Late Edition: Little Platoons at Work

The most innovative feature of President George W. Bush’s domestic program is his effort to transform the way Americans think about the dispensation of social services and, more broadly, the role of government. He sounded these themes in his inaugural address on Jan. 20, reminding the nation that the maintenance of free institutions rests, in the end, on individual moral responsibility and a disposition to participate in the life of one’s community. The vitality of a republic, he said, requires “citizens, not spectators?’

During his second week in office, Bush established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, tasked (as he said in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast) with “put[ting] the federal government squarely on the side of America’s armies of compassion.” This means, as Bush sees it, more explicit cooperation between government and religious institutions, a proposition that offends many activists on both sides of the wall separating church and state. Some fear that the Constitution will crumble if so much as a single biblical verse accompanies a bowl of soup, and some fear that government regulation will sully the purity of religious doctrine.

While issues of this sort are important, they will time be sorted out by clever minds. Meanwhile, we ought not divert our attention from the larger agenda. The American Civil Liberties Union to the contrary, Bush has no intention of establishing a theocratic regime. His point is a simpler one: that religious institutions must not be discriminated against simply because they are religious. The president is no pie-in-the-sky utopian when it comes to such matters; he has seen the results firsthand in Texas and has tapped into the civil society movement that for the past two decades has given much practical thought to what’s wrong with the welfare state and what is necessary to fix it.

At the heart of this movement is the proposition that government alone cannot guarantee the viability of democratic institutions. Civil society presupposes a series of interlocking private associations, anchored in the family and radiating from there to an infinite variety of religious and social organizations that teach civility, compassion, and a sense of public responsibility. Private associations—what Edmund Burke called “little platoons”—have always been the backbone of healthy democratic societies. Not only do they habituate citizens to friendship and community; they form a bulwark against the tyrannical pre-tensions of the overweening state.

For much of our nation’s history, these associations were the principal vehicle for the dispensation of social services to the poor. With the rise of the welfare state, however, these vital organizations and the habits they spawned among donors and donees alike were gradually displaced by a top-down bureaucratic system at once remote from and indifferent to the deepest needs of the human person.

Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation that government governs best when it governs least implies an equally useful corollary: The best government is that which is closest to the people. There is nothing inevitable about the march toward ever more centralized government. The social service state is here to stay, but it does not follow that bureaucrats in Washington must have the last word on the design and execution of government programs. Nor does it follow that the government has a monopoly on compassion. The new White House Office is only a beginning, but if it does its work well, it will inaugurate a vigorous national debate on the ends and structure of the welfare state.

In tapping University of Pennsylvania professor John Dilulio to head its operations, the president has made an inspired choice. Dilulio is brilliant, tough-minded, down-to-earth, and thoroughly dedicated to transforming compassionate conservatism from a slogan into effective policy. Like his boss, he is neither naive about the capacity of government to resist change nor utopian about what to expect from faith-based institutions. And he is not a mere academic scrivener who wishes to fatten his resume with a tour in Washington. DiIulio has devoted a large portion of his life to hands-on participation in the delivery of social services. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Above all, he understands that the efficacy of government is to be measured not by the size of its budget but by its capacity to instill hope and a love of liberty in its citizens.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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