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The Practical Liberal

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Much has been made of Irving Kristol’s maestroship of an intellectual movement that enlarged and transformed American conservatism. Interestingly, his exertions had no comparable or even discernable influence on American liberalism.

I first encountered Irving Kristol at the outset of my political coming-of-age as a college student in the 1960s. My youthful liberalism was bumping into what I was learning in my courses and, even more, what I was reading in the newspapers and observing around me. I confessed my confusions to one of my professors and asked for his help in finding my way to a serious political education. He handed me the first issue of The Public Interest (Fall 1965) and told me to get myself next to its cofounder, Irving Kristol. To my amazement, that turned out to be a very easy thing to do.

Only much later did I realize that I had entered an intellectual catchment area that was channeling hundreds of young people on a new course, a course that would come to be known as neoconservatism. We were liberals, devoted to social improvement and political reform and, on the central domestic issue of the day, emphatically pro-civil rights (we could never have thought of ourselves as conservatives so soon after Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964). But we were deeply unsettled by the angry radicalism and increasing violence of the New Left, by the mounting evidence of the failures and perversities of the Great Society programs, and by the combination of personal sacrifice and political aimlessness that was the Vietnam War.

Irving had been on a similar journey through earlier decades, and in his mid-40s was still journeying. He was a powerful essayist and astoundingly well-read, but he wore his learning in a manner that was, to the young intellectual, sheer magic—at once acerbic and lighthearted, aphoristic and nuanced, subversive and courtly, oppositional and patriotic. And hilariously witty. On top of all that, he actually took us seriously—arguing with us as equals, attending carefully to the progress of our thinking and work, and making strategic interventions as necessary. Noticing my awakening interest in economics, he instructed me to change law schools, from Harvard to Chicago, only a few days before classes were to begin. I do not know of a man who changed more lives through personal example and suggestion.

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Much has been made of Irving Kristol’s maestroship—as writer, editor, mentor, and institution-builder—of an intellectual movement that enlarged and transformed American conservatism and the Republican Party. Celebrating those accomplishments is appropriate and instructive. What is passed over but almost as interesting, especially at the current political moment, is that his exertions had no comparable or even discernable influence on American liberalism and the Democratic Party—his original intellectual and political homes.

Only much later did I realize that I had entered an intellectual catchment area that was channeling hundreds of young people on a new course, a course that would come to be known as neoconservatism.

Irving was a genuine liberal in the sense of being a reformer and a thorough democrat. He was critical of whatever establishment happened to be under scrutiny, comfortable with active government, and insistent on the primacy of politics—all of this antithetical to pre-1980s conservatism. But from the start his liberalism was practical and pragmatic. The socialism of his Depression-era youth was not a matter of theory, doctrine, or book-learning—he once said that it arose from nothing more than observing empty factories surrounded by streets filled with unemployed men. He thought that abstract ideas were a dangerous basis for political action and, partly for this reason, was as wary of intellectual and political elites as of social and economic elites. In one of his first essays, published in 1942 when he was 22, he wrote that “utopian political doctrines are to be deplored, and not only because of their unattainability; in practice they will have worse effects than those more conservative and cautious.” He went on to define democracy as “government by due process rather than by the unchecked rule of self-titled delegates of History or the Workers”—summed up as “the right of organized opposition and subversion.”

The Public Interest, Irving’s most important achievement, was accordingly a journal of practical liberalism. Its very title announced its liberalism. In the editors’ manifesto, Irving (and Daniel Bell) threw themselves athwart the notion that society is no more than an agglomeration of private individuals and groups pursuing their private interests. The effort to identify the public interest of the social whole was surely untheoretical—it wasn’t even an academic discipline!—but was nonetheless vital. Indeed “a democratic society, with its particular encouragement to individual ambition, private appetite, and personal concerns has a greater need than any other to keep the idea of the public interest before it.”

The practical element was that the public interest would consist in the political arrangements free citizens would choose if they had the time and inclination to inform themselves about questions of policy. Because of the growth of interest-group government, one could no longer delegate such matters to political representatives, parties, and associations: every policy had zealous proponents and opponents who stood their ground regardless of the record, so that the public square was “chock full of Great Debates that never happened.” The Public Interest would supply the deficiency, devoting itself to the expansion of factual, usable knowledge about government programs and social questions. It would eschew “ideological essays” of any persuasion, which “insistently propose prefabricated interpretations of existing social realities that bitterly resist all sensible revision.”

