These days, social-policy analysts on both the right and the left push "empowerment." Democrats David Osborne and Elaine Kamarck stress welfare reform and community-based policing; Republicans Jack Kemp and Jim Pinkerton back enterprise zones and want public housing residents to own their homes.
Empowerment advocates seek to give individuals—even poverty-stricken ones—more control over their own lives. These advocates believe that if you treat people as adults they will make competent decisions, benefiting from their wisdom and learning from their mistakes.
Bill Clinton apparently disagrees. Despite the president's strong civil-rights record, and the genuine rapport he has developed with community leaders outside the civil-rights establishment, his policies clearly favor disempowerment. The Clinton agenda limits the choices individual Americans can make to those approved by union bosses and the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., state capitals, and city halls.
Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the most loquacious member of the cabinet (and the one Clinton lets speak freely in public), is the administration's most visible opponent of empowerment. Consider these Reich-backed proposals to empower institutions over individuals:
• Reich overturned a Bush administration plan to temporarily suspend the Davis-Bacon Act. Davis-Bacon requires construction workers on federal projects to make union wages. Non-union workers, many of them African-Americans or Latinos, rarely get these jobs. Bush officials believed suspending Davis-Bacon would help South Florida recover from Hurricane Andrew; Reich sided with the unions, upheld Davis-Bacon, and kept non-union workers unemployed.
• Reich also rescinded Bush's orders to implement the Supreme Court's Beck decision. Beck requires unions with government contracts to disclose how much of their dues they spend on lobbying and other political activities. When union members oppose these political uses, the Court says the members can get that portion of their dues refunded. By rescinding the Beck orders, Reich disempowered rank-and-file union members.
• Reich wants to boost the minimum wage by 10 percent and then have it rise at the same rate as inflation. With the administration's impending health-insurance premiums piled on to these higher wages, unskilled workers won't get jobs. Few employers could afford to hire them and still stay in business.
• Reich favors, and Clinton says he will sign, a law that bars companies from permanently hiring striker replacements, even if they're better employees than the ones who walked off the job.
• Unions want Congress to ban "industrial homework," which lets as many as 600,000 Americans knit sweaters and do other work at home instead of on a factory line. Some union bosses also seek a ban on home data entry and other forms of telecommuting. Forbes suggests Clinton and Reich won't oppose either ban.
• And Reich appointed a 10-member commission to update the labor laws drafted during the New Deal. The Wall Street Journal reports that "not a single member represents the nine-tenths of private workers and managements that aren't unionized." As the Journal notes, the Clinton brain trust praises "the German model of Big Business-Big Labor welfarism" that has stifled entrepreneurship there the past 15 years.
By siding with union bosses, bureaucrats, and other agents of disempowerment, Bill Clinton rejects the New Democrat agenda that led to his election. If his policies of disempowerment exacerbate our "recovery without jobs," the voters won't forget.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Disempowering America".