American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan
by Greg Weiner.
University Press of Kansas, 2015.
Hardcover, 189 pages, $30.

In a brief moment before the terrorist attacks of September 11, there was the glimmering of an argument for government transparency. In 1999, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the longtime Democratic senator from New York, published Secrecy, a call for openness based in part on his service on a government commission charged with analyzing how the government obtains and keep information secret. In the book, Moynihan criticizes the government’s reflexive attitude to shield information from public view. Government has grown overprotective of its information, and layers of secrecy only give the illusion of greater security. Moynihan, who died in 2003, called for wider de-classification of secret information to allow greater analysis of that information; this he thought would prove a greater contribution to the common good.

His concerns attracted some attention, but September 11 changed all that; in its aftermath, Americans easily accepted the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures whose stated purpose was to increase national security even at the cost of privacy or liberty. Since then, we have gotten only deeper into a late-stage surveillance state. The government absorbs information at an even greater pace than in 1999, and Moynihan’s wise counsel about the danger such an emphasis on secrecy has for self-government has gone largely unheeded.

And so it is with many of Moynihan’s prescriptions, so much so that this book might also quite reasonably have been called American Cassandra. Liberal realism of the Moynihan type has disappeared, replaced by either a reborn socialist progressivism embodied by the followers of Bernie Sanders, or a grim ideology of identity politics embodied by Hillary Clinton’s supporters.

Rather than Cassandra, however, Greg Weiner has chosen to pair Moynihan with Edmund Burke, the great eighteenth-century Whig reformer whose Reflections on the Revolution in France was also a prophecy of a sort. Weiner argues that Moynihan represents a liberalism that has more in common with a Burkean conservatism than with either the leftism of the 1960s or 1970s or contemporary progressivism. This liberalism is characterized by support for government involvement to affect positively the nonpolitical life of democratic society, combined with skepticism of its power and a respect for the complexity of social institutions. Weiner is not claiming Moynihan for any kind of contemporary conservatism; as he notes, Moynihan consistently used the term liberal to describe himself, even as he noted shifts in liberalism from the 1960s through the end of the century. But he is arguing that Moynihan was a liberal of a Burkean kind. That kind may be summarized in a saying Moynihan often uttered, that people may be entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. This does betray a quaint faith in the reality of “facts,” a former liberal virtue now lost in our post-critical theory world. In a political environment where everything from the success of a national policy to the normal, sometimes rough, interactions of democratic society is reduced to hurt feelings or amorphous “oppression,” Moynihan’s unique voice risks being lost.

Weiner, a professor of political science at Assumption College, charts, through extensive use of published and archive materials, how Moynihan expressed this “uncommon” liberalism across his remarkable career. Beginning as an aide to Governor Averill Harriman of New York, Moynihan went on to serve in a number of positions inthe Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations, including ambassador to the United Nations and to India, prior to being elected to the Senate in 1976, where he stayed until he declined to run for reelection in 2000. In between, Moynihan held posts at Harvard, among other places.

This is not a full-length intellectual biography. Weiner passes over, for example, Moynihan’s influential work on race, such as his 1965 report on the African-American family when he was with the Department of Labor. There is also little here about Moynihan’s youth in New York, where he and his family struggled, nor of his time on a relative’s farm where he spent his childhood summers. But these experiences—of ethnicity and the example of hard work, of urban poverty and rural life—cannot be discounted in how they informed his later assessment of how social policy would affect what he did call, channeling Burke, society’s “little platoons.” Rather, Weiner focuses on how Moynihan thought about politics and what the loss of such a perspective might bode for American political life.

