September 21, 2009

THE NEW REACTION:

A Life in the Public Interest: 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. (James Q. Wilson, 9/21/09, WSJ)

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

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2009 6:23 AM
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