Many old-line socialists were social conservatives before the term existed: they regarded socialism as a means of protecting the family and community against the onslaughts of individualist capitalism.

The studies and essays that appeared in The Public Interest in the years to come (stretching eventually to 40 years) abundantly vindicated that opening manifesto. But over time they coalesced into a school of thought. First, government programs aimed at ameliorating discrete problems—from welfare to job training and education, from community action to industrial regulation, from crime control to transportation—typically had disappointing results and frequently had perverse results, making matters worse rather than better. Second, the social and economic problems the government was taking on were much more complex, subtle, and ingrained than programmatic problem-solvers had assumed. Taken together, these findings and arguments suggested serious practical limits to the possibilities of effective government action—at least through the strategies the government was pursuing, such as the categorical grant and command-and-control regulation.

What I have called a school of thought eventually came to be regarded, by many foes and a few friends, as a determined ideology of the sort the journal’s founders had initially renounced. But Irving himself insisted that it was nothing more than a “persuasion,” and it is important to recognize that he was sincere and correct. Most (not all) of the academics and activists in Irving’s circle were practical liberals like himself, concerned with reforming rather than abolishing government interventions, especially those addressed to poverty and race discrimination. Most were Democrats through 1972, when George McGovern received the party’s presidential nomination; many hung in through the end of the Jimmy Carter administration; and some remain avowed Democrats today. Moreover, the patterns of influence between Irving and his young intellectual acolytes went in both directions. I can attest that we acolytes were not seeking to vindicate “prefabricated interpretations” but simply to figure out what worked and what did not. In my own engagements in antipoverty, community action, and environmental causes, and work in government agencies devoted to those causes, I arrived eager for action and was staggered by what I discovered. The quest for power and control typically dominated the quest for understanding and results—indeed the very nobility of the causes provided broad license for the play of naked ambition. Failures led to a hardening of prior positions rather than a rethinking of them. Such experiences moved many of us to conservative or libertarian positions, but thanks in large part to Irving we remained skeptical of abstract creeds and devoted to taking on the world as we found it. The two most accomplished Public Interest intellectuals, James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray, supplied cornucopias of practical reform proposals, decade after decade and down to the present time, that were detailed, results-oriented, ideologically unclassifiable, and, when adopted (Murray’s welfare reforms and Wilson’s “fixing broken windows” and other crime-control measures), highly successful.

Irving was criticized at some point for wanting to convert both political parties to his vision. He replied that, come to think of it, that would be an excellent idea.

Irving and many of his compatriots came to affiliate with the conservative movement and the Republican Party, and those affiliations no doubt affected the direction of their thinking. But, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, they did not leave the Democrats until the Democrats left them. Consider Irving’s three central preoccupations in the fullness of his neoconservative career from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. In economics, that policy should aim for economic growth—a rising tide rather than redistribution—and that lower taxes were the key to both economic growth and political success. In foreign policy, that American power and ideals, exercised robustly and without apology, were essential to a healthy international order. In culture, that family, community, and religion are essential to regulating human appetites and social behavior and must be accommodated by any sensible approach to politics and policy. Of these, the first two commanded substantial allegiance even among liberal Democrats until the 1970s, and were of course central policies of John F. Kennedy. The third had an even older pedigree on the left. Many old-line socialists were social conservatives before the term existed: they regarded socialism as a means of protecting the family and community against the onslaughts of individualist capitalism. Irving’s ancillary concerns, such as the dysfunctions of the large bureaucratic corporation (including exorbitant executive compensation!), fit much more comfortably with the Democratic than the Republican worldview.

These propositions would certainly not have prevailed without a fight within the Democratic Party. But they didn’t prevail (where they did prevail) without a fight within the Republican Party, either. The GOP had strong tax-increase, multinationalist, and social-liberal wings into the 1970s (the social-liberal wing included Barry Goldwater and still exists today). But perhaps it was inevitable that Irving’s practical liberalism would be the road not taken for the Democrats before finding its way to the Republicans. The modern American liberal seems to have an unshakable belief in the efficacy of political action and the progressive triumph of “rational” secularism over inherited (he would say vestigial) social restraints—that is what “progressivism” has come to mean. On these points, Irving and The Public Interest were opposed from the beginning, and their opposition hardened in response to the social upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s and subsequent cultural developments. When Irving said that a neoconservative was “a liberal who had been mugged by reality,” he was assuming that liberalism was a practical endeavor, capable of learning and accommodation. When he later said that “what is wrong with liberalism is liberalism,” he meant that liberalism had proven impervious to reality, setting itself at war with the society it had once sought merely to reform. Opposition to this form of contemporary liberalism is the glue that holds contemporary conservatism together and is the source of its political prospects.

