagree with City Journal, I dare not ignore it.")

The Manhattan Institute came to prominence around the time of Rudolph Giuliani's election as mayor of New York, and they form a mutual admiration society. Giuliani has praised City Journal for puncturing a "tyranny of political correctness" in New York, which he likens to the Spanish Inquisition. (I thought the Mayor, who just installed a decency panel to monitor arts in city-funded institutions because he was offended by a few paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, and who slashed funds for the 150-year-old Legal Aid Society because it sued him and went on strike, was an admirer of the Spanish Inquisition.) And the Manhattan Institute loves him back. As Heather Mac Donald, City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Burden of Bad Ideas, writes: "From the day he took office, Rudy Giuliani threatened the foundations of the liberal worldview--denouncing identity politics, demanding work from welfare recipients, and above all, successfully fighting crime by fighting criminals, rather than blathering about crime's supposed 'root causes,' racism and poverty."

So far George W. Bush is shaping up as another star pupil. According to an April Washington Post article, Bush adviser Karl Rove considers The Dream and the Nightmare, an earlier book by City Journal editor Myron Magnet--editor of What Makes Charity Work?--a road map for Bush's approach to the role of government.

Neither road map nor blueprint seems quite the right metaphor for what is found in these books, since those imply a plan for getting somewhere or building something. The folks at the Manhattan Institute are more like demolition specialists, as their local hero, Mayor Giuliani, made clear in his call to blow up the New York City Board of Education. Their prescription for failing schools, poor inner-city neighborhoods, inadequate housing and every other shame of a rich industrialized nation is unfailingly the same: Get government out of the way, and let the market and private charity take care of it.

These are lazy books, compilations of recycled articles lightly edited, with slender introductions that do little more than annotate the table of contents. (Consequently, in several cases, the essays read like something from a time capsule: A 1996 Mac Donald essay asserts that California's Proposition 209, "if passed, would return California to color-blind status.") The works of Magnet and Mac Donald are not likely to be passed around in dogeared copies, like those of Ayn Rand, a generation from now. But these books are snapshots in which one can glimpse a way of looking at the world that infuses the thinking of the new President and the people around him. And for that reason, attention must be paid to them.

What is that way of looking at the world? It's deeply nostalgic for a time when the parish priest, the cop on the beat and the Scout troop master kept everyone in line. Criminals weren't coddled, teenage mothers were shipped out of town, and you could take your small son or your mother to the art museum without blushing. Poor people didn't look for government handouts. They climbed out of poverty thanks to temporary private charity that helped them see that their own moral failings were to blame for their problems, not an unfair system.

Magnet's book, with multiple contributors (including Mac Donald; two of the essays in her book also appear in his), devotes the first several pieces to a look backward. In his introductory essay, Magnet laments that the cultural revolution of the sixties changed traditional charities: No longer did these institutions see the personal behavior and worldview of the poor as the key to improvement of their condition. Turning its attention to an unjust economy and racist society, philanthropy turned into a wholesale--rather than a retail--enterprise. Magnet bemoans that "anyone who sought to help the poor as individuals, one by one, looked hopelessly naïve, as if trying to empty the sea with a spoon."

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