Civil Society: Why Liberal Solutions Fail

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Civil Society: Why Liberal Solutions Fail

Sep 22nd, 1999 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and president of The Heritage Foundation.

The "compassionate conservatism" of Texas Gov. George W. Bush has provoked a variety of reactions from liberals, ranging from amusement to hostility. But a more sensible response might be one of pride. The need for such a phrase illustrates how successful liberals have been at painting conservatives as callous toward society's needy, even though their own approach to social problems is a proven failure.

Conservative success on other issues makes this caricature baffling. Year after year, polls show conservatives have earned the public's trust on everything from tax cuts to foreign policy to fiscal prudence. Yet on social issues liberals continue to hold the moral high ground they inherited from FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. What explains this appeal?

Perhaps liberals maintain their hold because the solution they propose is so simple: Give government enough money, and it can solve any problem. Take the 30-year effort to reverse urban decline. Billions of dollars have poured into the worst urban areas of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Newark and on and on. "If there were any basis for liberals' faith in the power of big, bureaucratic programs to improve people's lives, we should see it in the form of prosperous, socially vibrant inner cities," former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., wrote last year. "Unfortunately for urban Americans, no such evidence exists."

That's why the talk among current presidential candidates of evicting government from the charity business and letting private "faith-based" groups tackle America's social problems bodes well for the nation's future. The time-tested formula adopted by these groups-requiring those in need to reform their behavior in exchange for assistance-actually works.

Consider the success of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest prison ministry, established by Chuck Colson in 1974. Instead of ineffectual "anger management" classes, Colson and his staff immerse inmates in a program of prayer and Bible study that emphasizes the immorality of crime and why it is unjust. The result: markedly lower recidivism rates.

One New York study showed that former inmates who had gone through the program were three times less likely to be rearrested than non-participants. Similar results have been reported for Fellowship mentoring programs in Detroit and other cities. As criminologist John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania puts it: "I would challenge a group of researchers to show me something that works better."

Faith-based and other charities are involved in more than just crime reduction. In Chicago, House of Hope, a shelter run by Sister Connie Driscoll, has helped hundreds of homeless women and their children since opening its doors in 1983. But the staff do not simply offer a bed and a hot meal. They provide job-training and teach "life skills"-all for a fraction of the cost of comparable government-run programs. More important, the program stresses personal responsibility and discipline, the lack of which is one of the main causes of homelessness, according to Sister Connie.

Which leads to the primary reason groups such as Prison Fellowship and House of Hope succeed where government fails-because they are free to treat our social maladies not as economic problems but as moral failings. Liberals may have good intentions, but they don't help the needy one bit by suggesting that social ills stem from economic inequality.

Liberals also do the American people a disservice by assuming that charity must be forced-that people won't give, so government must take the money. Yet the public has long supported groups-whether churches, religious charities or secular outfits such as the Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America-whose sole mission is to help other people. What bothers the left is that these programs create competition for government.

But as America's faith-based charities especially have shown, government cannot compete with groups willing to work on moral terms with the down-and-out. Indeed, government functions more properly in the role of partner. As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted, "good government is the precondition, providing a safe place within which individuals, families, communities, churches and voluntary associations can effectively function." Liberals need to realize that civil society is best left to the true professionals

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire