The Stockman Episode

The Triumph of Politics

by David Stockman
Harper and Row, 422 pp., $21.95

The Real David Stockman

by John Greenya and Anne Urban, introduction by Ralph Nader
St. Martin's, 302 pp., $15.95

The point has often been made: If you hear someone in public life say that he is going to stand firmly on principle, you should take cover and warn others to do the same. There is going to be suffering. So it is, at least in economic and social policy and action.

This is not to say that stalwart ideological commitment is without purpose. A commitment to free enterprise or socialism, to liberalism, neoliberalism, conservatism, neoconservatism, or the new right, is eminently serviceable to self-esteem and as a form of self-identification. It also allows a certain freedom from thought: “That is my position and I stand on it.” And it helpfully classifies political expression and behavior, makes it more predictable, and serves to unite people in a highly visible way beneath a common banner. Further, ideology brings a dignified righteousness to social, political, and economic expression and action: “I am, let me assure you, faithful to my cause.”

What is less often recognized is that rigorous ideological commitment is of greatly negative value for governing a country, especially for making economic policy, and is a positive threat to social tranquility and economic well-being. Economic and social institutions are in a constant process of change; ideological commitment, by its nature and strongly avowed virtue, is static. Accordingly, guidance therefrom is likely to be obsolete, obsolescent, or irrelevant. Never is it so comprehensive in guidance as to take account of the greatly diverse circumstances of real life. The United States has survived, at least until now, by the willingness of governments, large and small, to make practical concessions to change and to diversity. A reluctant pragmatism has been our salvation.

Such, for example, was the Keynesian response to the increasing severity of booms and busts—the capitalist crisis culminating in the Great Depression. Such was the welfare response to the cruelty that the classical system once visited on the old, the unemployed, the helpless young, the handicapped, the homeless, and, of course, the minorities, all with resulting alienation and anger. Such was the response in the United States, as it was in all the other industrial countries, to the way the free market in its most nearly perfect competitive form subjects agriculture to intolerable uncertainty and economic trauma. Such was the response to the mistreatment of women and minorities. It has been, to repeat, by an inchoate pragmatism far outside any convenient ideological identification that the country has been held together.

The liberal mind, no doubt, has been more open to pragmatic accommodation than the conservative mind, but by no means exclusively so. Jesse Helms stands staunchly and rhetorically for the free market and for a uniquely rigorous quota and licensing system for the tobacco producers (or landowners) who help to assure his election. Similarly other stalwart southern conservatives with respect to peanuts. In the broader sense, there is the fact that no industrial or financial enterprise, if it is large enough, is any longer allowed to fail. First the speeches on…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.