The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan
In April, 1969, Arthur Burns, then a counselor to President Nixon, now the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, launched a strong attack within the White House on the “family security system” about to be adopted by Mr. Nixon. Burns caused to be prepared, among other documents, “A Short History of a ‘Family Security System’ ” taken from Karl Polanyi’s account of an eighteenth-century British experiment in poor relief commonly called “Speenhamland.” Polanyi’s account claimed that the income assistance provided to wage workers by Speenhamland had shattered the self-respect, productivity, and independence of the recipients. The Nixon plan, Burns suggested, would have the same result in twentieth-century America.
Two years later, with the Nixon proposal renamed a “Family Assistance Plan” and deeply involved in legislative battles, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward again compared it to Speenhamland, in an article in transaction (May, 1971). Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who as director of Mr. Nixon’s Urban Affairs Council in 1969 had been a principal architect of FAP, now writes that “in this reaction” Piven and Cloward “exemplified the view Nathan Glazer has termed the radical perspective in social policy.” That is, they exemplified what Glazer had said was the radical belief “that there can be no particular solutions to particular problems but only a general solution, which is a transformation in the nature of society itself.”
But curiously enough, Moynihan ascribes none of Glazer’s so-called “radical perspective” to Arthur Burns, even for the same offense. Rather, after refuting Burns’s view, he comments in an effusive footnote “on this remarkable man…an economist of formidable power.” This is a matter of small moment, as compared to the heft of Moynihan’s long and extraordinary book on the rise and fall of FAP, but it points straight to one of its problems—perhaps its major problem.
The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, it should be said at the outset, is a first-class piece of work, maybe the best we have—anyway the best written in English rather than social scientese—on the interplay of government and politics in America, on the complexities hidden in John Kennedy’s frequent remark that “to govern is to choose,” on the difficulties of defining social need, suiting political action to it, and persuading a bewildering constellation of interests and institutions to take and sustain that action. At that high level, Moynihan succeeds brilliantly. Moreover, as he might write in his pontifical yet readable style, Moynihan has the standing to offer us such a work; having served in the cabinet or subcabinet of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, with an imposing academic background in the social sciences, and with one of the quickest intelligences in public or university life today, Moynihan writes with rare authority, with perception tempered by experience, and without much illusion.
His book is full of sage counsel and striking analyses, both of what ails and what distinguishes us. “If there is a pattern among [Americans],” he writes, for example, “it is that of denying the existence of a problem as long as possible, and thereafter quickly ascribing it to some generalized failing of society at large.” Of Congress, which so few academics seem able to comprehend, he observes cogently: “Decision-making is not at the core of its being: representation is.” This was a lesson hard learned, perhaps, from the fate of FAP. And here is Moynihan, often a liberal target in recent years, on the predicament of liberalism after the Tonkin Gulf incident:
The Vietnam war—in no small way, liberalism’s war—was seen to have been profoundly misconceived. In the penumbra of this intense moral revulsion, questions arose about the whole of liberal doctrine in its applied forms. Had they opted for a meliorative view of events that was not sufficiently demanding of either intellectual or political effort? Had they allowed a genuine passion for racial justice to degenerate into something ominously close to acquiescence in self-defeating behavior that perpetuated racial inequality? Had they held to a model of social processes that vastly exaggerated the potential of mild governmental interventions?
Breathes there a liberal with soul so dead that he has not forced himself to consider, if not answer, these questions?
Unfortunately, there is another and prominent level at which The Politics of a Guaranteed Income works only superficially, if with a certain gloss of plausibility: as an apologia for Richard Nixon and as an indictment of liberals, Democrats, “radicals” like Piven and Cloward, middle-class social workers, and the press, all of whom in Móynihan’s view must share the responsibility for the loss of what he believes—probably rightly—would have been the greatest social advance since the Social Security Act, or perhaps in this century.
Intruding this material on the book, to borrow a frequent Moynihanism, “had consequences.” Not only did it make the author seem occasionally condescending, petulant, and even mean-spirited (as in the attack on Piven and Cloward), as if he were part of an interdepartmental doctrinal feud among the associate professors at an especially rarified university (“It was perhaps to be expected that persons associated with public broadcasting would assume that a guaranteed income was a proposal that belonged to Democrats…”; “There was no possibility of getting the press to see otherwise…”; “But this required more subtlety than is typically found among political strategists…”). Worse, Moynihan appears to have concentrated so much on paying off scores and pursuing his thesis that he does not draw the more useful conclusions that by his own account seem to me unavoidable.
