essays

Feb 1, 1978

The Neoconservatives

“What is the significance of their ascendancy? Are they friend or foe in the struggle for liberty?”

While they haven’t exactly become a household word, the group of intellectuals who have been dubbed “neoconservatives” are here to stay. The New York Times and Newsweek, in their recent articles discussing whether America was turning to the “right,” mentioned this group as symptomatic of the disillusionment with liberalism;; the Nation and other left-wing periodicals have denounced them; right-wing sources like National Review and theWall Street Journal have hailed them. Clearly they are making an impact. Their journals, The Public Interestand Commentary, have made a strong impression on the intellectual world and their advice and recommendations have reached the White House at times. As informed libertarians who wish to stay abreast of social trends it behooves us to assess the neoconservatives. What is the significance of their ascendancy? Are they friend or foe in the struggle for liberty?

A great variety of people have by now been labeled neoconservatives, but in this examination, we shall focus only on five of the leading figures: Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and Norman Podhoretz. I suspect most of the readers of LR are familiar with these gentlemen; but in any event, brief and selective biographical sketches are in order.

Glazer, Bell and Kristol all went to the City University of New York (CUNY) about the same time, in the late 1930s. All three subsequently drifted back and forth between academia and publishing. Daniel Bell, born in 1919, was an assistant editor for the New Leader for a while in the 1940s, went on to be labor editor forFortune from 1948 to 1958, subsequently taught sociology at Columbia (where he was chairman of the department for a while), and now teaches at Harvard. He authored and edited numerous books, the most important for our purposes being The New American Right (editor), The End of Ideology, and, recently, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

Nathan Glazer, born in 1923, was an assistant editor at Commentary in its early days, worked at Doubleday for a while, taught sociology at Berkeley, and now teaches at Harvard. He coauthored, with David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd, a famous study of the American character, and also coauthored, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, their famous study on ethnicity, Beyond the Melting Pot. He wrote a book attacking the New Left (Remembering the Answers), and most recently penned a widely recognized attack on affirmative action (Affirmative Discrimination).

Irving Kristol, (born in 1920) was also an assistant editor of Commentary for a while. From 1953 to 1958 he edited Encounter, an English left-wing, anticommunist journal which was one of several publications that received CIA funds. He was a vice president and senior editor at Basic Books for a good number of years, and has taught at New York University, where he was professor of urban values. He is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. Daniel Bell and he coedited two anthologies of essays, most of which originally appeared in The Public Interest: one on capitalism, the other on the student revolt. Kristol’s most important book is On the Democratic Idea in America.

Podhoretz and Moynihan are slightly younger men. Norman Podhoretz was born in 1930 and went to school at Columbia and Cambridge, England. He wrote for Commentary, Partisan Review, and a few other magazines in the 1950s; since 1960 he has been editor of Commentary. He wrote his autobiography in 1967, Making It.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (born in 1927) went to CUNY and Tufts. He has since shifted back and forth between politics and Harvard (except for two years when he taught at Syracuse). He worked for the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations, and is now senator from New York. His work in government brought him attention and notoriety: He helped to draft the famous Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which launched the War on Poverty, and under Nixon was the chief architect of the proposed “guaranteed annual income.”

He was the author during the Johnson administration of an extremely controversial report suggesting the instability of the black family was the main reason for its problems; his memo to Nixon in 1970 suggesting the whole race issue was reaching hysterical proportions and could use a period of “benign neglect” also earned him a measure of fame—or infamy, depending on one’s perspective. His aggressive defense of what he took to be “American interests” while he was ambassador to the United Nations from June 1975 to early 1976 also brought him quite a bit of attention. Moynihan has shown a flamboyant streak which has always boosted him into the limelight. Besides Beyond the Melting Pot, he also wrote Maximal Feasible Misunderstanding, a story of why the poverty program failed; The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, his account of the struggle over the Family Assistance Plan; and Coping: On the Practice of Government, a collection of essays written over the years.

Moynihan has been a consistent supporter over the years of big labor and of the Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. Concentrating in recent years on foreign policy issues, he has been, along with Podhoretz, the most prominent member of the group Frances FitzGerald dubbed “the warrior intellectuals”; FitzGerald has also called him, with some justice, “Kissinger’s Agnew,” and “the candidate from Commentary. ” In 1976 he was elected as senator from New York, after running on a platform whose foreign policy planks “out-Buckleyed James Buckley,” to use Isidore Silver’s phrase. Some former supporters of Senator Henry Jackson are now privately talking of eventually running Moynihan for president.

