Skip to comments.Skepticism, Meliorism, and The Public Interest
Posted on 07/11/2003 8:44:03 AM PDT by William McKinley
Some four years ago, I ceased teaching courses on urban problems at New York University and, with a sense of relief, transferred to the graduate business school. Bright students no longer seemed much interested in urban prob lems, and the very term, "urban crisis," now had a rather archaic ring to it.
At the beginning, in the mid-1960s, it had been very different. The word "urban" then had a certain magican aura of glamourattached to it. We were, Lyndon Johnson had informed us, "a nation of cities," so that our urban problems had to be seen within the perspective of a new urban future. And since this was an American urban future, it was assumed that, somehow, it could hardly be inglorious whatever the troubles that had to be navigated. John Lindsay, then mayor of New York, even thought it feasible to launch a campaign for the presidency as the "urban" candidate, appealing to the 70 percent of the populationthat was LBJ's statisticthat now lived in cities. Students flocked to courses in urban problems, and departments (or even schools) of "urban studies" flowered. That there was an "urban crisis" was taken for granted. That we could overcome this crisis if only we concentrate sufficient resources and intelligence was also taken for granted. Things were very bad; we had it in our power to make them overand rather quickly, at that.
Even then, some of us were skeptical, a skepticism that clearly colored the very first issues of The Public Interest. Indeed, it is not too much to say that it was a spirit of skepticismnot pessimism, it must be emphasized, just a healthy skepticismthat gave birth to The Public Interest. It was not merely skepticism, however, about the efforts to solve the "urban crisis" through the Great Society programs, but alsoand one tends to forget thisa skepticism toward all of the apocalyptic fears so prevalent in the 1960s. There was the fear of "automation," the anxiety over a society dehumanized by something called "cybernetics." An extraordinary amount of nonsense, both widely pessimistic and optimistic, was infusing our national discourse. A dose of cool-headed skepticismof "reality therapy," if you willseemed to be in order.
This skepticism was, to some degree, the product of the social sciences in which most contributors to The Public Interest have been professionally or semi-professionally involved. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out in these pages, contemporary social or economic analysis is far more powerful in exposing the fallacies in, or limitations of, popular socio-economic ideas than in coming up with "solutions" to socio-economic problems. Rigorous statistical analysis always does tend to throw cold (or at least cooling) water on reformist enthusiasm÷hence the reputation earned by The Public Interest, from its earliest days, of being in some sense "conservative." In fact, only a minority of Public Interest contributors have ever been conservatives, or even "neoconservatives." But there is no doubt that if you go around constantly chastening utopian enthusiasm, or offering reasons for curbing reformist enthusiasm, you are bound to find yourself regarded as a conservative element.
Thus, in one of our very first issues Professor Daniel Elazar pointed out that we were not, in truth, becoming a "nation of cities," and that Lyndon Johnson and his staff had misconstrued certain data supplied to them. They had asked the Census Bureau for the percentage of Americans now living in cities. A simple question, apparentlybut one to which there is no simple answer. The Census Bureau, it turns out, has no official definition of a "city." It does, however, have a definition for an "urban place"i.e., a community with a population of more than 2,000 souls. So the Bureau transmitted this information to the White House, which then incorporated it into a notable presidential address, and it came out that 70 percent of all Americans lived in cities (not, as was the actual case, in "urban places"). That statistic was then picked up by the media, which broadcast it repeatedly and emphatically until it became a "fact." It was, of course, a very convenient fact for all those who believed the nation needed a set of new, expensive social policies directed to assisting the masses of the poorespecially the black poorwho were congregated in our cities. I specify "black poor" because it could be shown that, statistically, the majority of the poor were whites who did not live in cities. But the emotional appeal of the civil rights movement had become so strong that most liberals quasi-automatically identified the "poor" with "black."
