american burke uncommon liberalism of daniel patrick moynihanIntroduction: And You Still Break Stone

Jimmy Carter may have had the nation right, but if he meant to include Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his diagnosis of malaise in the much derided “Crisis of Confidence” address of July 15, 1979, he got the gentleman from New York dead wrong. Touched by experience with a sense of the tragic in politics, Moynihan nonetheless clung to a stubborn optimism about its possibilities. But those possibilities were bounded by a defining feature of Moynihan’s politics: limitation. There were limits to what government could do and, more important, limits to how it should attempt to do it. Government, he said more than once, was good at redistributing wealth and power—a worthy goal to which Moynihan, a New Deal liberal, adhered—but incompetent at carrying out a range of activities it had undertaken, providing services at ever more microscopic levels foremost among them. A cleavage had opened inside liberal thought between those who saw the state as the sole engine of progress and those who believed politics could help nourish “an essential diversity in American life” through which the goals of liberal politics were attained not merely by the state but also by the vast, voluntary sector of what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as civic associations. When Moynihan ascended a podium to give a little noticed but insightful speech to the United Way of America in New York City eight days after Carter’s address, he meant to explain the distinction.

“The President is right to speak to us of a crisis of morale in our society, and we owe him our gratitude for putting this subject at the center of public discourse,” Moynihan said. “But we also owe him our help in understanding its causes,” one of which was the conquest of the public sector by the private sector—something that Joseph A. Schumpeter had predicted and that Moynihan was fond of citing.[1] This was a proper topic not merely of right-left debate but of discussion within the parameters of liberal thought, for

there are indeed two traditions and outlooks which intermingle under the broad canopy of what we frequently characterize as “liberalism.”

One of these I [have] called the pluralist position. It is a view held by those who, with Edmund Burke, believe that

… the nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.

… [T]hese liberals hold that between the individual and the state is to be found a great and beneficent array of social and economic entities. They believe that in the strength of these voluntary, private associations—church, family, club, trade union, commercial association—lies much of the strength of democratic society.[2]

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Here was Moynihan acknowledging a central feature of his politics: the inherent complexity of human society and, therefore, the danger of being seduced by what he called “simplism.”[3] He often quoted scientist and systems analyst Jay W. Forrester’s maxim that “[w]ith a high degree of confidence we can say that the intuitive solution to the problems of complex social systems will be wrong most of the time.” Yet, crucially, Moynihan would add, this “need not be a traumatizing truth”; it might instead be an enlightening, even empowering, one.[4] Similarly, Peter H. Rossi’s “Iron Law of Evaluation”—“that,” in Moynihan’s words, “the expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero”—“is not a counsel of despair. It is useful knowledge.”[5] When his lifelong collaborator the sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote what seemed to be a grim book about the possibilities of social policy, Moynihan accepted the limits his friend identified, but his jacket blurb viewed them capaciously nonetheless: “Yes, there are limits, but they are well beyond our present horizons. Glazer summons us to try once more, and to do better this time.”[6]

Perhaps because he appreciated such limits, Moynihan—the author of dozens of articles and author, co-author or editor of 19 books (more, his friend George F. Will once remarked, than most Senators had read)—possessed an uncanny ability to conceptualize problems in transformative ways. In his imagination, traffic safety became a matter of epidemiology, secrecy a form of regulation. Guns didn’t kill people; bullets did. The problem of welfare was not poverty but dependency. Society was “defining deviancy down”—reclassifying formerly deviant behavior as normal so as not to exceed its quota of abhorrence. A Socratic gadfly who saw his role as challenging orthodoxy wherever it reigned—Moynihan would elucidate government’s limits during periods of Democratic rule and defend its possibilities under Republicans—he now applied that skill at defining problems to the crisis that was cleaving liberalism. He continued in the 1979 United Way remarks:

This pluralistic strain of liberalism may be contrasted to another which I [have] described as “statist.” The term sounds rather more invidious than I intend it—for I well recall the time when it seemed that industrial democracies could endure and progress only through a massive expansion of government involvement in their institutional arrangements. … But today we are also beginning to see evidence of overreliance upon the state as an instrument for improving the commonweal. We see it in the unsteady condition of the family, we see it in the erosion of private education, we see it in the bureaucratic chill that pervades so many of our government agencies, we see it in the faltering sense of neighborhood in our urban centers, we see it even, one might argue, in the awesome decline of citizen participation in our elections. For, again in Edmund Burke’s much-quoted words, “to be attached to the subdivisions, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (germ as it were) of public affections.”