Glazer, Bell, and Moynihan are empirical social scientists; Kristol could be fairly described as being in the mold of classical political philosophy; Podhoretz’s main concerns have been literary and cultural, lately, however, focusing almost exclusively on foreign policy. All are Jewish except Moynihan, who is Irish; all know one another. But what they all have in common which shaped their experiences are three things: they were all born into quite poor homes and achieved significant upward mobility; the failure of communism and socialism was a central experience of their lives; and the phenomenon of McCarthyism played a large role in shaping their political experience.

Neoconservatism “is only a tendency, not a ‘movement,’ ” as Kristol points out; thus a definitive analysis of “their” philosophy is hazardous. Indeed, given their anti-ideological bent, it would be misleading to present their ideas in a systematic fashion, one following logically from the next. Rather, the neoconservatives emphasize certain clusters of themes; in what follows I will discuss these themes, with the understanding that most neoconservatives would assent to most of these ideas in varying degrees.

The “bourgeois character”

For the neoconservatives, the moral glue which held the United States together for a good part of its history—until about fifty years ago—is what Kristol calls “bourgeois character” or “republican morality,” what Bell calls “civitas,” and what we usually call “the Protestant work ethic.” Whatever you call it, the point is that self-discipline, the restraint on private appetite, the willingness to sacrifice and work for the common good, all put a damper on self-interest.

Such a damper made it possible for citizens to work for the public good when it is crucially necessary. Such a mechanism of transcending our “baser selves” also served to justify the social order. Those who were self-disciplined and productive got ahead in the world; bourgeois character paid off, or at least so it was believed. Such a belief enabled the masses of people to accept their lives stoically—lives which were usually filled with a great deal of frustration. The bourgeois character was that which provided the social system with legitimacy and gave authority to societal institutions such as government, the market, etc.

But the neoconservatives believe such character is fading fast today, victim of the success of capitalism. For modern capitalism releases the forces of self-interest and appetite. The success of the system makes restraint much less necessary: Economic growth and progress make it easier to satisfy one’s wants and desires. Kristol and Bell both point to installment buying and mass consumption as evidence of this: What’s the use of restraint if the economic system is constantly pressuring you to let go? “Consumption society,” writes Bell, “with its emphasis on spending and material possession, is undermining the traditional value system with its emphasis on thrift, frugality, self-restraint, and impulse renunciation.” Such “freeing of self-interest” is supported by the cultural hedonism which arises in modern bourgeois society. Intellectuals and cultural leaders have for a long time been stressing antibourgeois values such as irrationalism, satisfaction of all desires and fantasies, and the glorification of instinct. The message is that renunciation and self-control are pointless and silly. Who would have the desire to work for the public good in such a milieu? Even the modern defenders of capitalism, Kristol notes (he is referring to Hayek and Friedman), defend the unlimited pursuit of private interest as a right, thus being blissfully unaware that such a defense further undermines any attempt to maintain a well-ordered society where men can work for the “public good.”

The rise of the New Left in the 1960s exemplified this point. We see capitalism producing a mass of middle- and upper-class children who revel in attacking the system which benefits them. The “sensibility of the sixties” (Bell’s phrase) was a testimony to the undermining of bourgeois character; hedonism and nihilism reigned supreme. For the most part, the neoconservatives viewed the New Left not as raising legitimate issues—“the radical thinking of the late 60’s was almost completely misguided,” said Glazer—but saw it as a symptom: a symptom that capitalism was morally bankrupt.

The decline of bourgeois character has gone so far that the West is now faced with the ascendancy of an “adversary culture” (a Lionel Trilling phrase the neoconservatives have adopted). Where there had previously been a strong friction in the West between a culturally-advanced elite that struggled against bourgeois society, now the culture of the entire society had become virulently antibourgeois. Antibourgeois sentiment had become “massified,” to use an awkward but useful neologism. The universities, media, and intellectual leaders in general had become inundated with themes that were actively hostile to the common man’s bourgeois values; such an active attack on the society could only increase the alienation and frustration of the average man already bothered by a seemingly senseless polity. Nothing bothered the neoconservatives more than the fact that a hostile cultural and intellectual elite could infiltrate the society with increasingly nihilistic and apocalyptic messages that basically said, “America stinks.”