I remember discussing this matter, over drinks, with one of Mayor Lindsay's chief assistants, suggesting to him it might not be such a good idea to run for president as the "urban candidate" when the United States, so far from becoming "a nation of cities," had become a nation of suburbs and exurbs. He looked at me disbelievingly and decided that he really wasn't interested in further conversation. That was also the reaction of the journalists whose attention was called to Elazar's article. They didn't challenge it; they simply expressed astonishment and then proceeded to ignore it. Ideological passionsincluding the passion of compassionare often strong enough to ride roughshod over inconvenient facts. The idea of a "nation of cities" only faded out of public discourse as it gradually became clear that there was no "urban crisis" to which government could provide a "solution"only a distressful "urban condition" with which we had to cope as best we could. Unsurprisingly, "coping" rather than "solving" lacks dramatic appeal for journalists as for politicians.
One of the more "innovative" Great Society programs that provoked a severe skepticism in the pages of The Public Interest was the War on Poverty, structured so as to mobilize the urban poor for "community action" that would coerce government to redistribute income and political power in a more egalitarian way. Practically all of the "founding fathers" of The Public Interest had themselves risen from the ranks of the urban poor or near-poor, and they did not think much of this strategy. They saw jobs and education as still constituting the only effective passages out of poverty, and regarded militant "community action" as likely to be counterproductive. But those who authored the War on Poverty were, for the most, upper middle-class graduates of elite universities who had been dazzled by trendy sociological theories to the effect that "empowering the poor" would so uplift the spirits of those living in poverty, would so quicken their incentives to move out of poverty, that the long, slow, traditional climb up the ladder of economic mobility could be circumvented.
In the event, The Public Interest's skepticism turned out to be fully justified, as "community action" became a vehicle for ambitious racial and ethnic politicians to shape profitable careers for themselves by engendering the maximum feasible conflict. But, here again, there was no explicit repudiation of an unsuccessful program. Its supporters simply went on to other trendy ideas, convinced that whatever mischief they had perpetrated was more than justified by the righteousness of their intention.
Poverty, obviously, has always been a central concern of this journal and the approach has been (and is) what is called "pragmatic." That is to say, one does what is do-able, one does what historical experience tells us will work, and one eschews all fanciful, new-fangled theories about the causes and cures of poverty. We know how most people, most of the time, emerge out of poverty. There are two key aspects to this process.
The first is economic growth that creates opportunities. A rising tide may not lift up all the ships, as President John F. Kennedy said, but it unquestionably gives a lift to most of them. Job creation through economic expansion is of a magnitude that dwarfs all other modes of stimulating employment÷however useful, in a supplementary way, these latter may be. To be sure, not all those ships rise to an equal degree. But The Public Interest has always been far more interested in economic mobility than in economic equality or inequality, measured in static terms. Conventional estimates of the "distribution of income," as Mark Lilla was later on to point out in our pages, disguise the all-important fact that it is not the same people who, over time, are frozen in those income brackets. People move up, people move down, and at the margins the movement is much more than marginal. Only a minority, in any generation, make spectacular movesbut, then, no one ever claimed that Horatio Alger's heroes were typical Americans, only that they were possible Americans. Obviously, those attracted to the socialist ideal of an economically egalitarian societyand a large number of non-socialists seem to be so attractedwill remain dissatisfied with this state of affairs. But the world has yet to present us with a socialist society that is either prosperous or truly egalitarian, and there are many good reasons for thinking that this is an impossible dream.
Just how one goes about achieving such job-creating economic growth is an issue that, for many years, The Public Interest did not concern itself with. It was assumed that some version of Keynesianism was adequate to the task. Even now, when economic theory is in disarray and economic policy so controversial, this issue is dealt with only occasionally and tentatively. The sad truth is that disclosure on economic policy has by now become so technical that even those with a professional (or at least keen) interest in social policy find it very difficult to follow. We did publish some early articles on "supply-side economics" (including the first graphic presentation of the "Laffer curve"); we did publish a special issue÷which subsequently sold very well as a book, in several languages÷on the "Crisis in Economic Theory"; and we do publish, every now and then, an economics article that seems to make sense while being relatively readable. But there is no consensus on economic policy among members of our publication committeeI am, for instance, the lone "supplysider"and from a narrow, parochial point of view it is an editorial misfortune for us that the problematics of economic policy should have gained such prominence. For us, economic analysis is primarily a useful tool for an inquiry into social problems and social policy.
