Conserving ‘The Public Interest’

Published On:
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
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Irving Kristol started The Public Interest, a public policy journal, in 1965 because he thought the public discourse was ill-informed. He was a young liberal then, and with his co-founder, sociologist Daniel Bell, was dedicated to the improvement of society through the application of social science.

The Public Interest wasn’t a political journal, but politics had a way of coming up.

Over its 40-year history, The Public Interest changed America.

Statistics and policy research, when they are followed to their logical conclusions, can surprise, and The Public Interest published its share of surprising research.

We take much of it for granted now. But Kristol’s humble journal changed the way we looked at crime, welfare, education and social disintegration. It was at the vanguard of a movement in social science that radically reconsidered the way humans interact.

David Brooks observed in 2005, “If there was one core insight, it was this: Human beings, or governments, are not black boxes engaged in a competition of interests. What matters most is the character of the individual, the character of the community and the character of government. When designing policies, it’s most important to get them to complement, not undermine, people’s permanent moral aspirations.”

Kristol and The Public Interest were quiet revolutionaries in social science. Study after study confirmed Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism, “the facts of life are conservative,” and Kristol, never one to ignore the facts, changed with the country. By the middle of his career, he had accepted the derisive term “neoconservative,” and defined it with a wink as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Kristol died last week. There have been the predictable voices, audible when any conservative dies, claiming that the deceased, unlike his foul political descendants, was a decent and honorable man who would recoil at the unholy depths to which they had fallen.

These voices are never so fond of a living conservative, no matter how decent.

Yet in the current context, the voices are less wrong than they’ve sometimes been. Kristol’s death, along with the recent passing of fellow luminary William F. Buckley, leaves many conservatives wondering who is left to determine what shape the movement will take.

Kristol’s journal was conceived to inform. Indeed, Kristol recognized that its academic tone and lack of polemical pyrotechnics would limit its “excitement.” He wrote in his introductory essay that if it seemed he was publishing “a middle-aged magazine, for middle-aged readers,” it was intentional. “Middle-aged people, seasoned by life but still open to the future, do seem to us … to be the best of all political generations.”

But with a new political generation rising, one that is more pragmatic than ideological and more optimistic than cynical, perhaps it is Kristol’s brand of measured, academic conservatism — a conservatism that harbors no grand illusions about human nature, but nevertheless believes in the power of people of good faith to shape good policy—that should again triumph.

Reach Will at wmunsil@asu.edu.