[Paleopsych] NYT: Brooks: (The Public Interest) 40 Years of Character
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Sun Apr 17 15:53:15 UTC 2005
40 Years of Character
Opinion column by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5.3.5
[This was the original neocon publication. I've read many articles over
the years, but not so much during the last twenty.]
The Public Interest will cease publication next month. This may not
seem very important, since the magazine has never had more than 10,000
subscribers. But over the past 40 years, The Public Interest has had
more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the
country - by far. It didn't discover as much truth as Moses did during
his four decades of wandering, but it did pretty well.
Like many great magazines, it ended up serving a cause other than the
one for which it was created. In 1965, when Irving Kristol, Nathan
Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell talked about starting
a magazine, Moynihan suggested that they call it Consensus. Their
central assumption was that the ideological clashes that had marked
politics in, say, the 1930's were over. The chief task now was to
design programs pragmatically.
They had all voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. They were confident
that government could end poverty. In the first issue, Moynihan
celebrated the triumph of macroeconomic modeling: "Men are learning
how to make an industrial economy work." James Q. Wilson recommended a
negative income tax for the working poor, figuring the way to end
poverty was to get money to the needy. Kristol and others believed
that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, blacks would be
integrated into society like the immigrant groups the writers had
But the war on poverty did not go smoothly. All the indicators of
social breakdown rose: divorce, out-of-wedlock births, violence,
crime, illegal drug use, suicide. In 1968, Moynihan published an essay
called "The Crises in Welfare," lamenting the explosive growth of the
welfare rolls and the problem of dependency.
So the contributors to The Public Interest tried to figure out what
was going wrong. An early piece of evidence was an essay written by
James Coleman on education reform. Coleman found that the objective
inputs into schools - pupil-teacher ratios, the money spent per pupil,
the condition of the buildings - had little effect on student
achievement. Instead, what mattered was family background and peer
groups. To the extent that schools could change things, it was the
ethos of the school that was crucial: Are expectations high? Is there
a nurturing - and disciplined - culture?
It occurred to several of the editors that they had accepted a
simplistic view of human nature. They had thought of humans as
economically motivated rational actors, who would respond in
relatively straightforward ways to incentives. In fact, what really
matters, they decided, is culture, ethos, character and morality.
By the 1970's, The Public Interest was publishing as many essays on
these things as on quantitative social science. As Wilson wrote in
1985, "At root, in almost every area of public concern, we are seeking
to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren,
applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and
The contributors to The Public Interest could write intelligently
about such broad moral subjects because not only were they public
policy experts, but they were also careful readers of Jane Austen,
Lionel Trilling, Tocqueville, Nietzsche and so on. This was before
intellectuals were divided between academic professionals and
think-tank policy wonks.
It was about this time people started calling The Public Interest a
neoconservative magazine. I'm not sure that word still has meaning,
but if there was one core insight, it was this: Human beings, or
governments, are not black boxes engaged in a competition of
interests. What matters most is the character of the individual, the
character of the community and the character of government. When
designing policies, it's most important to get them to complement, not
undermine, people's permanent moral aspirations - the longing for
freedom, faith and family happiness.
That approach led to welfare policies that encouraged work and
responsibility. It also led to what many derided as the overly
idealistic foreign policies that are now contributing to the
exhilarating revolutions we're seeing across the Middle East.
Several of the original players are dead. Kristol, Glazer and Bell are
in their 80's. A great young editor, Adam Wolfson, has done much of
the heavy lifting, but he and his senior colleagues are calling it a
day. The magazine will not outlive all its founders.
I read through the back issues this week with growing sadness. The
Public Interest will not be around as we reform entitlements and
continue our debates on what it means to be American. All we'll have
are the archives, at www.thepublicinterest.com.
E-mail: dabrooks at nytimes.com
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