On the social engineering of the governmentalist Left and the social engineering of the governmentalist Right
What gets people upset, and rightfully so,President Barack Obama declared last week,is executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.Pounding his fist, he announced that the flood of federal money into corporate hands would cease, effective immediately.
Ha! No, of course he didn’t say that. He announced that henceforth, when taxpayers subsidize a failing Wall Street firm, the company will have to cap the boss’s pay at $500,000 a year.
It was merely the latest effort to expand the bailouts into a behavior modification program. When Democrats proposed a subsidy package for Detroit last year, for example, the plan included another set of limits on executive pay. Not to be outdone, the Republicans countered with a requirement that union workers agree to wage cuts. But for the most part, the idea of using the taxpayers’ money as a Trojan horse for new controls has been a Democratic enthusiasm, not a Republican one.
Or at least that’s how it’s been during this crisis. In the early and mid-1990s, it was Republicans who called for social engineering via the public purse, and it was Democrats who served as inconsistent opponents. That time, the money wasn’t destined for banks and auto giants. It was earmarked for poor people, and the instructions attached to the money involved working, going to school, or taking birth control. The most extreme proposal, endorsed by James Q. Wilson, Myron Magnet, and other neoconservative social critics, would have required many welfare mothers to live in group shelters. Magnet was willing to achieve this through directly coercive means. (In his 1993 book The Dream and the Nightmare, he proposed thatif mothers refuse to enter the group homes and fail to support the children, then the state will intervene to take the children away.) But Wilson framed the proposal the same way Obama framed his Wall Street plan. Interviewed by Reason magazine in 1995, he said his systemwould be voluntary in the sense that, if you want public support, that’s the way you get it. You don’t have to go there. But you won’t get any money and you won’t get any housing units.
That suggestion never became law, but a host of milderworkfareandlearnfareproposals were enacted on the state level. And in 1996, of course, Bill Clinton signed the federal welfare reform bill, which established new work requirements for people on the dole and strengthened social workers’ surveillance of their lives.