Conserving Power


The early '00s are beginning to look a lot like the early '90s. Once again we've got an inarticulate president with no discernible ideology who wants to be known for his achievements in education and is keen to tell people that he cares. He's even got the same name. Spooky.

George W. Bush's interest in education and his lack of principles go hand in hand. "Education reform," he said the other day, was "the hallmark of my time as governor of Texas." Now that he's president, "my focus will be on making sure every child is educated." It clearly has never crossed Bush's mind that it might not be appropriate to carry his pet cause as governor into the White House.

There was a time when the Republicans called for abolishing the Department of Education. Maybe they never really meant it, but at least they pretended they did, as a nod to the quaint idea that the federal government should not try to assume powers that the Constitution does not grant.

Now Bush wants to beef up Washington's unconstitutional role in education by spending more money and using it to impose testing requirements, performance standards, and penalties for schools that fail to improve. "It's time to come together and get it done," he said, issuing the sort of technocratic appeal we've come to expect from reformers who do not worry about the proper role of government.

Bush followed that up with an exhortation that simultaneously showed off his compassion, offered the reassuring promise of scientific measurement, and subtly threatened anyone who refuses to get with the program: "We must care enough to ask how our children are doing."

You have a problem with Bush's education plan? What's the matter? Don't you care enough to ask how our children are doing?

Bush blithely dismissed any other reason for failing to support more federal control over primary and secondary schools. "Change will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role in education," he warned. "I believe strongly in local control of schools. I trust local folks to chart the path to excellence. But educational excellence for all is a national issue."

The same reasoning could be applied to any function that has traditionally been handled by state or local governments: "I believe strongly in local control of garbage collection. But sanitation excellence for all is a national issue."

Not surprisingly, sounding like a Democrat has endeared Bush to the Democrats. The New York Times reports this alarming development: "On education, it seems, the political spectrum is collapsing into near consensus."

When politicians all agree on something, it usually involves picking your pocket or interfering with your life. In this era of bipartisanship, we can look forward to plenty of both.

Bush's other major move during his first week in office, a sop to social conservatives on abortion, did not bring him praise from across the aisle. But like the education plan, it showed that politicians who ostensibly oppose big government are happy to use it for their ends.

At issue was U.S. aid to foreign organizations that promote "family planning." Bush reinstated a ban, imposed by the Reagan administration and suspended by Bill Clinton, on giving such money to groups that perform or facilitate abortions.

The significance of the ban, which does not affect U.S. funds distributed through foreign governments, is mainly symbolic. Just as Clinton's decision to lift the funding restrictions implied that abortion is an acceptable practice, Bush's decision to restore them sends the message that abortion is beyond the pale. In essence, both sides see taxpayer money as a means to promote their beliefs.

A principled supporter of limited government would ask why Americans should be forced to subsidize family planning services in other countries, whether or not they include abortion. But Bush emphasized that he was not suggesting any reduction in spending on the $425 million program, let alone questioning its existence. "I believe strongly in local control of family planning," he said, "but reproductive excellence for all is an international issue."

OK, I made up the quote. But the pattern is clear: Bush and many other self-identified conservatives want to restrain Leviathan only when they're not holding the leash. Once they're in charge, they're eager to use ill-gotten power and other people's money to further their goals.

Which makes you wonder what, exactly, they're conserving. It's clearly not the Constitution.