The Public Interest at 50
The birth announcement appeared in the New York Times on October 23, 1965: "Magazine to Give Social Analyses: 'Public Interest' Will Offer Critiques on Planning." Copies of "a new intellectual quarterly on domestic affairs" were scheduled to go on sale the following week, "expressing a trend in social thought that has been called the 'pragmatic left' or the 'new right.'" Thus was an unsuspecting world introduced to what would become the most consequential American magazine of the second half of the 20th century.
There have been, over the last ten years, several occasions for assessing the record of The Public Interest: in 2005, when the editors turned out the lights after "forty good years"; in 2006, when Princeton University hosted a two-day conference examining the magazine's legacy; in 2009 and 2011, when co-founders Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell died; and in 2009, when National Affairs was launched as something of a successor. (The full archive of the PI can be found on the National Affairs website.) The Public Interest has rightly been remembered for giving rise to neoconservatism, for launching generations of academic and journalistic careers, and for providing a platform for dozens of writers who originated new policy ideas and who helped improve or disprove old ones.
But these various retrospectives were just that: retrospective. They viewed the magazine's origins in light of its later achievements, and thereby perhaps tended to both undervalue and overvalue what The Public Interest was at its outset. This fall's 50th anniversary of The Public Interest provides an opportunity not only to look back from our vantage point on the whole history of the magazine and its accomplishments, but in particular to revisit the magazine's beginnings — to step back and join its founders and its narrow circle of early readers in looking forward, reading its very first pages with fresh eyes.
What we find when we do so is a group of deep and searching intellects gathered together to try to make sense of postwar America, but only beginning to see beyond the prejudices of their time. The first issue of the PI strikes the 21st-century reader not so much for its foresight as for its vulnerability to the very illusions and false hopes that the magazine would in time be known for shattering. It turns out that the editors and writers of The Public Interest had to first learn what they would later teach the world, and that some of the greatest of their contributions to America's self-understanding can be understood as a kind of self-criticism on their part.
A latter-day admirer of the well-known disposition of the later Public Interest will find that the first issue is not at all what he expects. And it is all the more worth reading for that jarring realization.
Before digging into the inaugural issue, an overview of the origins of The Public Interest is in order, if only in deference to readers, especially younger readers, for whom some of the pertinent facts may be unfamiliar. But we would be wise to keep this account very brief and general, both because much of the story can be found elsewhere and because it is likely that projects of revisionism — like that already begun in these pages by Jonathan Bronitsky (see, "The Brooklyn Burkeans," Winter 2014) — will in years to come clarify and correct the historical record.
Although The Public Interest is now remembered as an influential conservative magazine, its story began on the left. Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell met in the 1930s in the radical precincts of the student body of the City College of New York — the "Harvard of the proletariat." In the City College lunchroom, "an especially slummy and smelly place," as Kristol later recounted, were about a dozen alcoves into which students would gather at lunchtime and between classes, generally segregating themselves by religion and race and ideology. Alcove No. 2 was home to those communists who believed Stalinism remained the hope of the future. The much smaller gaggle of Marxist radicals who opposed Stalin met in Alcove No. 1. As was routine on the far left, this group was endlessly splintering into grouplets. Kristol was then a Trotskyist; Bell, a social democrat. They and numerous other future editors and academics — Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Philip Selznick, Seymour Martin Lipset, Melvin Lasky, and more — cut their teeth in Alcove No. 1. They read and read and fought and fought. As they ate their peanut-butter sandwiches, these young radicals gave one another an intense education in politics, theory, and rhetoric.
Between the day in 1940 when he graduated from City College and the day in 1944 when he shipped out to Europe to fight in the infantry, Kristol acquired one lifelong attachment — to his wife and intellectual partner, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb — and another attachment that lasted nearly as long: to a habit of writing for, launching, and editing magazines. In 1942 he began a small political-literary magazine called Enquiry, and after the war regularly wrote essays and reviews for the liberal anti-Communist New Leader and for the American Jewish Committee's new magazine Commentary, where he would soon occupy an editorial office alongside his old City College acquaintance Nathan Glazer. Meanwhile, Bell, who was exempted from the draft on account of his weak eyesight, also plunged into the world of magazines, becoming an editor at the New Leader and later at Fortune.
Kristol spent much of the 1950s in England, where he co-founded and edited yet another new magazine, the anti-Communist Encounter (which was later revealed to be funded by the CIA, a fact of which Kristol denied knowledge). He and Himmelfarb met several British conservatives — until that point, he would later recall, "I hadn't known any conservatives" — and observed that their new friends "felt perfectly at ease with themselves as conservatives," even as he felt increasingly ill at ease with liberalism. The couple returned to the United States in late 1958 and, after an unsatisfying year editing the anti-Communist magazine the Reporter, Kristol went to work at Basic Books, eventually becoming a senior editor and vice president.