In any event, neither side of our current partisan divide would have much interest in counterfactual history. The Democratic Party, now thoroughly leftist in outlook and operation, is politically triumphant and sees itself on the cusp of achieving historic extensions of government; to the idea that it might have taken a different path, it would say: “Thank goodness we didn’t!” The Republican Party had a long run and many successes with neoconservative ideas beginning in 1980; to the idea that it might trade some of them for a more moderate Democratic Party—and a less aggressive liberalism to campaign against—it would say: “No way!”

Irving was, from start to finish, a proponent of vigorous government within its proper sphere. He never passed up a chance to enter a dissent, serious or wisecracking, against libertarian-minded companions such as myself.

Yet it is instructive to imagine what our politics would look like with two moderate parties committed, in real conviction and strategy, to economic growth, global leadership, measurable improvement in social well-being, redress rather than exacerbation of grievances, and a degree of tentativeness in place of current certitudes. There is nothing in American political culture to suggest that these could not be consensus issues—indeed both parties already pay lip service to all but the last of them. And there would still be plenty to argue and campaign over. One party would be more cautious and oriented to business interests and the values of tradition, competition, and liberty; the other would be more activist and oriented to labor interests and the values of reform, community, and equality. They would have different constituencies and emphases and would stand or fall on the results of their policies for observable social and economic performance. Who, other than those with immediate partisan interests, would doubt that this would be a felicitous state of affairs, and much preferable to the one we have?

Irving was criticized at some point for wanting to convert both political parties to his vision. He replied that, come to think of it, that would be an excellent idea. Many of his intellectual heirs, myself included, believe that the ambitions of the current administration and Congress for aggressive expansion of taxing, spending, regulation, and redistribution are about to be sundered on the shoals of popular resistance and public indebtedness. If we are right, and the upshot is a more practical, democratic liberalism, and in turn a more practical, competitive conservatism, that would be the ultimate vindication of Irving Kristol’s career. If we are wrong, American politics and government are headed for uncharted waters—time for another Irving Kristol to found another journal to help us find our way.

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Irving was, from start to finish, a proponent of vigorous government within its proper sphere. He never passed up a chance to enter a dissent, serious or wisecracking, against libertarian-minded companions such as myself. So I note with some satisfaction that, apart from his war-time service in the U.S. Army, he spent his entire life in the private sector. Indeed his Army experience caused him to take “a solemn oath that I would never, never again work as a functionary in a large organization, and especially not for the U.S. government.” Of advice to public officials and politicians he was profuse, but it would never have occurred to him to compile a résumé, submit to a background check, testify before a congressional committee, or engage in the euphemism and compromise of active politics and policy making. As far as I know, his only ventures into the halls of government were for a passing stint on a humanities advisory council and occasional visits with presidents and legislators, culminating in his appearance at the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. His revealed preference was for private endeavor and entrepreneurship—founding journals and foundations, writing and editing manuscripts, raising and doling out money, and setting himself up as a job-training-and-placement service for policy activists and intellectuals. And for the satisfactions of unpolitical private life—teaching, learning, socializing, and always and everywhere reading (about everything under the sun) and arguing (preferably over a good meal and wine).

Among Irving’s greatest satisfactions was cigarette smoking, which he did with relish and without apology. Approaching 80, he developed lung cancer and had surgery to remove part of one lung. It was a success, and he responded with a panache that was characteristic but startling under the circumstances. “It was a great procedure!” he exclaimed with a broad, mischievous smile. And it was great—modern medicine gave him an extension of nine years, during which he argued cheerfully with friends, accompanied his wife through the writing of two new books and the preparation of two essay collections, and watched with quiet pride as his two children and five grandchildren continued to grow, prosper, and move the world in their own distinctive ways.

Christopher DeMuth is the D.C. Searle Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was president of AEI from December 1986 through December 2008.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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