Renewing American Civilization: Toward an Opportunity Society

Article excerpt

The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives explains his plan for creating an Opportunity Society to replace the Welfare State.

In December 1992, I was working on long-range planning with Owen Roberts in Tampa, Florida. Owen is a brilliant student of free markets and the free enterprise system. He believes deeply in American Civilization and in the extraordinary range of opportunities that America has given so many of its citizens.

Yet that December day, Owen Roberts was in a rage of despair and frustration about the current limitations on the American ability to help people. The United States was going into Somalia to help save innocent Somalians from the starvation and death that their own warlords were inflicting upon them.

Roberts was not opposed to humanitarian missions and to American intervention to help innocent victims. Far from it. His frustration lay in the fact that our intervention would be temporary, our help would last only a little while, and we would lack the knowledge and commitment to truly transform Somalian society.

The things we could not teach Somalia were obvious, yet they are at the heart of the successes we Americans have had as a people. Free enterprise in a free market, entrepreneurship, productivity, incentives and the work ethic, citizenship, the rule of law, the right to free speech, and free elections were the kind of core values, principles, habits, and institutions that were necessary if Somalia was to develop a decent future for its citizens.

This collection of values, principles, habits, and institutions could be grouped together as "American Civilization." They were precisely the patterns de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America after his visit to America in 1831 and 1832.

I asked Roberts why we would think we could teach American Civilization to Somalians when we no longer teach it to young Americans. He agreed with me that we did not have a commitment to American Civilization in our schools. He then asserted that, if we could not teach Somalians because we no longer taught ourselves, maybe the answer was to begin by reasserting American Civilization here at home - to once again insist that America was a civilization worth studying and that renewing American Civilization was possibly the most important challenge our generation had to meet.

The more I watched the evening news of violence, brutality, drug addiction, and child abuse, the clearer it became that American Civilization has been decaying.

I talked with people about the challenge of helping the poor leave poverty and the vital goal of giving every American an opportunity to pursue happiness, live in safety, get a good education, and find a good job. It became clear that the welfare state had failed, and we had to return to the values and principles of American Civilization if we were going to truly help the poor leave poverty.

Furthermore, as we wrestled with balancing the budget in Washington, it became obvious that only a transformation of government functions and duties would allow us to eliminate the deficit. Yet such a transformation would require a deep shift in popular thinking about the role of the federal government compared with the roles of the citizen, voluntary associations (including religious institutions), private business, and local and state government. In effect, balancing the federal government's budget would require a return to the pre-New Deal (pre-1933) model of America, a model that had worked for 144 years as the most decentralized and least governmental society in the world. That transformation would require a lot of thought and a lot of dialogue with the American people. No change so profound and so far-reaching could be developed by so-called experts or imposed by elected officials on a free people. Only a thorough dialogue involving a lot of citizens could create an acceptance for a transformation on this scale.

A Focus on the Future

It was also clear that our effort to revitalize American Civilization could not simply be a look backwards and an effort to return to some kind of "Golden Age" of a past America. …