The second key aspect of the process whereby poor people move out of poverty involves individual motivation, including the motivation to acquire those skills necessary to get and hold a job. This, of course, points to the significance of a well-functioning educational systema topic that has been a major focus of The Public Interest for the past two decades. I think it accurate to say that most of our articles pointed to what is now defined as a "conservative" position, emphasizing the need for school discipline and school morale, for concentration on "the basics," etc. "Permissive" and "progressive" education might be appropriate, more or less, for upper-middle class pupils who come from highly literate homes, and who are quickly able to move beyond the basics. But experience has taught us that working-class and slum children need the more traditional, "structured" schools. That this is so is suggested by the fact that black immigrants from the slums of the West Indieswhere the schools are "old-fashioned" in a British wayend up doing much better, economically and socially, than their American-born counterparts. It is also suggested by the fact that where such education is provided in American ghettos, either in private (usually parochial) or public schools, the young people achieve higher levels of competence.
Any such approach, however, meets massive resistance from our educational establishment. Not only has the thinking of this establishment, for more than half a century now, been shaped by a "progressive" educational philosophy, but it is also the case that teaching the basics is a lot less attractive, since it involves so much routine, than teaching classes in "the History of Revolutions," or whatever. So change is bound to come slowly. Most of the contributors to The Public Interest find a possible mechanism of such change in offering parents more choice among the kinds of schools they can send their children to. Such choice can find expression in a universal voucher system, a voucher system for public schools only, or a pattern of "alternative" public schools that range from the very "progressive" to the most severely "traditional." Just which mechanism will ultimately be most acceptable politically remains to be seen, but one does have the impression that, on the level of ideas, this battle is at least half won.
A growing economy and an educational system which, however inept, does work for many Americans, have significantly reduced the level of poverty in the past twenty years. On the other hand, it must be admitted that progress has not been nearly so impressive as one had a right to anticipate. There are, in my view, two reasons for this.
First of all, there has been an unwillingness to focus our resources where they can be most effective. This is most obvious in the case of the elderly. Not that the elderly poor are, statistically, such a major problem. The percentage of elderly poor has been reduced from 25 percent to 5-11 percent (depending on whether one "cashes in" the value of Medicare) in these past decades, and most elderly Americans are managing quite well indeed. Almost 75 percent of Americans over 65 are homeowners, some 60 percent of Americans over 65 own mortgage-free homes, and the average savings account of the over-65 household is $65,000. Still in our affluent society it is a scandal that any senior citizens should have to scrape along below the poverty level. Why does this problem remain unsolved? After all, those elderly need nothing but moneynot education, or job training, or anything like thatand the total sum needed to bring all the elderly out of poverty is relatively modest. So why hasn't that money been spent to that purpose?
Well, it hasn't been done because a decision has been made not to do ita decision, incredibly, made by liberals, as well as conservatives. An anecdote will illustrate this point. Back in 1968, President-elect Richard Nixon appointed Professor Edward Banfield of Harvard to head a task force on social policy. Ed Banfield asked me to joineven though I had publicly supported Hubert Humphreyand I did. At the first (and only) meeting I attended, I urged that the limited additional resources available be directed toward abolishing poverty among old people, if necessary to the exclusion of increases in other programs. This was desirable, I argued; it was doable; let's do itlet's win one battle, a clear-cut victory, in the war against poverty. To the best of my recollection, only Arjay Miller supported my suggestion. All the others on the task forcesome twenty experts, many of them liberal social scientistsput me down. To abolish poverty among old people would, by itself, be a dangerous maneuver, they argued, for it would leave the rest of the poor "defenseless." The presence of old people among the poor, they explained, and especially their presence on television programs about poverty, was necessary in order to excite popular compassion for the poor in general. So poverty among the elderly should only be addressed as part of a larger anti-poverty program. And that's why the elderly poor are still with us.