“It was one thing,” thundered Podhoretz, “to be critical of American society, institutions, and foreign policy, and another to be nihilistically dismissive.” To the neoconservatives who had worked hard to get where they were, it must have seemed almost like a bunch of rich spoiled kids who had no sense of America’s worth.

Thus the neoconservatives felt that history was repeating itself. In the 1950s they saw McCarthyism as resulting from the frustrations of certain groups (such as the nouveau riche and insecure ethnic groups) suffering from “status anxiety,” groups that could incite the common people to feel angry toward intellectuals. The neoconservatives did not believe that McCarthyism represented genuine grievances against the bureaucratic welfare state; they analyzed the problems away and defended American society—meaning consensus welfare state politics—as essentially sound.

Not only had the rise of cultural hedonism produced a mass, antibourgeois culture; even worse, the “freeing” of bourgeois restraint was producing a plague of instability in the Western democracies. For once the restraints of self-discipline are released, demands accumulate in the political sphere: If people expect more goods and services in the private sector, shouldn’t the same apply as well in the public sector? Politicians are loathe to deny such demands and tend to promise extravagant programs; thus we get the phenomenon of “rising expectations” or “rising entitlements” which can only cause trouble.

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The revolution of rising expectations was furthered by something Kristol dubbed the “New Class,” sort of the political analogue of the adversary culture. This consists of academicians, leftist students, civil servants, social workers, most intellectuals—all those who have a material or spiritual vested interest in an expansion of the public sphere and in declaring war on the private sector. Their hostility to bourgeois culture pushes them to feed the flames of rising expectations and thus create a clientele of state-supported dependents.

Thus the decline of bourgeois character was the key to understanding the troubles neoconservatives saw in America in the sixties and seventies: the decline of bourgeois self-discipline led to a cultural hedonism, which spilled over into an adversary culture and a clamorous revolution of rising expectations fueled by a New Class determined to increase the numbers feeding off the public trough. No wonder the common man felt alienated and frustrated; no wonder the polity was becoming increasingly unstable and losing its legitimacy. And yet there was hope, for the common people had not yet been taken in by these assaults by antibourgeois intellectuals: “We are not yet a corrupt people,” announced Kristol, “and there still exists a large reservoir of sobriety, of self-discipline, and even a willingness to sacrifice for the common good.”

This might seem to raise an odd puzzle. If it is capitalism’s economic success which ruined the bourgeois virtues of self-discipline and self-retraint by its feverish stimulation of appetite, and it was bourgeois society which was the soil for the sprouting of cultural hedonism and its antibourgeois intellectuals, doesn’t this mean there is something wrong with capitalism? Wouldn’t that make the neoconservatives also as anticapitalist as their opponents? No. The neoconservatives do not dislike the market per se; they rather—within limits—like it, in fact. The market creates powerful incentives, diffuses responsibility, and thus doesn’t politicize (= destabilize) society. Further, it helped raise standards of living to new heights. As Kristol put it recently, capitalism, modified by some welfare state reforms, regulations, and redistribution of wealth, (more on this later), is “the best of all available worlds.’’ Kristol and the neoconservatives want a modified, welfare-state capitalism, securely anchored, not “adrift” on the sea of antibourgeois hedonism.

But how then to tie it down? One way not to do is by ideology, which the neoconservatives vigorously attack.

The anti-ideological motif

“Most of the hysteria, much of the stupidity, and a good part of the bestiality of the twentieth century”, Kristol writes, results from ideological movements. Why? Ideologies are responsible for two evils: They create turbulence and instability by exciting men and offering them extravagant goals, and, secondly, ideologies simplify. “Any issue that becomes ideological becomes distorted,” insists Bell. Neoconservatives link ideology with utopianism and radicalism: Ideologies promise much, incite men to action, and end up doing more harm than good. The world is too complicated for such simplicity; political progress is made by dispassionate, hard, careful work, not by political “movements.” Thus, the neoconservatives dislike the utopian-ideological cast of mind that runs through at least part of American politics. “It is an American fault to insist on extravagant goals,” complains Moynihan, “as if to set out to achieve anything less than everything suggests a lack of sincerity, manliness, or both.”

