|The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
foster greater economic choice and
Tom Wolfe on how the Manhattan Institute changed New York City and America
IN the fall of 1982 an obscure, 39-year-old, out-of-work political scientist named Charles Murray received a $30,000 grant from a mouthful calling itself the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The "institute," barely four years old - this month marks its 25th anniversary - consisted of half a dozen souls crammed into an office dingier than a movie private eye's, seven flights up in a sorry, use-the-stairs, the-elevator's-broken building on West 40th Street. For his $30,000, Murray was supposed to do a book on the done-to-death topic of welfare policy.
On the face of it, the whole project looked dim and dimmer, not to mention dull and duller. But William Hammett, head man in the little hutch on West 40th, had read an article by Murray in a policy-wonk journal and heard him speak at a forum on "the underclass" and knew that certain information Murray had uncovered was dynamite.
Not only that, it was exactly the sort of dynamite Hammett's operation was in business to rattle windows with. The Manhattan Institute was the brainchild of an aristocratic one-time Battle of Britain fighter pilot, Antony Fisher, who had gone on to become an eight-digit millionaire the truly old-fashioned way, namely, raising chickens, and was alarmed by the rapid advance of socialism in post-World War II England.
In 1978, after setting up a British think tank to promote the idea of free-market economics and Small Government, he created the Manhattan Institute as the American counterpart. An angel among angels, Fisher withdrew and left things in the hands of a tall, "movie-star handsome," young (34) libertarian: William Hammett, soon to be Charles Murray's discoverer.
MURRAY had done the dog's work of combing through reams of statistical studies of welfare programs, many of them undertaken after Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty in 1965. The typical study, Murray noticed, opened with a hazy but optimistic summary - followed by miles of statistics that contradicted it. The statistics were so full of "weighted" numbers and esoteric graphs, only a precious few could interpret them. Among the few was Murray, who had been Chief Scientist for the American Institutes for Research.
He concluded that not only had the War on Poverty failed to help the poor, it had driven them deeper into poverty. Welfare, Great Society-style, discouraged marriage and, in fact, encouraged families to break up since welfare payments to a single mother with no man in the house often equaled what a man could make by getting a job and working at some menial task 40 hours a week.
WORST of all, said Murray, was a government-fostered change in social rankings. Historically, in the slums, the man who worked at any job at all ranked far above the man who spent all day "talking s--t" (as the phrase went) down on the corner, even if their worldly possessions were equal. But in the War on Poverty, welfare officials were busy preaching to the poor that being unemployed and on the dole was not their fault. They were all victims of "the system," of society's "structural barriers." Welfare payments were not charity but "entitlements," money they were entitled to but had been deprived of by "the system." Therefore, the man who dragged himself off to work everyday was by no means morally superior to the man down at the corner enjoying a few 40-ouncers with his friends. He was merely more of a chump.
Murray's prescription was simple: Get rid of the entire welfare system. The poor would do better left to their own normal instincts.
HAMMETT had his own ideas about how to bring a think tank book into the world. It had to be based on original scholarly research focused on policy in a practical, nonpartisan way. He had no interest in political attacks or screeds of any sort. But he didn't want any stiff-necked prose, either. The authors, called senior fellows, had to write well enough to attract commercial publishers. With Murray, that was no problem. He wrote his book in nine months and called it "Losing Ground." Basic Books published it in 1984.
Hammett invited journalists and intellectuals with influence in the field of public policy, hundreds of them at a time, for lunch at the Harvard Club. The authors themselves got up and did the show and tell. He held forums where they had a chance to say it all again. In 1989, Hammett would create a smartly designed quarterly, City Journal, where they said it once more for good measure. Murray would later call Hammett "an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word," an entrepreneur of ideas.
Brought out Hammett-style, "Losing Ground" ignited precisely the explosion the maestro hoped for. Attacks from the Left, which in 1984 rated the capital L, were furious. The New York Review of Books, the Left's Miss Manners for correct intellectuals, excoriated the book and ran a caricature of Murray wearing a Robber Baron's silk topper. The New Republic called "Losing Ground" nothing but a piece of "slick marketing".
