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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.
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
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
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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