Sadly, public policy failures are often grounded in the best of intcntions. Several articles in this issue of the City journal treat notable instances of this phenomenon, all sharing prominent common features: an exaggerated faith in govemment’s ability to solve deep-seated social problems, higher levels of government setting policies that lower levels must carry out, and policymakers’ failure to appreciate the long-term costs of their decisions.
Heather Mac Donald, in "Downward Mobility," chronicles the unhappy consequences of the City University of New York’s 24-year-old decision to open admissions to all city high school graduates while devoting vast sums to "remediate" students’ deficiencies. This revolutionary policy, she contends, has debilitated and demoralized New York’s oncc-proud public higher education system while producing precious few college graduates among its pool of underprepared candidates. In "Putting Children First," Myron Magnet argues that our present welfare system, with its eligibility rules strongly skewed in favor of single mothers, harms the very children it was designed to help. He suggests ideas for reform that might rescue youngsters from poverty and bad child-rearing even as they would discourage teen parenthood.
Ross Sandler and David Schocnbrod, in "Government by Decree," describe one of the most open-ended ways in which bad results flow from good intentions—when judges impose their own interpretation of the public welfareon New York City—and suggest what might be done to restrain them. In "The Afrocentric Hustle," Stanley Crouch describes the historical and conceptual fallacies of Aftoccntrism, whose advocates present it as a way of promoting tolerance and righting historical wrongs. Crouch warns of the harm the ideology may do to civil discourse as well as civil rights.
A boundless faith in the efficacy of government has led state and local agencies in New York to assume the private sector’s traditional role in economic investments as William Stern lays out in "State Capitalism, New York Style." He describes how various agencies have subsidized favored industries, promoted real estate deals, and even undertaken vast development projects, while largely ignoring New York’s underlying economic troubles. And Charlotte Allen’s article on the trials and tribulations of small landlords demonstrates the pernicious effects of government intrusion on the private housing market.
This issue also contains some good news about the positive effects when government acts smart and keeps its objectives and activities scaled to its capacities. George Kelling and William Bratton, in "Taking Back the Streets," express their optimism about community policing in New York, confident that the NYPD can overcome the key obstacles to its effectiveness. In "Setting Schools Free," Kathleen Sylvester gives us an overview of one of the more hopeful education experiments, the charter school movement. In another school reform story, Steve Weeks describes the stunning success against tough odds of Joe and Carol Reich’s Beginning with Children School in Brooklyn. And in our "At Issue," Mayor John Norquist tells us how he was able to turn the government of Milwaukee around, enhancing his municipal agencies’ productivity and responsiveness even as he cut their budgets.
All these articles illuminate the limits of government intervention in the functioning of society, especially in the intense and complicated cauldrons of our urban centers. While the economic organization and social tranquillity of civic life rest heavily on an infrastructure of government-funded and -regulated facilities and programs, the public sector’s success depends on its reach not exceeding its grasp, and on its achieving a healthy symbiosis with the activities of the private sector.