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Neopersuasion

Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Irving Kristol
Basic Books, 336 pp., $19.95

It is good to be merry and wise,
It is good to be honest and true,
It is best to be off with the old love,
Before you are on with the new.

So advises an old English song. Irving Kristol cannot be accused of not trying to do the “best.” His old loves were all firmly turned off before he embraced neoconservatism. In this engaging book of twenty-nine essays, presented as “reflections of a neoconservative,” the high marks are mostly reserved for neoconservatism, even though the history of old loves is figured with some frank nostalgia.

The book begins with a marvelously readable account of Kristol’s experiences as a Trotskyist at the City College of New York. Another essay, “Memoirs of a ‘Cold Warrior,’ ” provides an interesting discussion of Kristol’s years in waging what he still sees as “a just war,” particularly as a coeditor of Encounter (making the embarrassing discovery later that he “was unwittingly on the CIA payroll”). That battle, we learn, is no longer a major concern of Kristol’s. “My cold war,” he writes in that essay (originally published in 1968), “is largely over.” The conflict of Soviet interests with those of the United States “can make life dangerous and depressing,” but “it is no kind of special problem for intellectuals” (page 23). Precisely this concern with the special problems—and the special role—of intellectuals seems to motivate Kristol’s deep involvement in developing a neoconservative way of political thinking.

The development of neoconservatism as an approach is an important phenomenon in American political thinking, and neoconservatives have been described—not without reason—as “the men who are changing America’s politics.”1 There can be no doubt about the importance of Kristol’s position in the development of the neoconservative “persuasion”—to use an old-fashioned term that he himself prefers over the word “movement.” He is a leading exponent of that persuasion, and has outlined in a number of essays—many of them reproduced here—the contents and distinctive features of neoconservatism.

Many distinguished intellectuals are associated with the neoconservative persuasion. Kristol mentions the names of Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Roger Starr, Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q. Wilson. But he goes on to note that they “all shy away from the designation,” and some others, such as Robert Nisbet and Edward Banfield, call themselves simply “conservative.” But Kristol himself has had no great difficulty in accepting the designation “neoconservative” (a term originally coined, it appears, by Michael Harrington). Kristol speculates that he “may be the only living and self-confessed neoconservative, at large or in captivity” (page 74). The book jacket describes Kristol—a little ambiguously—as “the ‘godfather’ of neoconservatism,” which must be a reference to his willingness to name and foster the persuasion rather than to his style of persuading.

What is neoconservatism? It is, says Kristol, “a current of thought emerging out of the academic-intellectual world and provoked by disillusionment with contemporary liberalism” (pages 75-76). Kristol lists eight distinguishing features of neoconservatism, of which this is the first. There are really two assertions in this feature of neoconservatism: (1) its academic-intellectual connection (elaborated later by noting that the relation of neoconservatives with the business community is “loose and uneasy”), and (2) its liberal heritage and origin. This latter claim is a little astonishing. In renewing conservatism, Kristol also seems to advocate renewing liberalism: he wants “a return to the original sources of liberal vision and liberal energy so as to correct the warped version of liberalism that is today’s orthodoxy” (page 75). Are we, then, talking of “neoconservatism,” or of “neoliberalism”? Or were “the original sources of liberal vision” essentially conservative? Perhaps they were, but Kristol does not show why that should be taken to be the case.

Neoconservatives certainly defend modern capitalism, but Kristol explains that they make a rather “modest” claim in favor of that system. “Neoconservatives do not think that liberal-democratic capitalism is the best of all imaginable worlds—only the best, under the circumstances, of all possible worlds,” and this “modest enthusiasm” distinguishes “neoconservatism from the Old Right and the New Right.” (Does either the Old Right or the New Right really claim that liberal-democratic capitalism is the best of all “imaginable” worlds?) Neoconservatives are, we are told, “inclined” to believe that “a predominantly market economy—just how ‘predominant’ is a matter for some disagreement—is a necessary if not sufficient precondition for a liberal society.” But Kristol notes that this may not be accepted by Daniel Bell, as “the theoretician for what may be called our ‘social-democratic wing’ ” (page 75). We are, it appears then, talking of a “neoconservative current of thought” that can be seen as “a return to the original sources of liberal vision and liberal energy,” and that has a “social-democratic wing.” As thoughts go, this one is a complex current.

Kristol also identifies some general qualities of neoconservatism, in particular its being “antiromantic in substance and temperament,” and the location of its “philosophical roots” being in “classical—that is, premodern, preideological—political philosophy.” He goes on, then, to note the specific beliefs that characterize neoconservatism. There is belief in “the importance of economic growth” as being “indispensable for social and political stability.” Further, neoconservatives “look upon family and religion as indispensable pillars of a decent society.” Also, they have no quarrel with “a conservative welfare state—what once was called a ‘social insurance’ state,” which is “perfectly consistent with the neoconservative perspective.” Moreover, there is no special difficulty in accepting the state’s role in taking “a degree of responsibility for helping to shape the preferences that the people exercise in a free market—to ‘elevate’ them, if you will” (pages 76-77).

