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…
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