Selling Opportunity


Transformation: The Promise and Politics of Empowerment, by Clint Bolick, Oakland, Calif.: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 166 pages, $21.95

Libertarian public interest lawyer Clint Bolick is rightly esteemed for aggressively defending the right of ordinary people to pursue their callings free from the clutch of the bureaucratic state. In doing so he has become one of the modern-day heroes of economic liberty, individual opportunity, and equality before the law. In Transformation he sets forth a clear-headed picture of what Americans can become if only government will change the rules to foster enterprise instead of dependency.

Texas' Teen Challenge is one of the many illuminating examples Bolick offers to illustrate how government stifles the creative energies of a free people. Founded in 1958, Teen Challenge is a faith-based drug rehabilitation program which accepts no public funds. In helping drug users get their act together and get clean, it achieved a remarkable long-term success rate: from 67 percent to 85 percent. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has remarked favorably on these striking results.

No matter. In 1995 the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse threatened the Teen Challenge officials with jail and $4,000-a-day fines, because the program did not employ licensed professionals or follow the state's official treatment regimen. Even such absurd charges as having "frayed carpeting" were tacked on to blacken the project's reputation.

Fortunately, Bolick and his Institute for Justice colleagues appeared on the scene, along with 325 angry church members, former addicts, and other Teen Challenge supporters. Texas officialdom backed down. Teen Challenge was left to do its good works without further harassment from government officials whose own bureaucratic programs succeeded mainly at making perpetual work and sending perpetual bills to the taxpayer. Teen Challenge has now expanded to 130 sites around the country.

This happy ending, alas, is not typical. During the last 40 years government has become the major obstacle to individual and community self-help and thus to social progress. In a sentence that ought to be repeated endlessly everywhere that social issues are debated, Bolick writes of the plight of the inner-city bootstrap entrepreneurs he has so often represented: The "crushing regulatory barriers" that defeat their enterprise are "kept in place by a powerful and reactionary coalition of labor unions, liberal politicians, government bureaucrats, and sheltered businesses determined to keep newcomers out."

Bolick is far from the first to catalog such cases. There is a substantial literature on this subject, including Richard Cornuelle's Reclaiming the American Dream (1965), Morgan Doughton's People Power (1976), the report of the Carter-era National Commission on Neighborhoods (1978), and Walter Williams' The State Against Blacks (1982). Indeed, one can go back further, to Alexis de Tocqueville, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Toulmin Smith, Albert J. Nock, and Felix Morley.

The now-common term empowerment stems from the theme of "empowering" that pervaded a little-noticed but prescient book by Nathan Wright Jr., Black Power and Urban Unrest (1966). Unlike Clinton-era liberals, who conceive of empowerment as an entitlement to more government benefits, Wright understood clearly, as does Bolick, that empowerment means allowing people the full and fair opportunity to do for themselves and enjoy the benefits of their labors.

Like many of his predecessors, Bolick writes that "eliminating barriers to self-determination is the object of empowerment." Recognizing that freedom is an indispensable precondition for progress, prosperity, community, and social harmony, he demands that ponderous, costly, malicious, interest-dominated, monopolizing government get the hell out of the way and let people have a fair chance to build better lives for themselves and their communities.

Bolick says creative public policy should be based on what he calls the "two Cs and three Ds": choice, competition, deregulation, decentralization, and depoliticization. He describes the application of that prescription to education, welfare, economic liberty, housing, crime, and community renewal.

At the end of each chapter Bolick sets forth a handful of specific proposals to advance the empowerment philosophy. A sampler includes parental choice in education, charter schools, deunionizing schools, occupational delicensing, ending government wage fixing, "empowerment zones" in which government relaxes restrictive economic regulation, community development corporations, welfare-to-work programs, child care credits, expanded home ownership, community policing, victims' rights, and the Talent-Watts American Community Renewal Act, which would offer neighborhoods a wide range of tax incentives, regulatory relief, homeownership incentives, scholarships, and devolution of government services.

Bolick recognizes and describes in frightening detail the social problems caused both by drug abuse and by the enforcement of harsh laws against drug abuse. He observes that full legalization of drugs remains beyond the range of popular acceptability, but his prescription is uncharacteristically feeble: "Statesmanship, not political demogoguery, is necessary to address the very real drug problem in this country."

If there is a weak point in Transformation, it lies in Bolick's imprecise use of the term community. Is it just shorthand for the multiplicity of voluntary organizations in an area? Or does it refer to a locally based entity to which governmental functions are assigned? The former interpretation leaves one wondering just who or what is supposed to take action, while the latter raises questions of legitimacy and governance which Bolick does not acknowledge. He has elsewhere inveighed against "grassroots tyrannies" that stifle enterprise and progress at the local level. How to keep a "community" from committing the same kind of sins is worth at least some discussion.

Citing Margaret Thatcher's successes in Britain, Bolick concludes that "the challenge is to create–through economic liberty, private sector education alternatives, private property ownership, and so on–a tangible stake in freedom for those who are dependent on the government….Our task is to illustrate, vividly and tangibly, the real-world human benefits of freedom to people who have been most denied it."

Doing so, he argues, will create powerful new coalitions between government-dependent people who yearn for independence and libertarians who want to free all people for growth and achievement. Bolick has demonstrated this repeatedly in his own work, with the voucher parents of Milwaukee, the jitney drivers of Denver, and the African-American hair-braiders of Washington.

The more people grasp the argument of this readable book, the more America will heed the admonition of young Congressman John F. Kennedy: "Every time that we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of the government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of our people."