This is much like an ideological cross-word puzzle. And one that has several possible solutions. It is difficult to talk about this mixed bundle as a “persuasion,” even after noting Kristol’s reminder that “persuasion” is “a nice old-fashioned term; a mode of thought (but not quite a school of thought).” That collection of beliefs and characteristics hardly amounts to one mode of thought (except perhaps in the sense of being a “mixed mode,” which the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a mode formed by the combination of different simple ideas”). But no matter. As Hotspur had noted, “thoughts” are “the slaves of life,” and we have to consider how neoconservatism deals with the real-life issues of the contemporary world. Here Kristol has much to offer that is both concrete and distinctive.

One characteristic of neoconservatism that comes through clearly in Kristol’s writings is the special “American” character of the approach. This may not be part of the list of eight features specified by him, and it may be hard to trace it to the “philosophical roots of neoconservatism,” which, as was noted before, are meant to be found in “classical political philosophy.” But, as Kristol explains elsewhere, “neoconservatism is not merely patriotic—that goes without saying—but also nationalist” (page xiii).

Kristol is willing to appeal to the general beliefs of “the American people” to arbitrate what should or should not be a part of the neoconservative creed. Even “elitism”—in the form of “an insistence on standards of excellence and virtue”—is incorporated into neoconservatism on populist—robustly “American”—grounds: “But the ‘neo’ in neoconservatism is its insistence that the American people have always had an instinctive deference toward such standards” (page xiv). Elsewhere, however, he firmly puts the professional economists interested in economic inequality in their place by noting that their concerns are out of line with those of the average American: “The intensity with which economists work out their Gini coefficients, and the subtlety with which they measure income trends in the quintiles or deciles of the population, is matched—so far as I can see—by the utter lack of interest of the average American in their findings.” The “average American” is also able to dispose of other troublesome problems. According to Kristol, “the average American is strongly of the opinion that, leaving the physically handicapped (in which one would include the elderly) aside, there really is no reason for anyone in the lowest quintile of the income distribution to interpret his condition as permanent, since opportunities for ‘bettering one’s condition’ will and do exist” (page 197).

The beliefs and interests of the American people are, of course, open to interpretation, and this gives Kristol considerable freedom in deciding what should be done, and what should, in particular, be included in the program of neoconservatism. When he finds that “the American people, at this moment” are “more and more behaving in a way that would have alarmed the founding fathers” and “more and more behaving like a collection of mobs” (page 64), neoconservatism is not charged with the task of reflecting that preference. Elsewhere a romantic vision of the American people (despite the self-perceived “antiromantic” nature of neoconservatism, noted earlier) is combined with an appeal to demonstrate greatness to non-Americans. “We are a strong nation, and they will respect our own strength, as well as our loyalty to our own political and social ideals, when we behave in a self-respecting way” (page 235).

In an essay called “A Letter to the Pentagon,” Kristol takes the Pentagon to task for not reacting sufficiently to the reported fact that “sailors at a mid-western training facility were refusing to stand at attention when the national anthem was played at the base theater” (page 258). The Pentagon is also asked to hold “proper military parades” on Memorial Day, since “there is nothing like a parade to elicit respect for the military from the populace, just as there is nothing like a parade to instill self-respect and pride among the military.” It also turns out that Kristol “could weep every Memorial Day” watching “those high-school bands go by, led by nubile versions of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, the spectators few and only casually interested” (page 260).

The “Americanism” of this approach certainly has a clear and well-defined character, but it is hardly one that emerges from anything like a neutral reading of the passions and interests of the American people or the “average American.” Consistently with this angled vision of “the character of the people,” Kristol recommends character formation through “individual efforts at moral self-definition” (page 64). Not only can neoconservatives pick and choose between different features of American life to identify the true “character of the people,” they can also, it would appear, authoritatively point out the type of character formation that is needed.

But what about political philosophy? It is much easier to understand a neoconservative “attitude” toward politics than to discern what the political philosophy of neoconservatism is. That is not necessarily a deficiency of neoconservatism. A well-articulated and well-supported political outlook can be very influential even without having any deep political philosophy behind it. But Kristol would not, it seems, be content with such success. That is indeed quite natural for the champion of an approach who traces its “philosophical roots” to “classical political philosophy,” and who sees the approach as reviving “the original sources of liberal vision.” It is important to note in this context that neoconservatism has, in fact, attracted much admiration from independent chroniclers of political thinking and philosophy.