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Moynihan’s complaint lay with Carter’s implicit claim that objecting to lodging further power with the state constituted selfishness and risked, in the President’s term, “fragmentation.” Yet Moynihan rejected with equal force the idea that politics had no role to play in social progress. The risk of state conquest of intermediary institutions was that “the web of family, church, civic and ethnic association, neighborhood and school, through which the individual is linked to the larger institutions of government and the economy” would be strained to the point that there would be “no buffer between the individual and the state.” Yet, crucially, “[t]hese institutions can be strengthened only when government and the ‘third sector’ cooperate to nurture them.” Hence Moynihan proposed, along with his longtime friend Senator Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, to allow individuals who did not itemize deductions to deduct charitable contributions on their tax returns. The expansion of the standard deduction had diminished the incentive for contributions from the average family, he elsewhere explained, transforming the character of intermediary institutions by compelling them to rely increasingly on the privileged.[7] He continued: “The way to the unity we now seek and need does not lie in railing against pluralism, a note that can be heard in castigations of ‘fragmentation’ or ‘narrow interests.’ The way to unity lies in an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of differences, and an understanding that the art of politics consists of drawing them into a harmony that, if not always magnificent, at least is widely acceptable.”

The remarks are worth extended reflection not because they constitute a Rosetta Stone for Moynihan’s thinking, which was too nuanced, complex and vast for a single key to unlock. His experience itself was too diverse to be simply deciphered: aide to Governor Averell Harriman of New York; Assistant Secretary of Labor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’ White House counselor to President Richard Nixon; U.S. Ambassador to India and the United Nations; U.S. Senator; and between it all, a sometime professor and frequent scholar whose published works would have marked him as a first-rate political thinker had he never taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Rather, the United Way remarks bear analysis because they illustrate the unique character of Moynihan’s political thought, which is properly located on the liberal stratum—but a strain of liberalism largely lost since his death in 2003. Moynihan’s liberalism, which I shall argue bears striking affinities to the political thought of Edmund Burke (though I do not mean to trace a genealogy to him) is a politics of both possibility and limitation, one constrained by a respect for social complexity, empirical circumstance, and private association. But it is also a politics of mutual endeavor, one that sees elected government as “the instrument of the common purpose of a free people; [one that] can embrace great causes; and do great things.”[8]

Burke_Statue_Closeup_by_Steven_ChristeThese positions have broken largely along left-right dichotomies in contemporary politics. We are accustomed to the assumption that liberals defend the public sector, conservatives the private; that liberals pursue bold solutions while conservatives warn of complex systems and unanticipated consequences. That one person might hew to both sides and do so consistently seems alien to our discourse. But there is no contradiction here. On the contrary, there is a deep complementarity between the ideas of possibility, on the one hand, and limitation, on the other, between private pluralism and common purpose. Burke, a conserving reformer, embodied both. So did Moynihan, an unrelenting devotee of the New Deal yet an occasional critic of the Great Society, a Cold Warrior eloquent in his denunciations of totalitarianism yet equally stirring as a champion of international law, a fierce defender of welfare yet an innovative leader in its reform. The claim here is not that Moynihan found a balance between the values of possibility and limitation—a sort of centrism of accommodation—but rather that he maintained, and that it is both possible and admirable to maintain, a deep and simultaneous commitment to both. Limitation grounds possibility in the concrete and the real. Pluralism, on Moynihan’s account, magnifies and multiplies what politics alone can achieve. This conviction was reflected in his deep and oft-stated commitment to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the belief that a social problem should be addressed by the closest competent institution to it.

This commitment to both vibrant public authority and the preservation of the private sphere is equally evident in his beliefs in constitutionalism and the dispersal and separation of powers, shown in his fierce commitment as a Senator to the prerogatives of the institution in which he served for four terms. He was a defender of the necessity of a strong presidency but also of a robust Congress that maintained a proper constitutional balance. He crusaded against government secrecy that, among other ails, inflated executive power. One of the benefits of international law, he argued, was that it would ground foreign policy in something other than free-ranging executive will.

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first part of the introduction of American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and it is republished with gracious permission of the author and the University Press of Kansas. The second part may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

[2] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Remarks to the Chief Volunteer Officers and the Chief Professional Officers, United Way of America, July 23, 1979, Daniel P. Moynihan Papers, Library of Congress. Again, I regret that I have not kept box numbers for the archival materials, but nearly all of them can be found chronologically in either the press or speech files.

[3] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Coping: On the Practice of Government (New York: Random House, 1973), 345.

[4] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Toward a National Urban Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 12. He wrote of the same quotation in Coping: “A useful caution, and a goad to the further development of nonintuitive solutions.” (p. 24)

[5] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “How the Great Society ‘Destroyed the American Family,’” The Public Interest, no. 108 (Summer 1992): 61.

[6] Nathan Glazer, The Limits of Social Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), jacket blurb to the 1988 hardcover edition. Glazer’s analysis was arguably far more pessimistic than Moynihan suggested.

[7] Moynihan made this latter point in an October 4, 1978, speech to the Coalition of National Voluntary Associations, Moynihan Papers.

[8] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Came the Revolution: Argument in the Reagan Era (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), 6.

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