Reweaving Loose Threads

Two Novembers ago, a group of new lawmakers rode into Washington, their armor polished brightly. Their foe was liberal ideology, which has pushed the government far beyond keeping civic order and into shaping morals and manners--regulating everything from racial attitudes to relations between the sexes. The so-called "conservative revolutionaries" cocked their lances and declared they'd teach the overweening state a lesson or two. One of their first projects was a bill called the Personal Responsibility Act. Hold it: Does anyone sense a contradiction here? The problem, we're told, is an intrusive state. Yet, conservatives are asking the same state to restore personal responsibility.. Do we really think Washington can teach people to be responsible? The late Christian law professor Jacques Ellul warned against believing that government is the instrument to create an ideal society. Social engineering is destructive, because it requires the state to take over functions from other institutions--and that weakens those institutions. As Senator Dan Coats explains in Policy Review, under liberal policies, "fathers were replaced by welfare checks, private charities were displaced by government spending, [and] religious volunteers were dismissed as ‘amateurs.'" Today, most Americans agree that these skewed policies must be reformed. But state action alone can't rebuild the rubble. Revival must come from cultural institutions themselves. Boston University economist Glen Loury gives a wonderful illustration of what I mean. Loury writes that welfare policies, with their perverse incentives, have pulled on the loose threads of the social fabric, causing it to unravel. But pushing back on those threads won't reweave the fabric. It can be mended only by the character-forming institutions of civil society: family, church, and voluntary associations. As Loury puts it, no incentive scheme works as well to inspire responsible parenting as believing that parents are God's stewards for their children. No deterrent to teen pregnancy is as strong as believing that "your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." And no affirmative-action law unites the races as effectively as the conviction that "God is no respecter of persons." Real change comes from the heart--and habits of the heart are most susceptible to influence by those closest to us. The real solution, then, is to rebuild the social structures where personal influence is exercised with the assistance of the state. Two Christian senators have proposed ways to do this. Senator Coats has sponsored the Project for American Renewal. This project would tap government funds to support private social programs and provide a tax credit to those who give to private charities. Senator John Ashcroft has proposed turning most welfare programs into block grants to states. States could then contract with private groups for poverty relief services or give welfare recipients vouchers redeemable at private agencies. Why not ask your own senators to support the Coats and Ashcroft proposals. When new lawmakers ride into town and start polishing up the same old big government solutions, remember: Answers to social disorder don't come from government. They require the restoration of personal virtue and civic responsibility. What English statesman Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of society.


Chuck Colson


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