The Right Honourable Moynihan

Review: Greg Weiner’s ‘American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’

Daniel Patrick Moynihan / AP


Intellectuals in public life stand on unsteady footing. Their employers—all of us—are suspicious, and often rightly so. Knowledge can breed overconfidence, imprudence, aloofness, and moral myopia. Yet there are examples of those possessing wisdom that is both contemplative and practical, who can win political success and become a boon to their country. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one. Edmund Burke was another.

With this comparison in mind, Greg Weiner set out to write his treatment of Moynihan’s political thought, American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Weiner, a professor of political theory at Assumption College and a one-time aide to Senator Bob Kerrey, sees Burke less as a direct influence upon Moynihan—Moynihan rarely quoted the great Anglo-Irish politician and writer—and more as a lens through which to examine him. Neither was a systematic thinker, and so an explanation of their mutual principles can never be entirely precise. But however imprecise that exercise must be, the ideas that Burke and Moynihan shared were profound.

Moynihan deserves Weiner’s diligent study and, to some extent, the comparison to Burke. Moynihan’s career and its accomplishments are sui generis. A Navy veteran and a sociology Ph.D., he was assistant secretary of labor under both Kennedy and Johnson, where he worked on what would become the War on Poverty. The result of this work was a 1965 study entitled The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, the first real account of the breakdown of the black family and its consequences. For this sympathetic paper he was accused of victim blaming. Shuttling back and forth between academic and government appointments, Moynihan served Nixon as an advisor on urban problems and Ford as ambassador to the United Nations. In 1976, he defeated Senator James Buckley, and until 2001 he represented New York in the U.S. Senate, where he was an idiosyncratic liberal anti-poverty crusader, a foreign-policy internationalist, and an eloquent gadfly.

All the while, Moynihan wrote essays for such publications as The Public Interest, Commentary, The American Scholar, and The New Republic on everything from the sources of poverty to the nature of bureaucracy to America’s role in the world to what the architecture of Washington, D.C., tells us about the relationship between the individual and the state. Few in any era can look at human affairs at the widest possible scope and say something original and interesting over and over again—in our recent history, no one but Moynihan has done so while actively serving in the government.

In making sense of Moynihan’s many works, Weiner proceeds in stages. He begins by clustering Moynihan’s commitments into a set of core principles—understood as persuasions rather than axioms. Then he sees how those principles came to inform Moynihan’s statesmanship, first in the debates over anti-poverty programs and then in foreign policy. Lastly, Weiner, a loyal Democrat and a Burkean (or at least a Moynihanian), urges his party to acquaint itself with a Burkean liberalism that at this point seems all but dead.

Moynihan’s Burkeanism centers around three main persuasions. First, both men believed, as Weiner put it, "[t]here were limits to the capacity of human beings to manipulate infinitely intricate social systems and limits to the ability of reason to fully comprehend them." Any attempt to shape society would therefore be profoundly difficult. This is why Moynihan, a fervent New Dealer but a critic of the Great Society, favored what he called "policy liberalism" in which government would define a broad-based goal and pursue it in multiple avenues, and in which, because it was assumed many avenues would fail, the approach was never wedded to any particular avenue or program.

The policy liberalism of the New Deal stood in contrast to the "program liberalism" of the Great Society, in which each smaller problem had a dedicated program (and a dedicated interest group). To deal with poverty, Moynihan was skeptical of any elaborate program to change the behaviors of this or that demographic, when government had the power (for example) to guarantee a minimum income. Even more tellingly, when a series of experiments questioned the effectiveness of a guaranteed income policy and pointed to many terrible side effects, Moynihan was willing to change his mind.

Despite this view of the limits of government action, both Burke and Moynihan were reformers. Both of them saw government as having an ameliorative role. Given that Burke lived in a proto-industrial world and Moynihan in a post-industrial one, it isn’t helpful to compare them on the basis of the policies they favored. But that they favored the use of government to solve problems government was capable of solving is undeniable. The Civil Rights movement was one model of effective government that Moynihan celebrated, and another was the New Deal. Mockery of government and its capacities became a staple of Republican rhetoric in the Reagan era, and Moynihan loathed it. Free of both Johnson-era "millennialism" and Reagan-era "meanness," Moynihan insisted that government could improve the lives of vast classes of people, especially the impoverished.

It is in this second comparison where Weiner plays fastest and loosest with Burke, never really addressing how Burke and Moynihan differently weigh their skepticism of the capacity for expert administrators to ameliorate social problems with their bold desire to see such problems fixed. He also is unfair to conservatives: Few get into the business of arguing about government without believing that government should address the problems it is truly capable of addressing well.