But there are deeper reasons for the neoconservative anti-ideological turn of mind. What we have here is, as Robert Bartley noted in the Wall Street Journal, “a somewhat ironical alliance of empirical social scientists and classical philosophy.” Bell, Glazer, and Moynihan are by training skeptical of grand theories: One should tackle problems one at a time, and investigate solutions empirically to see if they “work”; a priori speculation is verboten. Kristol believes that ideology is a mistake of modern political philosophy, which prevents a genuine, disinterested, philosophical examination of political life.

But much more important is the fact that their past political experiences have made these men hostile to ideologies. Most of the neoconservatives were fierce ideologues in their youth: socialists, communists, Trotskyists, more often than not. They have taken their idea of ideology from that period of their own lives and thought. “I accept a Marxian analysis of ideology,” writes Bell. “I quit being a radical and a socialist,” adds Kristol, “because, upon reflection, and with greater experience of the world, I concluded that political radicalism was, more often than not, inherently self-defeating and that socialism … was intrinsically utopian.”

In short, the neoconservatives are disillusioned radicals. Such an experience was bound to make them suspicious of ideological movements and make them determinedly, one might say militantly, “realistic”—in the narrow sense of that term. As Bell acknowledged, they lost their innocence early; politics for them has become an arena where one should be responsible, which meant anti-ideological. This is a rephrasing of Bell’s discussion in The End of Ideology, a work where he quietly celebrated that, after McCarthy, the ideological temper in America seemed to have faded away.

When Bell, in 1960, said, “Few issues can be formulated any more, intellectually, in ideological terms … Politics offer little excitement,” when Glazer in 1968 chastised the New Left, saying, “From the point of view of the heroism of the past, it is a gray world we are entering,” one suspects they are looking at ideologies the way adults look at their youthful excesses.

Indeed, this is made explicit at certain points. Kristol’s “Memoirs of a Troskyist” (New York Times Magazine, Jan. 23, 1977) compared joining a radical movement when one is young to falling in love. And in the opening issue of Public Interest, the editors (Kristol and Bell) proudly announced that this would be a journal for middle-aged people, who were supposedly the best of political generations—neither ideological like youth or frozen in their thinking like old age. In short, neoconservatives see ideology as something for young innocent people; people who are wise and more responsible will shy away from it if they wish to be serious political thinkers. Thus the solution to the American crisis is not ideological. Insofar as Americans are prone to such ideological thinking—and neoconservatives stress that such ideological (utopian) spirit is part of the American heritage—this is something they wish to save us from.

This anti-ideological tone of neoconservative writing goes a long way towards explaining what otherwise might appear puzzling: namely, that there is no good yardstick by which one can evaluate a neoconservative view on a certain political issue. Neoconservatives value stability (order), a certain degree of liberty, a certain degree of equality. How these are supposed to be arranged in a just political order is far from clear. Kristol’s reply in response to the libertarian, who views liberty as the sole political value, is indicative: “Yes, individual liberty is a very fine thing, one of the very finest even. But order is also a very fine thing; and justice; and morality; and civility. All of these fine things have to be accommodated, one to another in such a way as to ‘make sense’to the citizens of a society….”

Such a “blending” of values may sound eloquent, but it gives one few guidelines by which to evaluate public policy—which is why neoconservatives usually end up stressing practicality: Does the policy or program work? Thus, one might think that the neoconservatives would have moral objections to affirmative action. Doesn’t it politicize and destabilize our society? Is it not a horrendous exercise of coercion? No, they say. In Glazer’s devastating attacks on these programs, he notes, “For me no consideration of principle … would stand in the way of a program of preferential hiring if it made some substantial progresss in reducing the severe problems of low-income blacks and of the inner cities.” Moynihan agrees, saying that opposition to quotas “come down to a matter of prudence.”

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Their anti-ideological bent also explains the stubborn, neoconservative refusal to look at the matter of political consistency, of whether a certain position is a logical consequence of a previous position. It is only someone with an ideological cast of mind who is concerned with such things. To the neoconservative frame of mind this all seems to be an obsession with doctrinaire rigidity.

