Fools Rush In?

Don’t get into theological arguments with Masters of Divinity, and don’t argue Daniel Patrick Moynihan with his most astute intellectual biographer! That is a good rule of prudence, but fools rush in . . . sometimes.

Moynihan is mostly known in conservative circles for his emphasis on the limits of social policy, and my question concerns the status of those limits. Woodrow Wilson believed in the pragmatic limits of social policy. “All idea of limitation of public authority should be put out of view,” Wilson writes in “Socialism and Democracy,” and the State should consider itself “bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.” The question I raise about Moynihan is this: Are the limits of social policy limits of technique and knowledge deficit, so that the proper reaction to them is “not yet”—or are they sown into the nature of things, so that the proper reaction to attempts at social engineering is “never”?

Many Progressives talk the “not yet” talk in a lot of policy areas, but they mean, just go ahead and try. As someone more inclined to say “never” on certain matters, I honor Moynihan for being somewhat scrupulous about saying “not yet” in such a way that, if the “not yet” means “not until we know enough and have the proper techniques,” it will mean, in effect, “never.” I cannot tell from Moynihan’s Report what the status of those limits are and my suspicion is that he gets his understanding of “limits” from modern science.

My problem with Moynihan is not that he is a liberal or even the last sane liberal (as a recent news article dubbed him), but that he is a social scientist. As a social scientist, he will tend not to have a scrupulous account of boundaries and permanence. The social scientist looks at the family as a dependent variable (this is what I mean by calling the family a “passive agent”), amidst a sea of independent variables (such as white racism, or economic conditions, or a view of the sexes). Then, Moynihan has a view of the family as an independent variable causing individuals (now the dependent variable) from broken families to descend into a “tangle of pathology.”

Social engineers, who would like to see the family reengineered with a new vision in mind, can easily hijack this vision, by re-jiggering the “independent variables” that cause the family. (Did Moynihan, with enthusiastic liberals and cowed conservatives, support, for instance, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, a piece of social engineering that was supposed to have profound effects on womanly self-image and hence on the family itself?This is a question for another day.)  If Moynihan’s only argument against such experimenting is that we do not know how “yet,” he will always be subject to all of those enthusiastic experimenters who pushed the limits because the limits were not natural or permanent.  The history of Progressivism is just this: Fools rush in where angels, like Moynihan, feared to tread. The fools have won and Moynihan, while seeming to accept their premises about the malleability of things in his Report, descries their confidence and denies their conclusions. That is worth at least one cheer!

I should recognize one more virtue in the man and his thinking—one that Professor Weiner points out very nicely. Now that the family has declined, it is difficult to know how government can “rebuild” it. Certainly it cannot—that is a profound limit on social policy. Governments have pretty effectively participated in the destruction of the family, I think, in various parts of the world. (Think Russia, for instance, where institutions of trust were undermined through state police.) Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again may be a job beyond the limits of human intelligence and the coercive powers of government.  The first rule would be for government to do no harm and do less harm over time—and here I fear Moynihan’s liberalism, or his adherence to the Democratic Party line, would prevent him from taking the first steps against some strains of contemporary feminism.

What Progressives are increasingly left with is cleaning up after the tangle of pathologies and searching for alternatives to the family that might help to mitigate those pathologies. This is the world Moynihan tried to avoid, but it is, sadly, in many ways, our world.