The final core similarity, and the one that occasionally prompted Moynihan to quote Burke, is their shared admiration for the local institutions—family, community, and church—that fill the space between the individual and the state. For Moynihan, this idea was rooted in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which prefers that the most local competent institution address the problem at hand. Such mediating institutions were antidotes to alienation and anomie. Moynihan often quoted Burke’s urging to love the "little platoon" each of us belongs to.

For Burke, the little platoon to love was a social class. For Moynihan, a New York City boy, the little platoons were our ethnic enclaves, our churches, and our families. He did not envision a melting pot of uniform Americanness to be lorded over by government. Rather, he thought that ethnic identity and strong local community bonds could do much of the work of self-government. Such a view demanded that one accept that society would contain a variety of doctrines and values—that the Puerto Ricans in the Bronx might deal with the problem of poverty or education differently than the Satmar Chasidim in Brooklyn. This was another reason Moynihan favored the New Deal—which was broadly redistributive but allowed society’s local institutions to flourish—and was a critic of the micromanagerial Great Society.

Modest expectations, reformist aims, and a commitment to subsidiarity—these are the principles of Burkean liberalism, or, we should add, Burkeanism simply. Weiner concludes his study by urging America’s liberal party to rediscover Moynihan, and thereby to rediscover Burke. For those of us who admire both Moynihan and Burke, it’s a sympathetic plea. Whether they ride with the donkeys or the elephants, more Moynihans and more Burkes would be good for this country.

Yet, it’s hard to read American Burke—especially its abortive ending—without concluding that Barack Obama’s party would deem Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his ideas quaint at best. There are two trends in 21st-century progressivism that run counter to Moynihan’s intellectual core, the first having to do with how the left views civil society and the second having to do with what the left expects of social science.

First, Moynihan’s commitment to subsidiarity would find few takers in today’s Democratic Party. The left is increasingly skeptical of the goods provided by local institutions, especially religious ones. The most laughable example of our anti-subsidiarity left is the Obama campaign’s Julia—the archetype of the progressive citizen. She is seen deriving great benefits from the state but has no family, no church, and no community, except her community garden. A more deadly serious example is the Obama administration’s paltry conscience exemption to its mandate that employers’ health insurance covers abortifacients. Only churches are given exemption, not religiously sponsored hospitals, or parochial schools, or business owners who take their religious commitments to be commitments. Religion, according to the Obama administration, is merely prayer, not all the other God-obligated institutions that cause our communities to prosper. At the same time, the administration has no tolerance for the diversity of deeply held views about life and its beginnings.

Second, although a social scientist himself, Moynihan would be out of step with the new social science that is the basis of his party’s general policy approach. Large datasets and powerful computers have allowed econometrics—in which models of society with hundreds of variables are developed—to appear more and more precise, thereby increasing its self-confidence, and liberal policymakers’ confidence in it. Econometric studies consistently lead to powerful talking points: If we pass the Stimulus, unemployment in two years will be at 6.8 percent; if we don’t, it will be at 8.5 percent. Every dollar spent on universal child care will equal $7 in social benefit.

The danger in such a method is always that the model on which these predictions are based might be slightly, but devastatingly incomplete. There might be an important variable one cannot measure or there might be a meaningful cause that is so counterintuitive one forgets to even measure for it. Moynihan criticized this mode of social science in 1970’s Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding:

Social science is at its weakest, at its worst, when it offers theories of individual or collective behavior which raise the possibility, by controlling certain inputs, of bringing about mass behavioral change. No such knowledge now exists…. [Instead,] the role of social science lies not in the formulation of social policy, but in the measurement of results. The great questions of government have to do not with what will work, but with what does work.

Instead of basing his predictions on simulacrums, Moynihan sought to analyze the past, to try to comprehend reality, and to figure out what went wrong. Bit by bit, mistakes might be corrected and experiments might prove partial successes. Anything grander was a delusion.

Too confident in modern social science and too dismissive of religious commitments, today’s Democrats won’t follow Moynihan’s lead any time soon. Republicans are better positioned to be the party of vigorous, limited reform that aims to encourage the space between the individual and the state to flourish—and they have a presidential primary season coming up. For politicians looking to the past for guidance, Greg Weiner’s Burkean Moynihan has much to teach.

Get the news that matters most to you, delivered straight to your inbox daily.

Register today!
  • Grow your email list exponentially
  • Dramatically increase your conversion rates
  • Engage more with your audience
  • Boost your current and future profits