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These remarks were prepared by Irving Kristol for a conference held November 30-December 1 by Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, “The Public Interest and the Making of American Public Policy: 1965-2005.”
Senior Fellow Irving Kristol
I was, of course, immensely pleased to receive your invitation to a conference on The Public Interest. I am unable to attend, alas–though on second thought, perhaps it’s just as well; that magazine no longer belongs to those who founded it, edited it, and wrote for it over its 40 years’ existence. It belongs to a subsequent generation who will make of it what they will. But the invitation provoked me to think anew about the magazine and my own relation to it. These thoughts are not memories so much as a reconstruction of my state of mind in the 1950s and 1960s, an account that, I must admit, is perhaps teleological as well as chronological.
I came to The Public Interest from a rather different background from my fellow editors, and with a vision that did not always fit comfortably with theirs. Fortunately, because The Public Interest, for good reasons, focused exclusively on domestic policy, this was only intermittently a source of mild irritation.
In the 1950s we were living in London, where I was co-editing Encounter magazine. There, by the way, is another journal that deserves a conference of its own, though in London. But this won’t happen because it would require the Brits to face up to the fact that, half a century ago, the CIA put out a better British magazine than the Brits have ever done since.
Anyway, I was happy to be in London–it was easy to be happy in London in those days–but I was also increasingly restless. Britain, and by extension Europe, had its charms, but it was clear that the United States, in all its gracelessness, was where the future of the West would be determined. Our NATO allies were turning in on themselves. This was accompanied by an increasing anti-Americanism, a recognition of the fact that we were pushing them into the world while their strong inclination was to stay at home and nurse the wounds that two world wars had inflicted. And as their national politics focused on one universal welfare program after another, the trivialization of European politics proceeded apace, regardless of which political party was in office. When it came to budgeting priorities, they were all social democrats now. World War I had ended with the famous promise of returning soldiers to “a world fit for heroes.” It is only a slight exaggeration to say that World War II ended with a commitment to “a world fit for victims.”
I knew there was an important lesson for the United States in this development. There was clearly a growing American opinion that believed a European-type welfare state was the correct and inevitable model for the United States. Against this, there was a party on the right with a radical individualist ethos that opposed the very idea of a welfare state. As a child of the Great Depression, I found this attitude preposterous. Could there not be another option–a welfare state that could be reconciled with a world role for the United States? It was with this question in mind that, in 1958, I returned home.
In the 1960s, while pursuing a career in book publishing, I began to write an occasional brief column for the New Leader, a weekly magazine with a minuscule circulation to which I had contributed over the years. There was quite enough being written about Vietnam, so most of my columns concerned Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and were coolly critical of its strong ideological coloration, so reminiscent of European social democracy. Not myself an economist or sociologist, I was in no position to argue my views in detail. I very much needed the company of like-minded scholars.
In 1965, through a series of circumstances that need not be recounted here, the stars became properly aligned so that my wish could become a reality. Dan Bell and I were able to start a new magazine devoted exclusively to domestic social and economic policy. We brazenly called it The Public Interest, and in our opening statement declared it to be nonideological. We ourselves were rather unclear as to what we meant by that, but it soon became clear enough through the efforts of our contributors. It meant the proper, rigorous use of social-science methodology. In the feverish years of the 1960s, when what so often passed for social science was imbued with a sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes eschatological, but always political impulse, this very modest approach was refreshing. The result was a magazine with a distinctive tone that defined its identity for the next 40 years. To critics who thought this tone was distinctly conservative, I am tempted to quote Margaret Thatcher: “The facts of life are conservative.”
That our magazine was able to produce and publicize first-rate scholarly work reveals that the American academic community, ideological as it had become, nevertheless to some degree continued to respect old-fashioned academic standards. Will it last? That’s not for me to say. What I can say is that my years at The Public Interest permitted me to observe how the idea of “national greatness” can be consistent with a welfare state that does not frustrate the spirit of enterprise and that does not instill risk-aversiveness as a universal virtue.
We have seen in the case of Europe how a social democratic welfare state discourages population growth as well as economic growth, and suppresses the virtues traditionally associated with “manliness” in foreign policy. Europe is now paying a terrible price, to the point where it is in the process of losing its historic identity, because of the sovereignty it has accorded the social democratic ethos over both domestic and foreign policy. That the two are inseparably intertwined has never been more convincingly demonstrated.
True, the American version of “national greatness” has recently run into some local difficulties out there in the Middle East, and I suppose that the idea itself will be muted for some time ahead. But I note that the American population has just reached 300 million, with 400 million pretty firmly projected for 2040. So my grandchildren will be living in a country with the world’s third largest population, the strongest economy, and the most powerful military establishment. Our critics may demand ever-greater humility from our ever-greater power; that would be a historic first were it ever to happen. So, for better or worse, “national greatness” is being thrust upon us.
I realize that my Public Interest, linking its work in economic and social policy to our national destiny as a world power, is a special interpretation that others will find questionable. But I trust that expanding the role of The Public Interest as I have done will surely not diminish its historic significance.
Irving Kristol is a senior fellow at AEI.
Irving Kristol reflects on the historic significance ofThe Public Interest, a social and economic policy magazine he started in 1965.
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