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Beltway Books: Co-op or co-opt?

Books | How government corrupts officials, cities, and charities

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

The debate in Washington over campaign reform deflects attention from the real problem: pervasive careerism that eventually turns even the most idealistic reformer into the worst self-serving hack. Most proposals for campaign "reform" would actually strengthen incumbents, as would the remedies advanced by Anthony King in Running Scared.

Mr. King rightly criticizes congressmen for spending more time campaigning than governing, but he wants to insulate them from popular control by lengthening terms, cutting primary challenges, and strengthening parties. Unfortunately, the main problem with Washington today is that politicians are too isolated; you were more likely to lose a seat on the old Soviet Communist Party Central Committee than in a House election. However, Running Scared is worth a read, since it provokes even when it is wrong.

As a city Washington, D.C., continues

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to spiral downward. Tracking the dizzying decline of the nation's capital along with Los Angeles and New York is Fred Siegel's The Future Once Happened Here. It's a great book, both in describing recent changes in urban life and in diagnosing the causes of blight.

Mr. Siegel points to big government liberalism as the most important factor. Of Washington, D.C., he writes: "In the mid-1960s the District of Columbia became the proving grounds for Great Society social experiments.... In

the District the absence of a local government made the poverty programs ... a government in waiting."

Into the breach created by family and community collapse has stepped the so-called independent sector, including a host of religious charities. But as Joe Loconte describes in Seducing the Samaritan, big government liberalism doesn't always stop at the charities' doors. Instead, through public funding government is reshaping the mission and activities of purportedly private organizations. The threat against faith-based ministries is especially grave. In Mr. Loconte's view, real civic renewal requires a willingness of groups to break their "dependence on government" and thereby loosen the requirement "to submit to its oversight." Religious organizations that now spend much of their time lobbying for federal funds especially need to read his book.

There are problems abroad as well. Rumors of war periodically roil the Korean peninsula, and no one really understands North Korea, Asia's last Stalinist paradise. Although the United States, South Korea, and the North are talking, genuine peace still looks far away. William Stueck's readable The Korean War provides the important historical context to help readers better comprehend the region's current controversies.

Trade is another issue that often generates more confusion than light. Edward Hudgins's Freedom to Trade provides a thoughtful rebuttal to arguments for building an economic wall around America. Unlike many policy wonks in Washington, Mr. Hudgins and the other contributors are not afraid to address moral arguments.

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