[Paleopsych] NYT: Brooks: (The Public Interest) 40 Years of Character

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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
    public officials."

    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 [2]www.thepublicinterest.com.

    E-mail: dabrooks at nytimes.com


    1. http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/davidbrooks/index.html?inline=nyt-per

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