Presumably, one of these days an administration in Washingtonmore likely a Republican than a Democratic administration, I am inclined to thinkwill simply seize this bull by the horns and put it out of play. Meanwhile, we can expect to continue seeing the elderly poor on television, where they will be fulfilling their prescribed role as appealing surrogates for the poor in general.
The second reason why so many poor are still with us has to do with developments in our urban ghettos. Skeptical though The Public Interest may have been about key aspects of the War on Poverty, or about many of the Great Society programs in general, it must be said that no one was prepared for the startling multiplication, over the past twenty years, of female-headed families, especially in the black ghettos. True, Pat Moynihan was quick to perceive the emergence of this problem in his famous "Moynihan Report," and the phenomenon was noted with concern in our pages. But it is fair to say that no onecertainly not the sponsors of the Great Society programs, or even its criticsanticipated that this problem would metastasize so rapidly. Today, it is the social problem, since it seems to be breeding an "underclass" that is rife with social pathologies of every kind and which appears to be "out of reach" of social policy.
Why did this happen? There is currently a sharp debate in progress, among social scientists, centering on Charles Murray's Losing Ground, as to whether the liberal social policies and programs of the past two decades themselves helped accelerate this trend. As is always the case with such social science controversies, it is possible to marshal a lot of evidence pro and contra. My own view is that Mr. Murray has a clear, if not decisive, edge in this debate. This view is based in part on common sensethere really is no other explanation that is credible. It is also based on historical experience. In 1983, The Public Interest reprinted excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Memoir on Pauperism," dealing with the paradox that, a century and a half ago, Britainthen the most affluent of European nationshad created what seemed like a large, permanent underclass, by reason of its generous welfare policies. Tocqueville's point was that incentives to dependency are as real and effective as incentives to self-reliance, and that dependency can be a corrupting, self-perpetuating human condition. Anyone who has had first-hand knowledge of poor people will have little trouble acknowledging the power of this thesis. It is not, as some say, a case of "blaming the victim." It is, rather, a case of blaming the unwitting victimizerspeople who, in devising social policy, allowed the passion of compassion to obscure the coarse realities of human nature.
Whatever the roots of the problem, however, the fact that it is a problem only a few misguided ideologues will deny. These ideologues are to be found mainly in the radical fringes of the "women's lib" movement, and they assert blindly that not having a man in the house need not be a handicap at all, and may even be a kind of blessing. However valid this may be for upper-middleclass professional women (and I don't believe it to be valid at all) it is nonsense when applied to poor black women in the ghetto. They want and need a man in the houseto help pay the bills, to help raise the children, to provide companionship. Indeed, more often than not, in their desperation, they have a whole series of men in the house as transient husbands and fathers. This, unfortunately, only aggravates the various social pathologies that are endemic to the situation.
But what can we do about it? Never in my experience has there been such a casea major social problem before which all social scientists, despite their brave, sophisticated chatter, have absolutely nothing to say. Why do teen-age girls, in an age of cheap contraceptives and easy abortions, persist in getting pregnant and having children? Why do so many black men refuse to take responsibility for their families and abandon them? We are dealing here with one of those mysteries of human motivation about which social science cannot really enlighten us (though many social scientists pretend they can). Another way of putting it is that we are dealing with a problem of individual and social psychology that is as much "cultural" as it is social or economic. Such problems are extraordinarily difficult to cope with, since they involve changing people and not simply the conditions in which people find themselves. Changing people is hard, as those who have worked with Alcoholics Anonymous, or with the rehabilitation of criminals and drug addicts, can testify. Yes, revisions in social policy that affect economic incentives can be useful. But we now have a large population whose economic sensibilities have been so deadened, and whose sense of responsibility to other people has been so stunted, that many will not respond rationally to the normal incentives of an economic or social program.