Why was it necessary, for example, to contend that Mr. Nixon “never really publicly declared his support for the war,” which shaves a fine point to infinity, and then to declare righteously that all that mattered “in terms of the national press and the liberal audience was that he did not denounce it and dissociate himself from it”? That was not at all true of most of the “national press,” which was and is pro-Nixon; as for the “liberal audience,” was it really to turn from opposition to Mr. Johnson’s war to support for Mr. Nixon’s Vietnamization, which required the invasion of two countries and the bombing of three in order to evacuate one (not to mention four more years and unnumbered Vietnamese and American deaths)?
It is ungracious and untrue, moreover, to write that “a decade of Northern lawyers poking federal injunctions into the hands of Southern politicians and hastening back to Georgetown with tales of redneck vulgarity had produced—what?” Federal civil rights efforts by 1969 had produced a substantial effect in the South, and most of those who sometimes risked their lives to bring about that effect were not Georgetown “elites.” As for redneck vulgarity, Moynihan himself remarks on the “intellectual backwardness” he apparently supposes to be the mark of the South.
This is introductory to the claim that it was Richard Nixon who finally desegregated Southern schools and “implanted” the idea in the South that compliance with court orders was the right thing to do. The schools were desegregated heavily in Mr. Nixon’s years in office, but mostly as the result of court decisions, some of which his Justice Department actively opposed; and if Mr. Nixon implanted any such idea, it was in soil first poisoned by his 1968 campaign rhetoric against forced desegregation, and in favor of “freedom of choice.”
As in his differing treatment of Arthur Burns and Piven and Cloward, Moynihan often seems to excuse in conservatives and Republicans what he condemns in Democrats and liberals. In a long footnote on the failure of certain Great Society programs, he laments the fact that “because [Mr. Nixon] had always assumed that such programs fail, it was too much to hope that an assertion by him that they had failed would be accepted as reflecting a fair-minded reading of the evidence.” But that is only the other side of a coin that Moynihan often cites—that no liberal president, only a conservative like Mr. Nixon, could have proposed anything so radical as a guaranteed income. Such ironies cut both ways.
Moynihan would have it that liberals despised Mr. Nixon too much to support even a liberal social initiative by his Administration; that liberals, Democrats, and professional social workers were so committed to New Deal and Great Society “services” programs that they could neither concede their considerable failure nor recognize Mr. Nixon’s bold new income approach; and that all these became easy dupes of conservative forces and black militants who had their own reasons for wanting to defeat a guaranteed income proposal.
Obviously, there is some truth in all of that, and the polished authority—even the occasional absolution for his misguided adversaries—that Moynihan brings to the account, together with the general disrepute into which liberalism has fallen, undoubtedly will give this thesis much currency. That only serves to obscure, I believe, the greater truth of The Politics of a Guaranteed Income—that guaranteed income is an idea whose time has not yet come in America. If anything, the defeat of FAP in two consecutive Congresses, as well as George McGovern’s bungled $1,000 demogrant scheme, set the idea back. Early last summer, as old guaranteed income proponents, Moynihan and I were congratulating ourselves that at last both candidates in a Presidential election apparently would be touting guaranteed income; but by the time McGovern floundered down to Wall Street in August to bury, not to praise, his demogrants, that notion had gone glimmering. If Mr. Nixon mentioned FAP in what passed for his campaign, it escaped my notice.
No one can prove or disprove a negative, of course, and it may be that if certain things had turned out differently—if liberals had been of larger spirit and if the welfare mothers Russell Long called “black brood mares” had been of greater restraint—FAP would have passed and transformed society. Moynihan’s book leaves me in considerable doubt of that. He makes much—as a means of emphasizing how close success was—of a study in 1969 by the social scientists Cavala and Wildavsky that concluded, “Income by right is not politically feasible in the near future. The President will not support it and Congress would not pass it if he did. The populace is hugely opposed.” In fact, Mr. Nixon soon proposed FAP, the House twice passed it, the Senate twice let it die, and the public never seemed much exercised at its fate.
Were Cavala and Wildavsky so wrong? One of Moynihan’s most extraordinary insights is that the only success FAP actually had was through “a decision-making process in the White House in which sufficient power was concentrated in one man that a decision was possible” and in “the House of Representatives where substantially the same condition obtained.” It obtained there because Chairman Wilbur D. Mills of the Ways and Means Committee, whom Moynihan much admires, “was equally capable of assessing…and responding in a purposeful manner…” and decided to support the Nixon proposal. “Mills’s decision,” writes Moynihan, who displays a sensitive if admiring understanding of the House and its most powerful committee, “was accompanied by a general decision of the House leadership to support FAP.” This assured the rule forbidding amendments under which the House voted and “this in turn ensured the passage of FAP.” It does not much oversimplify to state that once Richard Nixon and Wilbur Mills “assessed and responded,” FAP was assured of going precisely as far as it did; past that point, one-man decision making became impossible and FAP failed politically.