Thus, the neoconservatives refuse to even seriously discuss the possibility that the clamor for “equality of result” or affirmative action is an inevitable outgrowth of the commitment to “equality of opportunity.” To Glazer, such a suggestion is “simply another example of the misnaming of reality in an age in which words are easily distorted into their opposites.” Kristol ridicules the suggestion that these two egalitarian ideals are related as “dangerous sophistry.” In fact, Kristol freely admits that “in pure principle” his viewpoint is incoherent!

Not only does the neoconservative brew of liberty, equality, civility, order and justice fail to give us a guideline for analyzing and judging politics—other than practicality—the neoconservatives rarely tell us what these notoriously slippery terms mean. For instance, I have yet to see an explanation of what the neoconservatives think “liberty” is. When Glazer flatly denies there is an obvious tension between liberty and equality (“We have never seen as much state intervention to promote equality as we see in Western capitalist nations today, but liberty … has never been greater or more widespread.”), and when Moynihan called the draft “one of the greatest institutions invented by the United States,” and yet in 1974 proudly announced that the United States is “the liberty party,” one may rightly wonder what “liberty” is supposed to mean. Similiarly, there is rarely a clear reference to rights other than in the legal sense. (Thus Moynihan and Glazer write in the second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, “Aid to the deprived is a right and an obligation of government. The right to welfare should not be endowed with as much dignity and virtue as the right to work… .” I will leave it to the reader to sort out all the confusions in this passage)

The neoconservative distaste for ideology because it simplifies is tied to another theme that runs through neoconservative writing; namely, the emphasis on complexity. From their experiences in government from their disappointment and chagrin over the failure of much of the Great Society, the neoconservatives came to the realization as the 1960s progressed that the world was too complicated for the government to engage in any sweeping, grand-scale programs. “By the sixties I had considerably scaled down my expectations concerning what government could do about most things.” says Moynihan. “Government had seemed like such fun,” he told the Harvard freshman class in 1972, “but it didn’t turn out to be fun at all, but bloody and tragic.”

What had happened? Through long, hard experience, the neoconservatives learned that not only was the world too complicated for ideological “simplicity,” it was far too complicated to anticipate the consequences of social action. To put it in Hayekian terms, the neoconservatives learned the hard way that everyone is ignorant of most of the facts of social reality, and that attempts by a few men with coercive power to shape policy usually turn out to be disagreeable—disagreeable in that they don’t solve the problem, often make it worse by undermining traditional means of handling distress (family, neighborhood, church), and often raise expectations by promising results which can’t be obtained, thus creating intense politicization in the society.

What to do then? Go slow; be moderate; be prudent—this is the lesson neoconservatives learned from the 1960s. “When you’re dealing with the real world, the chances of you’re being right are 50-50, so you should move slowly,” says Kristol. “Wisdom surely bespeaks moderation in projection of the future and restraint in its promise for it,” adds Moynihan. (His book, Coping: On the Practice of Government, is of course a testimony to the same theme.)

What does this prudence amount to? First, it amounts to a healthy respect for market mechanisms: Don’t be sure, say the neoconservatives, that the government must handle the problem. Or, if it must, that it must be handled by a large-scale, bureaucratic crusade. “For the longest time”, writes Moynihan, “and with the best of cases, liberals argued that while the private sector fattened, the public sector starved.” “Well,” he adds ruefully, “we succeeded.” Neoconservatives now have a skepticism about the Galbraithian thesis. They are aware that expansion of the public sector may not bring bliss, but chaos.

Second, by “prudence” the neoconservatives mean a Burkean fondness, or at least respect, for institutions which have survived. “I learned, in a quite conservative fashion,” recounts Glazer in his memoirs of his deradicalization process, “to develop a certain respect for what was—in a world of infinite complexity, some things had emerged and survived …” Being prudent thus means to have a bias in favor of existing institutions, such as the market and also government programs which had stood the test of time.

Is that all there is to the neoconservative program? Hardly. The neoconservatives are interested primarily in “spiritual,” not “material,” subjects. The West is in a crisis spanning both areas, but the causes are spiritual (“The crisis of our time is not political; it is religious,” says Moynihan), and thus the cure involves not just a commitment to prudence, but a set of ideas that will help the West survive and prosper. But who will undertake such a task?

The need for a responsible elite

“Only a special and dedicated cadre—an elite of sorts— can hope to keep the other elites of the country from tearing the country apart,” says Moynihan, articulating this neoconservative theme. The present day intellectuals, with their encouragement of antibourgeois hedonistic values and an expanded role for government, have created a moral vacuum and social instability. Thus they are hardly the ones to lead us out of our present morass.

