A Life in the Public Interest

Irving Kristol not only helped change the country, he changed lives. He certainly changed mine.

When I was a young faculty member at Harvard, I learned that he, along with Daniel Bell, had just created The Public Interest. I wrote him to say how enthused I was to find a magazine that published serious but jargon-free essays in which scholars analyzed public policy. Irving called back to invite me to join him and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, for dinner when I was next in New York City.

I was overwhelmed. The founding editor of an important magazine was inviting an unknown young writer to have dinner with him. I went as soon as I could. It was a nice meal, and Irving asked me to "write something" for the journal. "Write what?" I replied. "I will send you a government report you should discuss," he suggested. He did, and I wrote about it for the magazine's second issue. My piece was, at best, pedestrian, but I was hooked.

Reading the magazine became the center of my nonteaching life. I learned what Pat Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Jacques Barzun, Martin Diamond, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, James Coleman, Peter Drucker and countless others thought about public policy. It was a new world: Thoughtful people with real knowledge were discussing public policy at a time, the mid-1960s, when the federal government was acting as if anything were possible.

Losing him is like losing your favorite uncle: a wise and cheerful man who knew so much about so many things and would always help you out.

These writers were discussants, not pundits. They wrote long essays (happily, free of footnotes) analyzing which policies might work and which would not. They did not utter slogans, they assumed there were intelligent readers out there, and for the most part did not embrace a party line. A magazine that later was said to be the founding document of the neoconservative movement published work by Robert Solow, James Tobin, Christopher Jencks, Charles Reich, Charles Lindblom and many other conspicuous nonconservatives.

It was the right moment. President Lyndon Johnson was trying to create a new political era by asking the government to do things that not even Franklin Roosevelt had endorsed, and to do it in a period of prosperity. The large majorities his party had in Congress as a result of Johnson's decisive defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 made it possible to create Medicare and Medicaid and to adopt major federal funding for local school systems. He created the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Johnson himself called what he was doing the creation of a "Great Society."

I was a small part of that world. I chaired a White House task force on crime for the president. It was a distinguished panel but after much effort we made very few useful recommendations. It slowly dawned on me that, important as the rising crime rate was, nobody knew how to make it a lot smaller. We assumed, of course, that the right policy was to eliminate the "root causes" of crime, but scholars disagreed about what many of those causes were and where they did agree they pointed to things, such as abusive families, about which a democratic government can do very little.

The view that we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition came, in time, to be called neoconservatism. Many of the writers, myself included, disliked the term because we did not think we were conservative, neo or paleo. (I voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the latter's presidential campaign.) It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics; that is, people who thought it was hard, though not impossible, to make useful and important changes in public policy.

Whatever the authors were called, their best essays reflected one general view: Let us use social science to analyze an existing policy to see if it works at a reasonable cost. This meant that these writings were backward looking in a world when liberals were relentlessly forward looking. If you look carefully at what has been done rather than announce boldly what ought to be done, you will be called, I suppose, a conservative. We were lucky, I imagine, not to be called reactionaries.

Irving Kristol smiled through all of this. He did not care what we were called and he gave to one of his published collections of essays the title, "Neoconservativism: the Autobiography of an Idea." He explained why that tendency differs from traditional conservatism: Neoconservatism is not an ideology, but a "persuasion." That is, it is a way of thinking about politics rather than a set of principles and rules. If neoconservatism does have any principle, it is this one: the law of unintended consequences. Launch a big project and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things you did not intend to create.

This is not an argument for doing nothing, but it is one, in my view, for doing things experimentally. Try your idea out in one place and see what happens before you inflict it on the whole country.

I recall when Nathan Glazer and I spoke at a conference on neoconservatism organized by The Partisan Review. Nat and I made all of these points about caution, experimentation and unintended consequences only to be told by one of the Review's editors that this was not enough: To be serious about politics, one had to have an organized ideology. Well, the Review certainly did.

In time I think The Public Interest began to speak more in one voice and the number of liberals who wrote for it declined. Every magazine acquires a character just as every human has a personality. That character was sharpened and reinforced by the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, which required of liberal skeptics that they become not merely critics of ill-advised policies but defenders of the nation to which those policies might apply.

Irving Kristol's talents were remarkable: He did for The Public Interest what he had earlier done for Commentary, the Reporter and Encounter--find good people and induce them to say important things even when it did not improve the revenues of the magazine. The Public Interest always relied on financial support from a few friends and rarely sold more than 12,000 copies. That didn't bother Irving at all: What counts is who reads it, not how many read it. And for 40 years a lot of important people did read it.

I was upset when the magazine ceased being published in the spring of 2005. With others I struggled to find a new home. There were some good possibilities for a new venture, but in time Irving said no, "Forty years is enough." And now for Irving, 89 years is enough--he died Friday of lung cancer. Losing him is like losing your favorite uncle: a wise and cheerful man who knew so much about so many things and would always help you out.

.James Q. Wilson is chairman of AEI's Council of Academic Advisers.

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