It is becoming more and more obvious that what is needed is the kind of black leadership that goes into the ghettos and works to "uplift" these people. What is wanted is a black John Wesley to do for the "underclass" in the ghettos what Wesley did for the gin-ridden, loose-living working class in eighteenth-century Britain. Reformation has to be on the agenda, not just relief. More and more black scholars and publicistsa Glenn Loury, a William Raspberryare saying this. But the major black organizations and their leadership still seem to prefer political involvement, with all the preferments this offers. Unfortunately, the one thing that can be said with certainty is that black politicians can no more solve or even ameliorate the problems of the ghetto than white politicians can.
The failure (or at least non-success) of so much of social policy in the past twenty years can be exaggerated. Not every program failed and there are a few important ones that represent positive achievements. Medicare, for instance, is in my opinion an example of such a program. It has radically improved the quality of life for elderly Americans. Indeed, I am not even much upset by the extraordinary liberalization of Social Security benefits, a topic that seems to obsess so many conservatives in Congress and out. Redistribution of income by governmental fiat may not be a good idea in general, but redistribution from our younger citizens to their elders is an exception to which I would concur. After all, something had to be done for our elderly who now live so much longer than they used to÷often outliving their children, indeed. And one need not worry about corruption-through-dependence of the elderly; that is the one misfortune they are immune to.
True, even such desirable programs for the elderly can be so clumsily constructed as to be, over time, economically intolerable. This is not, it must be pointed out, a peculiarly American problem. All the welfare states of Western Europe confront it, and for the same reason: Politicians do tend to be irresponsible in constructing welfare schemes and their political generosity always needs to be corrected by a subsequent economic reshaping. This is painful and controversial always, but it is slowly happening for the simple reason that it must happen if national bankruptcy is to be averted. The Public Interest has played a significant role in coming up with positive programs for such reshapingone has only to think of Martin Feldstein's articles, over the years, on Medicare, unemployment insurance, and Social Security.
Indeed, The Public Interest has always emphasized the modestly positive along with the skeptical. Ours has always really been a meliorist frame of mind. The world is not coming to an end, and American society is not going to collapse, merely because so many liberal social programs have not worked as intended. What is needed are better social programsthough the best are not always identified as being a social program of any kind. Thus, all debates as to whether or not the Social Security system will be bankrupt thirty years from now overlook the crucial new program for the elderly that was put in place in 1981. I refer to Individual Retirement Accounts, which, thirty years from now, will make Social Security income of only marginal significance to most of the retired elderly. The IRA is usually regarded as an instance of economic policy, not social policy, perhaps because it involves people doing the right thing for themselves rather than doing good on behalf of others. One suspects, given the increasing suspicion of professional humanitarians as a class, that more and more "social policy" will henceforth take this form.
Even that seemingly most intractable problem, the swelling "underclass" in the ghetto, is not a cause for despair. The Public Interest is simply not in the despair business. (One would say that this is a typically American trait were it not for the fact that there are so many Americans who clearly are in the despair business.) Those of us who founded this journal, and who have been engaged with it for two decades now, are of a generation that knew a different "underclass"the "Oakies," the sharecroppers of the South, whose condition was so graphically presented to us in Tobacco Road (the first Broadway play I ever saw), so poignantly described in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and so much a focus of passionate concern in the 1930s. Where are they now, those brutalized, dispossessed, helpless people? As a matter of fact, we don't know where they are now, or how they got there. American social science tends only to study the success or failure of governmental programs, not the success or failure of the American economy or our society as a whole.
In a free society, time is not always the enemy. People do liberate themselves from their problems, whether or not we can figure out how to do it for them. It all has to do with a changing economy, changing perceptions, changing attitudes, a constantly changing "culture." I watch my students at the business school flocking to courses in "marketing," and I wonder: Do they still read Death of a Salesman? Do they go to see its many revivals? What do they make of it?
Inevitably, new problems are always being created. But the existence of problems doesn't mean that our world is "imperfect," as is so often asserted. It means that it is still the world, not an imaginary anti-world. And since it is the only world we have in this life, making it a bit more habitable is a pleasurable and satisfying moral activity.