What sort of elite will lead us out of the wilderness? This isn’t made clear, but there are enough indications within neoconservative literature to give us a fair idea. It will be an elite dedicated to creating a bourgeois morality or civic virtue; that is, dedicated to propagating and instilling the notion of self-discipline and sacrifice for the common good. Such an elite will not be hostile to using influences other than reason to help achieve its goal.

For one thing, it can and will use coercion if necessary. Kristol, for instance, applauds the prohibition movement for having a good conscience in that it was interested in republican ( = bourgeois) morality. This means, according to Kristol, it is perfectly legitimate to use state coercion to help sustain a moral climate. Second, it may use as well religion. Bell, for one, calls explicitly for a revival of religion as the only way to save the West from an orgy of hedonism. And scattered throughout neoconservative writings is a skepticism about reason which indicates a belief that rationalism is inadequate to the task of reviving a moral climate in the West.

Thus, this moral elite will be willing to use the weapons of religion and the state to help recreate a moral community necessary to save the bourgeois values of the West. Politically, such an elite will be dedicated to “social stability as well as the facilitating of social change.”

Thus the neoconservatives during the 1950s were all “hard anticommunists” (Sidney Hook’s phrase). They believed some civil liberties of communists could be stifled to help fight its subversion. Similarly, Irving Kristol supports censorship today: “If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship,” he proclaims. As if to underscore his seriousness about the full meaning of the word “censorship,” Kristol proclaims: “And I am not about to back away from it.” I am not aware of any other neoconservative who has objected to this line of reasoning.

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What sort of reform will this elite propagate? What sort of reform do neoconservatives advocate? First and foremost, they are committed to the principle of the welfare state; those who have interpreted their critiques of state intervention as pleas for a move toward laissez-faire have missed the point. Irving Kristol has recently insisted, in a reflection on neoconservatism in The American Spectator, that “Neoconservatism, unlike … liberal individualism, is not opposedin principle to the welfare state.” Although it is opposed to socialism, neoconservatism is “untroubled,” he states, by such things as unemployment “insurance,” national health care, social security, guaranteed annual income, and other welfare measures. Nineteenth century liberal-individualist views are denounced by Kristol as “doctrinaire fantasy,” and as being “inadequate for a political community.” Moreover, as a sop to conservatives, Kristol writes that “a welfare state, properly conceived, can be an integral part of a conservative society,” a Disraeli-like notion that has now been endorsed by many mainstream conservatives, such as James Buckley.

The neoconservatives are also in favor of government regulation of the economy: Kristol declares that, in fact, no “responsible” person is opposed to such government regulation in principle. While he claims to “respect” the market economy, he is “willing to interfere with the market for overriding social purposes.” He prefers, however, to “rig” the market rather than to regiment it in a bureaucratic fashion. Hence, vouchers and the like are considered the best way of achieving these so-called overriding social purposes. Columnist George Will, often associated with the neoconservatives, recently devoted an entire column to lavish praise of the government farm programs, claiming, astonishingly enough to those educated about such matters, that “American agriculture is one of American government’s success stories.” And while opposed to equality, neoconservatives are also opposed to too great an inequality. Wishing to place a state-guaranteed “floor” under the poor, they want to place a state-enforced “ceiling” on the rich. One has the right to become unequal to others in wealth only “within limits,” states Kristol.

To grasp where this lands us, one should remember what Newsweek said of Daniel Bell and the neoconservatives: “Bell belongs to an increasingly vocal chorus of neoconservative intellectuals who believe that the system isn’t working, that a return to the laissez-faire past is impractical and that the United States must find a flexible third way between socialism and libertarian self-indulgence.” This so-called “middle way,” of course, far from being anything new, is precisely what has been preached throughout most of this century: a rudderless, unprincipled careening back and forth within a system of government intervention and regulation, whose basic precepts are never challenged or rethought.

Thus the attacks of the neoconservatives on expensive Great Society welfare programs are not attacks on the soundness or justice of these programs. “To assert that government in Washington can’t run everything is not to argue for the impotence of government generally,” argued Moynihan. The neoconservatives saw the 1960s not as throwing into question the principle of domestic interventionism (let alone foreign interventionism!) but as showing the need for a supposedly “thoughtful” application of them, with a prudent appreciation of their limits. In fact, neoconservatives are upset that dissatisfaction with the welfare state causes people to feel victimized by it, or may forment antigovernment sentiment in general.