BUT when the smoke cleared, "Losing Ground" was still standing. It had proved impossible to pigeon-hole it in any ideological fashion. Murray, who had served in the Peace Corps in Thailand for six years, had a genuine sympathy for the poor. He wasn't talking about "welfare queens" but poor people smothered by government policy. He had no political agenda. His research proved incontestable. And his prescription was simple: for humanitarian reasons it was time to scrap welfare as it currently existed.
"Losing Ground" proved to be one of those extraordinary books that re-direct public policy all by themselves, like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" or Michael Harrington's "The Other America," the book that had triggered the War on Poverty in the first place. By 1992, Bill Clinton was calling for "an end to welfare as we know it" and saying about Murray: "He did the country a service."
"Losing Ground" was the Manhattan Institute's first triumph. But the triumph of all triumphs was the now-famous "Broken Windows" strategy for reducing crime in big cities by first cracking down on the quality-of-life misdemeanors that create an atmosphere of lawlessness.
CRIMINOLOGIST George Kelling and the famous political scientist James Q. Wilson introduced the concept in an article in the March 1982 Atlantic Monthly. It went relatively unnoticed until Hammett's second-in-command, Lawrence Mone, came across it while doing some research on urban crime in 1989. He invited Kelling to become a contributing editor of the soon-to-be launched City Journal.
The quarterly's Summer 1992 issue ran an interview by Kelling with New York's young Transit Police Chief William J. Bratton about putting Broken Windows to the test in New York's subways. That followed a forum called "Rethinking New York," starring Kelling.
At that moment the conventional wisdom among those second-hand idea salesmen, the intellectuals, was that "America's large cities are ungovernable." Hammett and Mone, who would succeed Hammett as the Institute's president in 1995, used the forum to kick off their campaign to prove otherwise. Rudy Giuliani came early, stayed late and took notes. He wanted to run for mayor in 1993.
As soon as he was elected, he appointed Bratton as Police Commissioner. The breathtaking decline in the crime rate that followed has become legend.
THERE were still Old Guard intellectuals who argued that Hammett, Mone and crew were "conservatives," part of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," as Hillary Clinton would call it later. But there was no arguing - not among citizens, not among politicians, not even among the Old Guard - about the miracle Broken Windows had wrought in the supposedly most vicious and ungovernable metropolis of all. Hammett's T-tank was now fireproof, insulated from the heat and static of ideological squabbles.
In 1993 a 35-year-old senior fellow named Elizabeth McCaughey, as obscure as Murray had been 11 years earlier, wrote an article for The New Republic on what she discovered in a close reading of the 1,431-page document containing the Clinton Health Care Plan: Namely, that it would put every citizen in a single government-operated HMO. That one article shot down the entire blimp, and Betsy McCaughey became a 35-year-old Cinderella. One of the richest men in America chose her as his wife, and George Pataki made her lieutenant governor of New York.
Since then Manhattan Institute writers have been dynamiting the conventional wisdom of "the intellectuals" with regularity. City Journal editor Myron Magnet's "The Dream and the Nightmare" became the text for George Bush's doctrine of "compassionate conservatism." Abigail Thernstrom's "America in Black and White" and Linda Chavez's "Out of the Barrio" blew up, with heavy documentation, the notion that "the system" - or anything else - had prevented economic, social and political progress by minorities. Peter Huber coined the term "junk science" and touched off the judicial system's, and juries', growing skepticism of that busy breed, the "expert witness."
THERE have been Old Guard as well as adulatory explanations of the Manhattan Institute's success. Either way, the Institute's emphasis on solid documentation and clear, energetic, nonpartisan prose - saleable to the second-hand dealers in ideas and their customers - have worked.
The matter is perhaps summed up by a comment attributed to Henry Kissinger after a long, Byzantine discussion of why a certain controversial position of his had in the end prevailed: "Also, it helped that we were right."
Tom Wolfe is the author of "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "A Man in Full" and, most recently, "Hooking Up."
©2003 New York Post
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