Mike Lee Speaks at CPAC (February 11, 2011)


Politeness is engrained in civil society. But sometimes, in order to make progress, you’ve got to dare to ask the questions that make people uncomfortable.

Do Federal Social Programs Work? is the provocative title of a new book by Heritage’s David Muhlhausen. He holds a magnifying glass to Washington’s vast welfare state. After all, “social programs should be carefully evaluated to determine whether they do, in fact, work,” Muhlhausen writes.

But many who peer through the glass will be disappointed. “Despite the best social engineering efforts, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the conclusion that federal social programs are ineffective,” he concludes. “Ameliorating such problems as low academic achievement and cognitive ability, poverty, joblessness, low wages,” and various personal problems appears to “be out of reach for federal social programs,” Muhlhausen writes.

Still, Americans overwhelmingly want to help people. We want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and aid the afflicted. And here’s where conservatism comes into the equation. In a recent speech at Heritage, Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) asked the important question of our times: “What should government do—and just as important, not do—to allow the free market to create new economic opportunity and to allow civil society to create new social capital?”

An effective government would encourage people to form voluntary associations and solve problems. It would empower religious organizations, civic groups, and individuals to form “little platoons” (as Edmund Burke put it) and help each other.

“It’s big government that turns citizens into supplicants, capitalists into cronies, and cooperative communities into competing special interests,” Lee said. “Freedom, by contrast, unites us. It pulls us together, and aligns our interests. It draws us out of ourselves and into the lives of our friends, neighbors, and even perfect strangers. It draws us upward, toward the best version of ourselves. The free market and civil society are not things more Americans need protection from. They’re things more Americans need access to.”

Thus freedom, not federal social engineering, is the answer.