David Brooks: What Went Wrong with the Great Society? Just Ask the Scholars Behind the Public Interest

David Brooks, in the NYT (3-5-05):

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 studied.

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.

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Hugh High - 3/11/2005

It is most regretable The Public Interest is to cease publication. It has contributed importantly to the public interest.

That said, I want to congratulate Mr. Brooks for his fine article. I am unused to seeing good articles in the NYT ; they are most unexpected. This is a refreshing change.

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