The Moynihan Report at 50: Greg Weiner Replies

In assessing the Moynihan Report at 50, I have the privilege of far more thoughtful interlocutors than Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who was subjected to a digest of calumnies for the rest of his life—enjoyed on the original product. I am grateful to Scott Yenor, Robin Fretwell Wilson and Susan Love Brown for their thoughtful commentaries. Yenor and Brown present challenges to the Moynihan Report itself, and Yenor to my analysis of it, while Wilson calls for a renewed emphasis on family policy, especially for the role of family law in it.

Yenor mounts the most frontal assault. It is formidable but also seems to me, in some key respects, flawed.  Yenor understands Moynihan to be a go-slow social engineer who more or less shared the tactics, just not the tachometer, of the far Left, thus leaving the late senator ultimately unable to rebuff his Progressive flank.  Yenor writes:

For all his talk about the limits of social policy, [Moynihan] was not, to say the least, scrupulous to note those limits while he served New York in the U.S. Senate. I conclude therefore that the limits that Moynihan recognized were limits of contemporary knowledge and technique. Unlike the radicals, Moynihan thought it convenient for liberalism to keep conservatives around, so that the latter could keep liberals honest (something the conservatives lacked the clout to do in the 1960s and 1970s). Honest social reform and reconstruction are what Moynihan stands for.

These assumptions proceed, I fear, from a mistaken premise in the first sentence. Moynihan in fact was quite scrupulous about the limits of social policy throughout his career. In addition to multiple articles, he wrote two books while serving as a Senator that emphasized limits prominently—Family and Nation in 1986 and Miles to Go in 1996—uttered the heresy, earning him President Clinton’s enduring scorn, that when HillaryCare was proposed in 1993 there was no health care crisis and that the administration’s reform was overly complicated and coercive. He introduced one of his final major bills by recalling his own remark that “[i]f you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do.”

This litany of limitation could continue. As to his legislative record, I am unaware of any instance of Senator Moynihan voting for any bill that could be plausibly described as social engineering. On the contrary, he opposed—and perhaps Yenor has this mind—welfare reform in 1996 precisely because he regarded it as an attempt to reengineer the experience of poverty.

What Yenor means, I suspect, is that Moynihan was a liberal and voted like one. This is true, unsurprising, and hardly constitutes a tangle of pathology. (Conservatives surely ought not honor Moynihan for drawing on conservative thought and yet deny there is anything in liberalism worthy of consideration.) Nor do his liberal commitments disqualify him from belief in limitation, any more than right-of-center commitments inherently suggest contemporary politicians do believe in boundaries (witness Medicare prescription drug benefits, No Child Left Behind and ridding the world of evil). By collapsing “reform” and “reconstruction,” Yenor elides a crucial distinction I amplify in my book on Moynihan, which is that between an ameliorating liberal and an engineering Progressive. One can disagree with both, but there is nonetheless a distinction in kind that is worth encouraging in liberal thought.

Moynihan did believe there were limits to knowledge, but they were inherent to the human condition, not a merely “contemporary” impediment. A lifelong and close friend of such thinkers as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz and a former student of Michael Oakeshott, Moynihan did not find conservatism merely useful. And in associating him with social “reconstruction,” Yenor accuses Moynihan of something he explicitly opposed.

Yenor’s opposition to Moynihan’s method is more challenging. He understands Moynihan’s defense of the family to be social-scientific and instrumental. Thus Moynihan says the problem with matriarchal family structure is not inherent but rather its incompatibility with the broader authority structure of society. Yenor sees the deeper problem as the abrogation of the “sexual constitution” at the heart of the family.

Here may be a simple point of disagreement between Yenor and Moynihan, though I would note that Moynihan did speak repeatedly of the inherent necessity of male authority in raising children. (He told Peggy Noonan in 1995, for example: “There is a nice African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child. But it does at least take one male present.”)

