In their dispute over an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, President Bush and Congress agree with Whitney Houston. They believe, that is, that children are our future.
The quibbling isn't over the notion that kids are entitled to a special program of their own but about whether the legislation Bush vetoed Wednesday needlessly covers middle-class children with access to private insurance. For all their disagreements, both Bush and Congress profess a special solicitude for what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne aptly calls "the most beloved group in society."
This nonsexual pedophilia is a recurring theme in federal legislation, as it is in the culture. It is based not just on the fact that children are vulnerable -- a major advocacy group is called the Children's Defense Fund -- but also that they are unspoiled and therefore deserving of government assistance in the way their corrupted elders are not.
It's no accident that Bush didn't propose a program called "No Adult Left Behind." In a market economy, an adult who is left behind has only his own sloth to blame. Children, by contrast, are blameless not only for their poverty but also for their antisocial acts. How else to explain the perverse practice of trying murderous teenagers as adults? Homicide is considered an "adult" offense (wait a minute: Killing another human being is a sign of maturity?). It follows that a child who commits murder cannot be a child.
Thanks to Freud and "Lord of the Flies," the notion of children as innocent in either the sexual or the moral sense has come under question. But in Washington, the cult of childhood innocence is alive and well, uniting both free-market types like Bush and liberals such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi's agenda for the Democratic Congress included not only a dramatic expansion in access to healthcare for children and the expansion of Head Start but also the convening of a "children's summit" (!) to ensure that "the best science guides policy on child care, children's health and early learning."
The cult of the child is evident not just in legislation and criminal law but in public discourse about phenomena ranging from childhood obesity to Internet obscenity to pedophile priests. "Protect the children" is the rallying cry for liberals and conservatives alike, even if the definition of "child" is elastic. (The c-word is used to describe both toddlers and the teenage congressional pages who were on the receiving end of Rep. Mark Foley's creepy instant messages.)
What makes the SCHIP discussion so interesting is that it marries two powerful themes: childhood innocence and the notion of the "deserving poor." Academics long have argued that the public is more willing to support redistributionist public policies if they are perceived as compensating for social upheavals and "acts of God" rather than for the beneficiaries' personal failings. An understanding of this attitude animated Bill Clinton's championing of programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, that rewarded hard-working Americans who "played by the rules" but whose labor wasn't valued very highly by the market.
Children are too young even to be bound by "the rules"; lazy Uncle Joe who never made anything of himself is another story. Even liberals who would insure middle-aged ne'er-do-wells are careful not to portray them as deserving. Rather, the argument would be that insuring Uncle Joe is cheaper than absorbing his unpaid emergency-room bills.
The problem with the neat distinction between children and adults in this context was best summed up by Ogden Nash:
The trouble with a kitten is that When it grows up, it's always a cat.The trouble with children is that they grow up to be adults -- and pretty quickly, as Tevye observed in "Fiddler On the Roof." Besides, studies on the role of heredity in personality suggest that the character traits by which adults are excluded from the ranks of the "deserving" may manifest themselves already in childhood. The child may truly be the father of the man -- and so why shouldn't he be the object of our compassion, conservative or otherwise, even after he starts to shave? Wouldn't that be the greatest love of all?