For example, in Great Britain conservative theorists are frequently taken to task for having failed to achieve the philosophical depths reached by neoconservatism in America. In the concluding installment of a three-part study of “philosophy in Britain” published recently in The Guardian, the reader is told.

When you contrast the force of the neo-conservatives around Commentary magazine and Robert Nozig with Paul Johnsons, Roger Scrutons and Sir Alf Shermans around Mrs. Thatcher, it seems we are fielding our pigmies against their giants.2

There is, of course, definitive evidence of the inferiority of British printing in that statement (as Robert Nozick would not be the only one to note), but British inferiority in right-wing philosophy vis-à-vis neoconservatism is less certain.

Kristol notes candidly that “neoconservatism is a syncretistic intellectual movement,” though he goes on to say: “But it aims at more than syncretism; it seeks a new synthesis.” There is no doubt that the mixture of beliefs in the new, conservative, American perspective that neoconservatism puts together can be seen as a synthetic view. But there is little evidence that that intellectual synthesis goes very deep. There is no great difficulty in outlining a political creed that defends a “predominantly market economy” (except, of course, the “social-democratic wing”), accepts a “social insurance” state, champions the family and religion, believes in the importance of economic growth, supports liberal-democratic capitalism, and accepts the role of the state in “helping” people “to shape” preferences to “elevate” them. The hard task would be to establish their interconnections, to defend these features individually and jointly, and to tie up principles with practice. Very little of all this actually occurs in Kristol’s book.

This is not to say that the book is not an important one, which I believe it is. This is partly because of the interest of the various analyses and arguments presented. For example, an excellent essay on “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism” avoids the pitfalls of seeing the father of modern economics in the simplistic terms in which he is so often portrayed. There is an interesting exploration of the contrast between the French-Continental Enlightenment and the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. There is some spirited questioning of socialists for the tendency to brush aside experiences of failure by bewailing the “revolution betrayed” (though the tendency is not as general as Kristol seems to think). But aside from the value of these particular arguments and analyses, there is something illuminating in seeing a consistent set of applications of the neoconservative approach to a range of contemporary problems. Philosophical depth is the wrong thing to look for in Reflections of a Neoconservative; the reach and the quality of the political commentary from an influential perspective ‘are the main attractions of the book.

As a general political commentator, Kristol brings a good deal of passionate involvement into his analyses, vastly enriching their relevance and appeal. This involvement may also explain some liberties that Kristol takes with matters of interpretation. Kristol says: “The root of all socialist economics is the separation of the distribution of wealth from the production of wealth” (page 322). It is presumptuous of me to point out to the exradical from Alcove No. 1 at CCNY that one of the distinctive features of Marx’s economic analysis is the insistence on seeing production and distribution problems as inseparable, and the consequences of this are discussed in many places (including in the Critique of the Gotha Program). There is, in fact, an extensive socialist literature on problems of incentives, and whatever its faults, seeing distribution independently of production is not one of them.

Similarly, in view of the much-discussed features of the Cultural Revolution in China, it is not easy to think that “all of modern socialism is a movement that says it will create a good society, which will then create good people.” Nor is it easy to accept, from someone interested in methodological issues, that the assumption of “other things being equal” can “never apply to the world of human action, human innovation, human willfulness.” If this were so, then there could be no theory of human action, since there are uncountably many potential influences on such action. To see “interpersonal comparison of utilities” as being simply “beyond the scope of economics”—and to think this to be unproblematically so—are not easy feats any longer. There is by now an extensive literature on the interpersonal comparisons that can sensibly be made, and there is no good reason why economists in particular should not be permitted to make these sensible comparisons.3 And is it really the case that “Adam Smith had earlier suggested that the modus operandi of a market economy is such that economic mobility—and the eventual distribution of income as well—would of a certainty be less unequal than in any other kind of society?” Kristol has indeed said this, but not, I fear, Adam Smith.

No, the value of Kristol’s book lies neither in the depth of its political philosophy nor in dispassionately accurate observations and commentary. It lies precisely in the combination of passion and intellect that Kristol brings to the discussion of contemporary political issues. He argues powerfully, drawing on his past and present personal involvements—each strong and deep at the time. He provides lively discussions of political movements and the history of ideas. The book gives an eloquent account of neoconservatism and how Kristol came to this persuasion. Kristol believes that “the quest over the years for a neoconservative point of view is at least as interesting as the point of view that I have finally come to hold today” (page xv). Indeed so. Even, perhaps, more interesting.

  1. 1

    Peter Steinfels, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1979).

  2. 2

    Martin Walker, “Cracking the Mental Block,” The Guardian, January 11, 1984, p. 17.

  3. 3

    Some of this literature is discussed in my essay “Interpersonal Comparisons of Welfare,” published in Economics and Human Welfare, M. Boskin, ed. (Academic Press, 1979); republished in my book Choice, Welfare, and Measurement (MIT Press, 1983).

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