What the neoconservatives oppose, then, is a welfare state which is exceedingly bureaucratic, a welfare state which is extremely expensive and prone to bankruptcy, and a welfare state which radically politicizes society. What the neoconservatives favor is a program of conservative reform, fundamental reforms which will, in their view improve, the lot of the citizens and help to maintain stability and political “legitimacy.”

Neoconservatives—with the exception of Glazer, who was skeptical—seemed to think Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan would be such a reform. Indeed Moynihan saw Nixon (in his pre-Watergate days) as a president who came close to pushing for a program of conservative reform—sort of an American Disraeli. Other models of conservative reform (invoked by Kristol in these cases) were the old city bosses (“Democratic Tories”) and the old Progressives. Both were committed to reform and keeping the basic structure of “capitalism” sound.

Foreign policy

In foreign policy, the neoconservatives whom Frances FitzGerald dubbed as “the warrior intellectuals” have been the single most powerful and influential force opposing any move toward isolationism or noninterventionism. In the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle, when American foreign policy seemed to be open for a fundamental change of direction, for a fundamental rethinking, it was the neoconservatives who rose to the challenge, opposing even the slightest move toward isolationism with vehemence.

There was nothing new in this. Given the history of the neoconservatives, it was to have been expected. The neoconservatives have always been hostile to an isolationist or noninterventionist foreign policy. Back in the 1950s, for example, Nathan Glazer linked isolationism with McCarthyism and hostility toward modernism, and modernism itself was linked with the welfare state. In general, although some worried a bit about U.S. foreign policy helping to launch a nuclear war, neoconservatives approved of the stated interventionist aim of American foreign policy: the containing of communism. Even those neoconservatives who opposed the Indochina war (Moynihan, Podhoretz and Glazer) saw the war as “in principle, yes, but in practice, obviously not” justified; the war “must be understood as the result of a series of monumental errors.” Not that anything was wrong with the principle of foreign interventionism. Quite the contrary: Our debacle in Indochina indicated that opposition to the war was prudent because the war’s human costs were too high, much too high. Even so, the Vietnam war was considered by other neoconservatives to be an instance of America’s “commitment to freedom abroad.” In the post-Vietnam era, a Commentary symposium given over to a foreign policy symposium was entitled “America Now: A Failure of Nerve?”

It is not surprising, then, that no neoconservative has even considered the possibility that revisionist historians might have something important to tell us about U.S. interventionism. To understand the neoconservative view one must understand that the experience of the last 25 years hasn’t shaken their faith; instead, it has reinforced their attachment to foreign interventionism. But to say that the neoconservatives are committed to a foreign policy of interventionism is vague; what policies do they advocate?

They see the United States as a Great Imperial Power who, by that very description, cannot shirk its “responsibilities” within the world. As a Great Power, it must, of course, act prudently. But it also has—or should have—an essential commitment to inducing other nations to adopt democratic policies; this is the Wilsonian theme. In a world where most countries are ideologically hostile to us, a basic commitment to curtailing their influence is essential if we aim to promote the spread of democratic institutions. Moynihan asks “Was Woodrow Wilson Right?” and answers (within limits), yes. Similiarly Podhoretz announces, we should continue with our former task of making the world safe for democracy. Thus, as neoconservatives see it, within the constraints of prudence a proper U.S. foreign policy “deliberately and consistently brings its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which preserve the greatest degree of personal and national liberty.” But those “constraints” are indeed broad: Sometimes it may be necessary to support right-wing dictatorships. The world is such that often we cannot affect others but there are “no circumstances … where failing to help those who do share our values can have any consequence other than the discrediting of those values themselves.”

