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What Happened to the Conservatives?

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Are conservatives so desperate to have a Republican in the White House that they are ready to toss their principles overboard and become boosters for whatever President George W. Bush hands them?

It seems so. Mr. Bush’s two earliest initiatives — education and aid to faith-based organizations — should have had conservatives objecting from the rooftops. Instead, they are praising the moves in tones not heard since Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down.”

Take education. Mr. Bush’s plan would impose national standards and testing on local schools. On top of that, he would institute a national voucher system for schools that fail to improve.

Once upon a time, conservatives opposed federal involvement in education — and for good reason. There is no constitutional authority for it. Conservatives used to know that unless a power is expressly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution, that power is reserved to the states or the people. (See the neglected Tenth Amendment.) I guess the election of George W. Bush simultaneously repealed that fundamental constitutional principle.

Mr. Bush would like us to believe that the states will establish the education standards and do the testing. But not really. The states will have the feds looking over their shoulders. As the New York Times reported, “Senior Bush administration officials said today that each state would develop its own test to measure achievement, but the federal government would use a national test, known as the National Assessment of Education Progress, to gauge how those tests correspond to progress in reading and math…. An administration official said using the National Assessment as a measure of state tests would … prevent state and local officials from adopting tests that posed no challenge.” Translation: the feds will be in charge. So much for local schools under local control.

As for vouchers, this should be driving conservatives up the wall. First of all, even conservatives who like the voucher principle should object to a federal program. With money comes strings. Conservatives used to understand that. But no more. I can understand their wanting vouchers at the state level. But from Washington? What’s going on? Have the bodies of conservatives been taken over by statist aliens? Don’t they know that for any school to be eligible to accept vouchers it will have to abide by countless federal regulations? The Supreme Court said so years ago in the Grove City College case.

More basically, when will conservatives learn that the voucher principle per se is perilous? Without doubt it will end up corrupting private, independent schools, sucking them into the government’s orbit. Vouchers will spell the end of private schools as a real alternative to the government’s schools.

Conservatives have fallen for the same scam with respect to faith-based organizations. By making them eligible for government funds, the Bush plan will compromise the organizations’ independence and integrity. Rules follow money.

Moreover, there is no way that the program can avoid funding religion — which is anathema in a free society. The Bush folks assure us the money won’t be used this way, but they are being disingenuous. Earlier, when the administration stopped the flow of taxpayer money to international organizations that provide abortion services, it correctly pointed out that it doesn’t matter that the organizations don’t use the money directly for abortion-related activities, because money is fungible. But suddenly the word “fungible” has vanished from the conservative vocabulary. Yet the fact remains that a if religious social-service organization gets taxpayer money to, say, feed the poor, it will free up other money for its ecclesiastical work. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that conservatives have sold their souls for political victory. Now that their guy is in power, they are ecstatic about seeing federal power wielded to the max. This is dangerous and shortsighted.

They will be the first to scream bloody murder when the next Democratic occupant of the White House uses the Bush programs to push his (or her) agenda. But they will have no one to blame but themselves.

If the conservatives wish to be true to their principles, they should oppose Bush and advocate deep tax cuts (better: tax repeal) and full separation of school and social work from the state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.