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Keeping Faith with the Old

In response to:

Who Knows the American Mind? from the October 23, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of five books that deal with public opinion survey research [NYR, October 23], Andrew Hacker attributes to me words that I didn’t write, proposals I don’t espouse, and ideas I don’t embrace. He claims that I believe “strict limits must be set on medical treatments for the elderly” and that “Taylor’s proposal will have to mean denials of care.”

But my book, The Next America, doesn’t have a single word on that topic. Nor does anything else I’ve ever written. The book draws on findings from public opinion surveys and census data to explore the many ways America is changing, in realms from race, ethnicity, and immigration, to politics, economics, and religion, to marriage, families, gender relations, longevity, and fertility, to the breathtaking revolution in technology usage.

It also raises a big question: How can our aging society keep faith with the old without bankrupting the young and starving the future? It argues that our policies should be guided by the principle of generational equity. That’s as far as it goes. The book is descriptive, not prescriptive. It isn’t a policy book, and it offers no proposals—on medical rationing or anything else. Might the principle of generational fairness mean that we’ll have to pull the plug on grandma one day? I certainly hope not! Mr. Hacker is of course welcome to speculate, but he shouldn’t invent proposals in my name.

His essay makes several good points about the limitations of survey research. But Mr. Hacker strays once again when he closes his essay with this provocative question: “Does Paul Taylor really want governing given over to a population at home in their [sic] pajamas when the phone rings?”

No I don’t. Nor does anything in my book remotely suggest that I do. I believe that in a representative democracy, elected officials should exercise their best judgment and stand accountable for their decisions on election day.

But I also believe—along with the vast majority of Americans—that these judgments should be informed to some degree by the views of the public. Policies that don’t have public support tend to have short shelf lives. So in our information-rich culture, leaders and followers need to be in an ongoing dialogue. Well-designed surveys enrich this dialogue. They give leaders a better understanding of the hopes and fears, attitudes and values, aspirations and travails of the people they serve.

Does Mr. Hacker really not want our leaders to have access to those insights?

Paul Taylor
Bethesda, Maryland

Andrew Hacker replies:

Paul Taylor writes eloquently about issues of generational equity, including caring for an aging population without, as he says, “bankrupting the young.” So decisions will have to be made about outlays, including medical interventions. His readers can legitimately ask him to explore the implications of his analysis.