I am less convinced that the Moynihan Report is methodologically flawed simply because it connects family breakdown to social pathologies, although I acknowledge what I sense to be Yenor’s underlying complaint that Moynihan does not identify the collapse of the family as inherently problematic independent of its social effects. (I do not, however, follow how this makes the family a “passive agent.”)

Robin Fretwell Wilson turns our attention to the contemporary legacy of the Moynihan Report, noting (as do Yenor and Brown) that Moynihan’s fears for the African American family are now being realized across racial lines. She connects this, as Moynihan did, to the disappearance of blue collar work.

Wilson wonders whether “so many families are forming outside of marriage that it may simply not be possible for family law to exclusively protect only those individuals who choose to marry.” The possibilities she raises in this regard include “norms of property sharing between cohabitants” and ensuring that family law “assist[s] unmarried parents to effectively co-parent after break-up.”

Wilson’s impulse—and these are questions she raises, it must be emphasized, not conclusions—seems right to me. I nonetheless worry about moral hazard and the normalizing of the abnormal: what Moynihan famously called “defining deviancy down.” That is, to what extent does enshrining non-marital relationships in law normalize them? If marriage is to remain not merely the ideal but the norm of commitment in which it is healthiest—and, as Yenor notes, simply best—to raise children, do the benefits of these reforms merit their hazards? Perhaps so, for legal institutions, and particularly conservative institutions, must face facts, not hopes. Still, they shape facts too.

Susan Love Brown’s critique of the Report calls us to face both historical and contemporary facts. She offers a broader portrait than Moynihan of the barriers African Americans faced, especially in the migration from the rural South to the urban North, where, she notes, they faced segregated unions, racism, and employment discrimination. A richer and more integrated qualitative analysis of the African American experience, she persuasively argues, would have enhanced the Report.

Brown is probably correct that the Report was “bound to offend,” although I do not think this can be laid, as I gather she does, at its author’s feet. Moynihan was scrupulous to avoid blame—he even said later he nearly misstated data toward this end—and the passages she characterizes as “indict[ing] the black community as a whole” are nested in contexts that clearly indicate he was not painting with as broad a brush as Brown suggests.

Brown continues:

Differences in family form do not indicate pathology. Female-headed households have produced outstanding children, and so-called stable families have produced problem children. That said, the correlations that the Moynihan Report identified were real, but they were correlations, not necessarily causes. Furthermore, they were about to become characteristic of the formerly stable White households that the Report implicitly held up as a model.

It is certainly true that female-headed households have produced outstanding children and stable families problem ones—note (see Yenor’s critique) that Moynihan’s concern was not matriarchal families per se but rather the disjuncture between them and social authority, a situation that has certainly changed—but Moynihan was speaking of tendencies, to which exceptions can always be found. The question remains what situation is likely to give children the best chance to thrive.

It is equally true that Moynihan correlated data without establishing causation. But he supplemented the data with a qualitative analysis that comports with commonsense experience. More important, this method is part of what I described as Moynihan’s learned generalizing, prohibited to scholars but indispensable to statesmen. (In a riff on the academic imperative, Moynihan once described what the statesman could not avoid: “Speculate or perish.”)

I am less convinced than Brown that the cultural revolution arising from ethnic groups’ rejection of assimilation (something Moynihan and Nathan Glazer had demonstrated in Beyond the Melting Pot had simply never happened in the first place) triggered changes in the family. I do, however, share her assessment of enduring inequities such as those perpetuated by the War on Drugs.

I also share, particularly, her warning against political entrepreneurs who would “use culture to their own advantage.” I am unclear on whether she means to place Moynihan in this category, so I would note simply that I do not believe that label in any sense applies to him. Far from being opportunistic, the Moynihan Report cast its author into the political wilderness for the better part of a decade, and the charges it sparked dogged him for a lifetime.

It is, perhaps, an encouraging sign of how far we have come that, even by way of critique, he now merits such thoughtful replies.