The Magazine

John J. DiIulio Jr.

Older & Wiser? A Weekly Standard 10th anniversary symposium.

Sep 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 01
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The first issue of this magazine appeared in September 1995, part way through the Clinton administration, and less than a year after the Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1994. The pressing foreign policy issue of the day was Bosnia. The world seems a very different place today. To mark our 10th anniversary, we invited several of our valued contributors to reflect on the decade past and, at least indirectly, on the years ahead. More specifically, we asked them to address this question:

"On what issue or issues (if any!) have you changed your mind in the last 10 years-
and why?" Their responses follow.

SINCE 1995, I have changed my mind on certain welfare, crime, and government reform issues. Each change suggests the same broader lesson. Baldly stated, the lesson is that policy matters most. Culture aside, policy can drive social trends and determine government's trajectory.

This view is a caution to conservatives who think that positive trends, from crime's decline to religion's resurgence, have resulted from cultural self-repair. Supposedly, even baby boomers who once trashed traditional morals and ballyhooed big government have learned their lesson (blue-state boomers being slow learners). It is also at odds with what the late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught about culture's primacy over both politics and policy.

But Moynihan, like me, was wrong to oppose restricting welfare benefits and instituting work requirements. He predicted that doing so would result in millions' falling into abject squalor. I was more sanguine on that count, but we both overestimated the poverty culture's hold on welfare recipients. Urban underclass culture and values are still very much alive. But well-enforced welfare policy changes nonetheless cut the welfare rolls and elicited a rise in pro-social behavior.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I rightly argued that certain policies (incarceration of chronically violent adult felons, "broken windows" policing, tighter probation and parole requirements, tough-love prevention practices, and related community and faith-based programs for youth), in tandem with target-hardening measures (increased private security, gated communities, and so on), would bring crime rates way down and, if sustained, keep them down. The one looming exception, I thought, was the growing cohort of children living without adequate (or any) adult supervision, and sometimes severely abused, in places where predatory street violence was at record rates. Barring a massive increase in church-anchored early outreach, I predicted, those bred by this extreme moral-poverty culture might drive crime back up by the middle of the present decade.

In fact, both adult and juvenile crime rates continued to fall after 1995, just as they had in the early 1990s. But the drop was far greater in places (like New York) that adopted and stayed with effective anticrime policies than in places (like Baltimore) that did not. Today youth crime is back in the news, but the problem is reemerging in places (notably Boston) where such policies, including street-level police-probation-preacher partnerships, have not been fully sustained; it is serious but semi-contained in places (like Philadelphia) that belatedly instituted targeted youth-violence reduction policies in only some police districts. (My mid-90s mantra "Build churches, not jails" still applies.)

Beginning in the mid-70s, mass opinion about government became progressively more conservative. On several occasions in the mid-90s, I addressed newly minted House members on the subject of government reform. I thought that conservative Republicans would govern very differently from liberal Democrats. But even after Reagan, and Gingrich, and the Republican capture of both the White House and the Congress, and the increase in the number of states controlled by Republicans, and the rise of popular conservative mass media--even after that surge in conservative power and influence--a great deal hasn't changed. Liberal Democrats' decades-old pattern of deficit spending (including massive social spending), their big regulatory regimes and bureaucratic structures (plus new ones birthed by Republicans), and perverse intergovernmental grant-making systems (with their bias against qualified religious nonprofits and grassroots groups) remain. Apparently, even from the grave, policy rules.

Contributing editor John J. DiIulio Jr. is coauthor (with James Q. Wilson) of American Government: Institutions and Policies (Houghton-Mifflin), now in its tenth edition.