Moynihan deployed his considerable rhetorical and political gifts for any number of liberal causes, but also came out against liberal policies he thought were, in effect, illiberal. Thus, by the time he ended his stint at the Johnson administration, Moynihan had become disillusioned by the initiatives of Johnson’s Great Society. Moynihan was a New Deal Liberal in part because he saw the New Deal programs as ameliorative of the conditions of the poor. The later programs of the Great Society took on for Moynihan a different character; they were, in Wiener’s words, “micromanagerial and transformative.… The War on Poverty, in fact, was quickly distorted into a vehicle for the interests of the professionals purportedly doing the transforming,” with the result that its policies essentially shifted wealth from the groups supposedly assisted by them to the program administrators themselves. The trick of effective social policy was to achieve the former result while avoiding the latter pitfall. Moynihan’s proposed solutions, such as a guaranteed income or the allowance of individualized charitable deductions for taxpayers who did not itemize, were, Weiner persuasively argues, based on the senator’s respect for Burkean principles. They were designed to help people contribute to the larger life in the nation in their own way.

In addition to Secrecy, Moynihan wrote eighteen other books, on topics ranging from the family to nuclear proliferation, as well as countless articles, reviews, and essays as he moved between the public and private sectors. Moynihan was at his best when he worked at the intersection between ideas and their implications, and empirical data. A faith in the power of government—combined with a healthy suspicion of it—informs his work. As an accomplished social scientist, Moynihan knew as much as anyone that such science is retrospective, at best, and not a blueprint for utopia. He often quoted progressive sociologist Peter H. Rossi’s “Iron Law of Evaluation,” which holds that the “expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.” While such a principle provides, for some conservatives, a simple veto for any social program, Moynihan saw this sobering conclusion as an opportunity; any result over zero is therefore a win for the common weal. Thus his respect for, but ultimate disagreement with, the conservative British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. There are not many senators today who would be able to quote Oakeshott, much less any senator who knows enough to reasonably disagree with some of his positions. But disagree Moynihan did; he thought Oakeshott’s analysis correct, but disagreed with the “quietism” he saw in that form of conservatism. As a politician, he could not, he thought, always just stand aside, even though as a scholar he sometimes thought that the best approach. There was too much that could still be done, even with a recognition of human weakness and the blunt tools of government policy.

Weiner explores Moynihan’s relationship to the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social thought, finding in it a pillar of a Burkean outlook. Moynihan sometimes quoted such papal encyclicals as Quadragesimo Anno to the effect that social policy should be made by and for those closest to those bodies that are most likely in the best position to understand and implement such policies; they are also likely to be the more accountable. Moynihan’s was the liberalism of the neighborhood, despite his knowledge of its weaknesses and limitations. Moynihan saw this as a liberal principle, one that accepted a true pluralism of a myriad of social and other institutions to address a multiplicity of human needs, and not just problems of policies. He was disappointed that in the 1960s and 1970s, liberalism was, as he wrote, in “a period of unprecedented attachment to whatever it is that is the opposite of the principle of subsidiarity.” Although he was hopeful that liberalism was growing out of such a period, events would prove him wrong.

For liberalism was moving in a different direction from the one championed by Moynihan. Paraphrasing Russell Kirk, politics was for Moynihan the art of the possible. It was not the platform for an ideology untethered to history or what Weiner calls circumstance. Moynihan criticized Reagan conservatives and Great Society liberals alike for letting ideology blind them to the facts. Politicians must stand for and defend principle, but how they do so, and to what extent politics can force a people to accept certain principles, is a matter of prudence. Too often, governments that believe that they have the surest recipe for the common good, such as “equality” or the “rule of the proletariat,” have enforced their vision at the gallows.

Moynihan saw a dark future for liberalism. For the social engineers of the Left, it was not enough to provide people with the means to let them live as they wished. They must now be rewarded or punished for what they believe; “politics,” Moynihan complained, “has become a process that also deliberately seeks to effect such outcomes as who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where, who feels how.” This liberalism is on display daily in the mainstream media, and has filtered into every corner of our culture. The liberalism of the neighborhood, where government is a support for local liberties and not a tool for bureaucrats to impose their ideology or social engineering schemes, still needs its American Burke.  

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.