William Rusher Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Conservative Movement: Conversation with William A. Rusher, former publisher of the National Review; 4/25/90 by Harry Kreisler

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Traditional Conservatism and Social Responsibility

What about the social conditions that we're now having to confront? There are any number of problems, the problems of the homeless, problems of things like our capacity to provide day care. There's a whole agenda which obviously is not your agenda. What I'm curious about is, some parts of that agenda really do hearken back to a conservative tradition, in the sense of taking care of the whole, of the community, and so on. Is there any connection there between the two, that is, the needs that we're experiencing and the responsibilities that even the traditional conservatism would call for?

No question that we have a serious homeless [problem], which is probably the paradigmatic problem. Now it's a serious problem, and it's just as serious for conservatives as it is for liberals, and we have just as many ideas, or maybe more, about what to do about it. But let's first all understand, it's a little disingenuous of the liberals to say, "Well now, look at all the homeless that suddenly appeared during the Reagan administration all over the streets."

The homeless are a product of several things that have been happening over decades to the American society. We always had a marginal group of alcoholics out on the streets, in the Bowery in New York and so on, "bums," we called them, "hobos," what-not. But beyond that, when the drug culture came in, no question that this increased that problem enormously, as well as the crime problem. And then certain therapeutic drugs became available, and it became one of the great ambitions of, among others, the American Civil Liberties Union, to de-institutionalize the mentally ill. They thought they were doing them a favor somehow. Now we have all those people out on the street, talking to imaginary people on the sidewalk, and one thing and another. And all this is called Reagan's callous contribution to the problem of homeless, which it is not.

Now, what do you do about this? Well, you do not simply provide nice little ranch-style houses for all these people. You could put them all up in the Trump Tower and it would be a crack den in about a week, you know that. There are various things. One man who has spent a lot of time in private efforts to help on this told me that one of the problems is the disintegration of the family. It used to be that a great many of these people, alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally ill, would be taken care of, in one way or another, by their families. But there's no family to take care of them now, in that sense, so again that has happened.

The drug problem, let's just take that. The drug problem, I happen to think, is a problem of eliminating or reducing the demand. I don't see that the supply is anything but a function of the demand. They'll get through if the demand is here. But the demand, in turn ... well, I think we are having some effect. I don't think the Bennett program is altogether without effect if the statistics about the decline in the use of marijuana in high schools are true, and so we're getting, maybe, somewhere in that regard.

Does government have a responsibility here? You're saying it's only external to go after the source.

Government has a responsibility to do what government can do to make things better. That doesn't mean that throwing money at problems, or creating a "czar" for some problem, is automatically the best way to handle it. And I don't think that is the case in many of these situations. In the particular case of drugs, unless you go for decriminalization, which is Bill Buckley's solution but not mine, I think you have to say that one government function is certainly to attack, as best we can, the whole question of the demand. I'm interested to see that here in California, the state has launched a $27 million advertising campaign to bad-mouth tobacco. But what would happen if anybody tried to spend that amount of money on a campaign against drugs in California, do you suppose? I have a hunch that Willie Brown would not let that through the legislature, and he wouldn't have much trouble.

And why not?

Because this is the fashionable vice. Tobacco is the middle-class disease. But a little pot, a little crack, these are things that younger and different social categories have found out about and go for, and they are, for the moment, untouchable, I think.

What about the social responsibility, though, in traditional conservatism? Does that tradition find its outlet in the notion of volunteerism?

Yes, among other things.

That would be the primary place to look.

No, I think there is an important critique being made. All the books of Charles Murray, for example, are brilliant analyses of what's wrong with the liberal solution to the problem. But take Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which is a well-intentioned program, started by the liberals with a view to helping mostly, although not exclusively, black families. But the way it's set up, the only people who can benefit under it are women without husbands, basically. So that, if there is a man in the picture, the first thing he's got to do is get out of sight or leave his home in order to qualify his woman for the money. In other words, this became the great subsidy of the destruction of the black two-parent family in America. The result is we've got 61 percent single-parent families in black America. Now this is a tragedy. If the conservatives do nothing except try to put a stop to that, they are making a big step in the right direction. Jack Kemp has said, "If you subsidize something, you get more of it, if you tax it, you get less of it."

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