Monday, September 21, 2009

Irving Kristol's Good Work Needs a Second Life

Irving Kristol died last week at age 89. He was the father of what is called neo-conservatism, but what James Q. Wilson in his Wall Street Journal obituary this morning says is better characterized as policy skepticism ("A Life in the Public Interest").

As the so-called "neo-cons" have come into a bad reputation recently as fanatical American imperialists, Wilson supplies us with a welcome reminder that neo-conservatism was a prudent response to the naively and hubristicly optimistic efforts of Johnson era liberals to build a beautiful world, a "Great Society," through centrally administered government programs. It is "[t]he view that we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition."

Summarizing Kristol's thought, he writes:

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.

Irving Kristol's world transforming journal, The Public Interest, discontinued publication in 2005 after forty years of sober reflection on what actually works, i.e. on what is necessary for going beyond good intentions (and satisfying political constituencies) to promoting what is actually the public interest. As we now have an administration that is blithely appropriating vast regions of private life into the government sphere in the interests of "fairness" and "progress," an enterprise in social engineering that makes Lyndon Johnson look like Herbert Hoover, perhaps Kristol's journal needs to be fired up again with a new generation of bipartisan policy skeptics.

Update (Sept. 28,2009):
A reader informs us that there is a new journal in the tradition of The Public Interest, entitled National Affairs.

The website says this of the new periodical.

National Affairs is a quarterly journal of essays about domestic policy, political economy, society, culture, and political thought. It aims to help Americans think a little more clearly about our public life, and rise a little more ably to the challenge of self-government.

Each issue will feature lively yet serious essays on the range of domestic issues: from economics and health care to education and welfare; from the legal debates of the day to enduring dilemmas of society and culture. We will devote special attention to the deeper theoretical questions of American self-government—seeking to cut through the conventional wisdom, help you make sense of complex issues, offer concrete proposals, and illuminate the ideas that move our politics.

In doing so, we strive to walk in the footsteps of our intellectual and institutional predecessor, The Public Interest, a journal that for decades enriched our public life with its unparalleled clarity and wisdom. We hope to provide the same service to Americans addressing the problems of a new era, and to serve as a venue for a new generation of thinkers and writers seeking to influence the affairs of the nation.

Yuval Levin is the editor, and these distinguished scholars and sages comprise the publication committee: Gerard Alexander, James W. Ceaser, Eric Cohen, John J. DiIulio Jr., Nicholas Eberstadt, Martin Feldstein, Robert P. George, Michael W. Grebe, Roger Hertog, Kay Hymowitz, Leon R. Kass, Bruce Kovner, William Kristol, Jay Lefkowitz, Lawrence Lindsey, Wilfred M. McClay, James Piereson, Diana Schaub, Irwin M. Stelzer, and James Q. Wilson. You can see among them the living connections with The Public Interest.


Jeremy Cerone said...

Dr. Innes, what are your thoughts on neoconservatism? I personally identify myself as a neoconservative, but with a Christian bent. I think may of Reagan's policies could be classified as neocon, especially with his foreign policy. Although I am very much with the neocons on foreign policy, I think more specific planning of goals and procedures is needed to avoid the PR disaster and political instability over Iraq. And I highly value Christian morals at home, something not much emphasized amongst the neocon community.

David C. Innes said...

Can you be a neo-conservative without first having been a leftist? Someone (perhaps Kristol) once said that a neo-conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. I have never been a leftist, unless you count being Canadian, but that's really unfair.

Temperamentally, I am conservative, which is another way of saying sober and prudent. Politically, I am conservative in the American context, which means a classical liberal, but with Christian and classical reservations.

But in another sense, as a Christian, I am a radical, insofar as I judge all things against the standard of the Scriptures.

william randolph brafford said...

I haven't been by in a while, but I dropped in and thought I ought to point out that a magazine called National Affairs has just been launched. It considers The Public Interest to be its "intellectual and institutional predecessor."

There's some distinguished names on the publication committee!

Jeremy Cerone said...

I actually did tinker with socialism when I was younger, and have read a decent bit of Trotsky. I once had a much more favorable view of the Great Society than I do now.

I also take a much more internationalist and favorable stand on trade, super-national organizations, and foreign policy than many Christian conservatives.

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