A great mind exposes ideological illusions, while thinking through better alternatives.
The following are excerpts from essays that appeared in The Wall Street Journal by Irving Kristol, who died yesterday at age 89. An editorial on his legacy appears nearby.
Symbolic Politics and Liberal Reform, Dec. 15, 1972
“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and I would like to suggest that the same can be said for bad politics. . . .
It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of what we call “the New Politics” is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings—we must “care,” we must “be concerned,” we must be “committed.” Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.
The Conservative Prospect, June 13, 1975
But there is little question that the ideological atmosphere as a whole has changed, and in a direction that can be fairly called conservative. . . . Expectations that outdistance reality by too much create unstable people and unstable societies. A politics which constantly incites such expectations is a politics of disorder, and ultimately of self-destruction. We have, in this past period, lived through such a politics and have experienced its baleful power. Now the American people seem to be saying that it is a time for sobriety and self-discipline.
The ‘New Cold War,’ July 17, 1975
If the United States is to gain the respect of world opinion, it first has to demonstrate that it respects itself—its own institutions, its own way of life, the political and social philosophy that is the basis of its institutions and its way of life. Such a sense of self-respect and self-affirmation seems to be a missing element in our foreign policy.
Reforming the Welfare State, Oct. 25, 1976
Our urban experts, planners, and social scientists generally . . . are people who are convinced that, if fully employed and given adequate budgets, they can successfully practice the art of making everyone healthier, wealthier, and happier. Congress has listened to them, and has structured legislation according to their design; and we are now paying the bills. It is these activities—in education, urban revitalization, mental health, welfare, etc.—which constitute an excrescence on the welfare state, properly understood. It is these programs, which do not work and involve vast intricate bureaucracies, that are bringing the welfare state into disrepute.
Détente and ‘Human Rights,’ April 15, 1977
Ironically, what makes the idea of “coexistence” so precarious is that there are so few Communists in the Soviet Union for us to coexist with. It is only terror and coercion that keep the regime in power—which, in turn, is why the Soviet rulers cannot possibly view the issue of “human rights” as simply one aspect of a larger ideological debate. For them it represents a clear and present danger.
Toward a ‘New’ Economics?, May 9, 1977
A “new” economics is beginning to emerge. Based on the critique of Keynesianism by the “monetarist” school, as further developed (in a rather heterodox way) in the work of such economists as Robert Mundell and Arthur Laffer, and as vigorously publicized by Jude Wanniski of The Wall Street Journal and Congressman Jack Kemp, it is still in an embryonic condition and the world has not yet taken much notice of it. . . .
One uses the inverted commas around that term “new” because, in truth, much of the “new” economics is very old—as old as Adam Smith, say. Its focus is on economic growth, rather than on economic equilibrium or disequilibrium, and it sees such growth arising from a free response (e.g., investment, hard work, etc.) to the economic incentives of a free market. . . . At the moment, and under the existing circumstances, the major emphasis by far of the “new” economics is on the need for a substantial, across-the-board cut in tax rates, because it is the high level of tax rates that is stifling incentives to growth. . . .
It is hard to overstate the importance of the fact that, for the first time in half a century, it is the economic philosophy of conservatives that is showing signs of intellectual vigor, while the economic philosophy of liberalism keeps tying itself into ever more elaborate knots.
The White House Virus, April 17, 1978
Most politicians, most of the time, will end up yielding, however reluctantly, to the reality principle.
Our Foreign Policy Illusions, Feb. 4, 1980
The foreign policy of the United States ought to have as its central purpose a world order that has been shaped, to the largest degree possible, in accord with our national interests as a great power that is free, democratic and capitalist.
Two Economic Questions, June 26, 1980
Our economic problems are not intractable. We can bring down—are bringing down—the rate of inflation. We can afford a tax cut without creating economic chaos. Despite the follies of the past decade, our economy is not at the edge of apocalypse. Economic policies that are just a bit more sensible, especially in the areas of taxation and regulation, can make a lot of difference for the future.
On the other hand, once the idea gets around that we are in a profound crisis and that only “drastic action” by Washington can save us—then it will be time to head for the storm cellars.
Whatever Happened to Common Sense?, Jan. 17, 1984
Or take the issue of crime. It is not sufficiently appreciated how extraordinary—one can even say unique—the situation with regard to crime is in the U.S. today. Ours may well be the first society in all of human history in which the average citizen lives with the constant fear of being victimized by criminal assaults against his person—assaults perpetrated, not by the government or its police forces, but by one’s fellow citizens. It is a novel condition. . . . How did it happen?
A good part of the answer is that our sociologists and criminologists and jurists have applied their theories and their presumed expertise to create a criminal justice system that was supposed to reduce criminality but has instead caused it to proliferate wildly. It is an ironical fact that those so-called “less-developed” nations, which have far fewer criminologists than we do, also have much lower crime rates. That is what results when one permits “sophisticated” theories—elaborate ideologies, really—to prevail over common sense and traditional wisdom. In modern societies, crime (like education) becomes a problem when our expert theorists make it one.
The Old World Needs a New Ideology, April 1, 1985
The administration of Ronald Reagan is a fascinating meld of two strands of conservative thinking. The first is a traditional conservatism that emphasizes the prudential management of both economic affairs and foreign policy.
At least half the time, Mr. Reagan speaks and acts as such a traditional conservative. But he also, at critical moments, speaks and acts as a new kind of conservative—a “neoconservative.” Neoconservatism is that strange creature, a future-oriented conservatism, stressing the economics of growth rather than of stability, the politics of hope rather than of preservation. It exudes a spirit of buoyant self-confidence rather than of grim defensiveness. It is this new kind of conservatism that marks this administration off from previous Republican administrations. It is neoconservatism that gave rise to supply-side economics and to what one may now call a “supply-side” foreign policy—i.e., a policy of action rather than reaction, as represented by the invasion of Grenada, the Strategic Defense Initiative and support for the contras in Nicaragua.
Life Without Father, Nov. 3, 1994
One of the incontestable findings of modern social science is that fathers are Very Important People. I confess to having been astonished to discover just how important we are. Important in all sorts of unexpected ways. Thus, it turns out that almost two-thirds of rapists, three-quarters of adolescent murderers, and the same percentage of long-term prison inmates are young males who grew up without fathers in the house. I doubt that many fathers have understood that their mission in life had anything to do with the prevention of rape, murder, or long-term imprisonment among their sons.
Income Inequality Without Class Conflict, Dec. 18, 1997
It is often said that capitalism—that is, a market economy—is morally obnoxious because its “trickle-down economics” inevitably creates inequality of income and wealth. Now it is certainly true that “trickle-down economics” has that effect. It is also true, however, that if you want economic growth and greater affluence for all, there is simply no alternative to “trickle-down economics,” which is just another name for growth economics.
The world has yet to see a successful version of “trickle-up economics,” an egalitarian society in which the state ensures that the fruits of economic growth are universally and equally shared. The trouble with this idea—it is, of course, the socialist ideal—is that it does not produce those fruits in the first place. Economic growth is promoted by entrepreneurs and innovators, whose ambitions, when realized, create inequality. No one with any knowledge of human nature can expect such people not to want to be relatively rich, and if they are too long frustrated they will cease to be productive. Nor can the state substitute for them, because the state simply cannot engage in the “creative destruction” that is an essential aspect of innovation. The state cannot and should not be a risk-taking institution, since it is politically impossible for any state to cope with the inevitable bankruptcies associated with economic risk taking.
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