Among the few compelling attacks on Irving Kristol from the political Left he once called home was the name of the intellectual tradition he helped guide to prominence. In 1973, the socialist critic Michael Harrington coined the term “neoconservative” to disparage Kristol and other former liberals who had moved right. Kristol, who died last week at the age of 89, happily accepted the label. But if its original meaning has become muddled by the partisan battles of recent years, the quality of Kristol’s written work, and his influence on the broader conservative movement, remains undimmed.
Kristol began his intellectual journey on Trotskyite Left, briefly joining the Young People’s Socialist League in the 1930s. Already skeptical of the socialist vision, Kristol abandoned it altogether after witnessing the brutalities of his fellow soldiers while serving in the Army during World War II. “My Army experience permitted me to make an important political discovery,” Kristol would later write. “The idea of building socialism with the common man who actually existed — as distinct from his idealized version — was sheer fantasy, and therefore the prospects for ‘democratic socialism’ were nil.”
It would be some time before Kristol defected to the conservative side. Yet, even as a liberal, Kristol managed to send ripples throughout his political circle. In a 1953 essay in Commentary, he dismissed Sen. Joe McCarthy as a “vulgar demagogue,” but challenged the mainstream Left to take a firmer stand against communism. If McCarthy was making an impression on the American people, Kristol noted, it was because “they knew him to be anti-Communist (as they were), whereas they knew no such thing about the spokesmen of the American liberal community.” The article triggered a firestorm of criticism from the Left, but Kristol refused to yield.
Instead, he grew ever more disaffected with liberalism. Like other neoconservatives (Kristol always insisted that it was more a “persuasion” than a movement), he began to question the consequences – as opposed to the promises – of liberal public policy. One formative issue was the so-called “welfare explosion” that plagued the country in the 1960s. For many analysts of the time, the growth of welfare in a time of prosperity was a mysterious paradox. In 1964, when unemployment was at a postwar low of 3.5 percent and the country was experiencing an economic boom, welfare rolls continued to swell. Social scientists offered the traditional leftist response: Deprived of opportunity and gainful employment under an unjust capitalist system, low-income workers had little choice but to remain on welfare. Kristol disagreed.
Rejecting the received wisdom, Kristol offered what was then a heretical answer. So far from being the fault of capitalism, the welfare explosion was the product of misguided public policies passed under the “War on Poverty,” which made it attractive for the poor to remain on the government dole, as well as of social workers and activist groups like the Welfare Rights Movement, who believed it was their moral duty to get the poor on welfare instead of helping them get off welfare. The passage of welfare reform in 1996 vindicated the neoconservative view, but as the malign influence of groups like A.C.O.R.N. suggests, the abuse of taxpayer funds by activist groups professing to aid the poor remains a persistent problem.
The perverse consequences of liberal compassion were at the heart of Kristol’s political conversion. It was no coincidence that, in his most celebrated insight, Kristol described a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But if his political apostasy won him no friends on the Left, Kristol’s embrace of conservative economics – particularly the supply side tax cuts passed during the Reagan administration – earned him a lasting enmity among his former allies.
It is a measure of that enmity that the liberal reaction to Kristol’s passing has been to blame him for the large budget deficits of the Reagan years and the alleged failure of the tax cuts he championed. Kristol was familiar with the charge, to which he provided a forceful rebuttal in a 1995 essay. In it he pointed out that much of the fault for the “Reagan deficits” resides with the Democratic Congress, which authorized spending far in excess of economic growth – a growth made possible, significantly, by the Reagan tax cuts.
‘The reason these facts are either ignored or distorted,” Kristol wrote, “is that liberal politicians, the liberal media, and the substantial segment of professional economists do not want to encourage people to think that the activities of government ought to be considerably more limited than they now are.” For the same reason, one suspects, one hears little about today’s deficits – an expected $9 trillion over the next ten years – now that a Democratic president is in charge.
Although Kristol was an effective popularizer of supply side economics, he was never an uncritical booster of free market theory. Not for nothing did his classic essay collection propose only “two cheers capitalism.” Kristol’s argument, characteristically, was at once thoughtful and contentious. How is it, Kristol wondered in a memorable 1970 essay, “When Virtue Loses Her Loveliness,” that the radical critics of capitalist civilization, and particularly its American incarnation, fail to be convinced by its demonstrated record of success in driving social progress, whether through the unprecedented alleviation of poverty, the forging of racial equality, the expansion of individual freedom, or simply the astounding material abundance made it has made possible?
Kristol’s answer – that radicals “are far less dismayed at America’s failure to become what it ought to be than they are contemptuous of what it thinks it ought to be” – would have flattered some conservative prejudices, but only partially so. For Kristol also suggested that capitalism’s critics had a point – that material enrichment alone was insufficient as a foundation for a prosperous and contented society and that a more philosophically profound basis was needed. Agree or disagree with the premise, it remains undeniably relevant at a time when the global economic crisis has not only exposed the flaws of certain financial sectors but once again called into question the validity of capitalism.
Learned, philosophically rich essays were Kristol’s specialty, but their influence was at least in part due to the incisive one-liners for which the author was equally famous. The onetime liberal may have been “mugged” by reality, but he did not lose his sense of humor in the process. An avid reader of the Leo Strauss, he shared the eminent philosopher’s “tolerant contempt” of intellectuals, quipping that “an intellectual may be defined as a man who speaks with general authority about a subject on which he has no particular competence.” A keen observer of the contradictions inherent in the liberal worldview, Kristol wrote on another occasion that “the liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie – but only if she is paid the minimum wage.” Not even his coreligionists were spared his sharp wit. Warning of the assimilationist tendency in the Jewish community, Kristol observed that “The danger facing Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them, but that Christians want to marry them.”
For all his service to the conservative cause, Irving Kristol would not have made an ideal figure for the current political moment. Against the increasingly determined and outraged opposition to Big Government, Kristol’s aims were more modest. He supported reforming rather than abolishing the welfare state, arguing that Social Security should be expanded and that “Medicare’s cost is not a conservative problem.” His preference for a “conservative welfare state,” meanwhile, likely would be as controversial among its intended audience today as when it was first proposed.
In other ways, though, Kristol’s presence will be very sorely missed. Kristol lamented that “with every passing year, public discourse becomes sillier and more petulant, while human emotions become, apparently, more ungovernable.” At a time when justified discontent about Washington’s ways has made even some on the Right forget that civility can be a virtue in itself, Kristol, urbane and respectful even when he was polemical, and all the more convincing for that reason, stands out as a model worth imitating.