Unfortunately, the cloud of vagueness we had hoped to penetrate still surrounds us. What sort of “influence” or “help” should the United States bring? Military? Moral? Financial? On some matters this vagueness has been dispelled of late: the neoconservatives see the post-Vietnam mood as one of unimpeded, insidious and creeping isolationism—and they don’t like it. When the oil embargo hit, Commentary was in the advance guard of the interventionistic response. In 1975, a frequent contributor, Robert W. Tucker, published a series of pieces in Commentary calling for an American invasion of the Persian Gulf for the purpose of reasserting control over the oil reserves. Moreover, the failure to aid the “anticommunist” forces in Angola, the failure of the United States to make a vital commitment to the anticommunist forces in Portugal when it seemed Portugal would be taken over by the communists, the problematic path of detente, Eurocommunism, and the allegedly-lessened U.S. commitment to Israel—all of these are signs to the neoconservatives that communism is gaining ascendancy, support of democracy is slipping, and we are ignorant (or pretending to be) about all these portentous events. In face of this pretended or real ignorance, the neoconservatives have responded with vigor and asperity. Lately, more and more neoconservative writing has been directed towards foreign policy, with themes ranging from our alleged “failure of nerve,” to “making the world safe for communism,” to “the culture of appeasement,” and even to alleged “anti-Americanism.” In face of these phenomena, most of the neoconservatives have come out in favor of a large expansion of the defense budget, with a specific commitment to beefing up our nuclear forces so as to gain unequivocal superiority over the Soviet Union.

Most neoconservatives favor a large expansion of the defense budget to gain unequivocal superiority over the Soviet Union.

All except Kristol are members of the Committee on the Present Danger, a group mostly of old war hawks who claim that the United States is falling badly “behind” the U.S.S.R.; that the Soviet Union is expansionist, aggressive, and still aims at world domination; and that the U.S.S.R. is aiming at—and getting close to—clear nuclear superiority, and even may not be horrified at the idea of starting a nuclear war. In addition, Moynihan has become the star spokesman for the “Jackson wing” of the Democratic party.

I suspect the neoconservative concern with foreign policy (with a stress of increasing the defense budget and aiming for nuclear superiority) will become the major neoconservative theme in the immediate future. How far they would push their Wilsonianism remains to be seen; but the fact that in a recent article in Harper’s, “The Culture of Appeasement,” Podhoretz could compare the United States in 1977 with the English appeasers of 1937 is perhaps a sign that the neoconservatives may come to see that it is necessary to engage in a major new interventionist effort to halt “communist influence.”

But as is usually the case with the neoconservatives, this concern with foreign policy is not just political; it involves questions of basic values. Kristol, for instance, back in 1967 told intellectuals to put up or shut up: Accept the fact the United States must be an imperial power, and either help the government by giving it moral guidance or get out of the picture and stop taking an adversary role towards its policies by carping along the sidelines. Podhoretz, in the aforementioned Harper’s article, suggests that modern intellectuals are creating a culture which ridicules the idea that communism could be a threat, attacks America ad nauseam, and creates a fear of war per se. All this combines to make the people unwilling to stand up to the Soviet Union. Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s pieces suggest that neoconservatives see the Soviet Union’s recent success as indicative of the success of the antibourgeois adversary culture. The people still are willing to stand up to the U.S.S.R., but the adversary culture’s effect on the government has substantially weakened our country. This is speculative, but I see the theme of the adversary culture and the hostility towards bourgeois values linked with the supposed decline of America’s military and nuclear might as a future neoconservative attempt to explain the world in which we find ourselves in.

No wonder the neoconservatives have been linked with the mold of the 1970s. Are we not seeing today a concern with the alleged weakening of traditional American values (e.g., the clamor over “homosexual rights” and the E.R.A.), a commitment to a fiscally sound welfare state (Carter’s stated economics) and a new hawkishness (e.g., the fight over confirming dovish Paul Warnke to head the SALT talks, the fuss over the Panama Canal, the fading opposition to increasing the defense budget)? Are not Americans fed up with big government just enough not to propose dismantling it but only tinkering with it by trying to make it more efficient? We are, in effect, in a new period of “the end of ideology.” Liberalism is bankrupt, National Review conservatism is not taken seriously. The U.S. political scene has blended into a pragmatic consensus over the prudent application of domestic and foreign interventionism (although behind this “consensus” hides a lot of anger, frustration, and hostility). But we are ideoligists and radicals, not pragmatists, liberals or conservatives, and thus cannot be wildly happy about this turn of events. The key question is, Is such an atmosphere conducive to the growth of liberty or not? Is a neoconservative mood to be hailed or fought? To these question we turn next.


Daniel Shapiro, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, was active in the antiwar and antidraft movements, and has been active in libertarian circles for many years.