Both Glazer and Bell wrote for Encounter during Kristol's editorship, the latter developing some of the essays that would form the basis of his first book. Published in 1960, The End of Ideology is, like Bell's later books, an ambitious work of synthesis, densely argued and rich in theory, history, and observation, accompanied by what the New York Times would later call Bell's "typical yeasty digressions." In the context of the origins of The Public Interest, the concerns Bell raises in the book's epilogue ("The End of Ideology in the West") are worth quoting at some length. The ideologies that emerged from the 19th century, Bell writes,
are exhausted....[F]or the radical intelligentsia, the old ideologies have lost their "truth" and their power to persuade. Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down "blueprints" and through "social engineering" bring about a new utopia of social harmony. At the same time, the older "counter-beliefs" have lost their intellectual force as well. Few "classic" liberals insist that the State should play no role in the economy, and few serious conservatives, at least in England and on the Continent, believe that the Welfare State is "the road to serfdom." In the Western world, therefore, there is today a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues: the acceptance of a Welfare State; the desirability of decentralized power; a system of mixed economy and of political pluralism. In that sense, too, the ideological age has ended....
In the West, among the intellectuals, the old passions are spent. The new generation...finds itself seeking new purposes within a framework of political society that has rejected, intellectually speaking, the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions....The young intellectual is unhappy because the "middle way" is for the middle-aged, not for him; it is without passion and is deadening. Ideology, which by its nature is an all-or-none affair, and temperamentally the thing he wants, is intellectually devitalized, and few issues can be formulated any more, intellectually, in ideological terms....
The end of ideology is not — should not be — the end of utopia as well. If anything, one can begin anew the discussion of utopia only by being aware of the trap of ideology....Yet the ladder to the City of Heaven can no longer be a "faith ladder," but [must now be] an empirical one: a utopia has to specify where one wants to go, how to get there, the costs of the enterprise, and some realization of, and justification for the determination of who is to pay.
These were foundational shifts: the crumbling of ideologies, the arrival of a new consensus on big political issues, with only the practical details left to be tidied up by unimpassioned middle-aged empiricists.
Bell, who was by this point teaching at Columbia, and Kristol became convinced that there was a need for — what else — a new magazine to begin this work. Seeking financial backing, the pair "went around to a few wealthy individuals someone or other had put us in touch with, but they were immune to our enthusiasm," Kristol later wrote. The necessary breakthrough came in early 1965 when Warren Demian Manshel, a Wall Street investor with a Harvard Ph.D. in government, agreed to give the venture $10,000 — enough for its first four issues. Manshel would be the publisher of The Public Interest until his death in 1990, investing his own money before "some foundations became interested in us," Kristol wrote.
Although Nathan Glazer would later recall that The Public Interest "at its founding had no existing models," since it fell somewhere in between the popular periodicals and the social-science journals, Kristol was by now a dab hand at magazining. He took the lead in planning the new publication, commissioning and editing its first pieces, advertising it to potential academic subscribers, and designing it to be "as 'idiot proof' as possible." This last was especially important in light of the journal's small starting staff: Kristol was joined by just one colleague, his secretary, working out of his office at Basic Books.
With the inaugural editorial, signed by the co-editors Bell and Kristol, the conclusions of The End of Ideology become the starting point for the new publication: On matters of public policy, ideology is incompatible with knowing what you are talking about, they asserted. Moreover, ideology can prevent you from "sensible revision" in the face of new facts. There are empirical labors to undertake, so readers should brace themselves for "the occasional 'dull' article that merely reports the truth." And the work ahead is not for the young, who "tend to be enchanted by glittering generalities," nor for the old, "inclined to remember rather than to think," but the responsibility of "middle-aged people, seasoned by life but still open to the future." (Here the co-editors, both in their mid-forties, echo political philosophers as diverse as Aristotle and Hobbes.)
Obviously missing, however, is The End of Ideology's notion of "a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues." At an earlier stage, this had been deemed so vital to the prospective publication that the editors' friend and collaborator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed naming the magazine Consensus. The editors wisely rejected that option — too unrealistic, or perhaps just too boring — instead settling on The Public Interest, an open-ended name that raises difficult questions. Is there any such thing as "the public interest"? How can it be discerned? Rationally? Democratically? How does it relate to private interests? Questions like these, the editors promised, "will be discussed in our pages."
TECHNOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY
Looking at the articles that appear in the first issue of The Public Interest, it is striking how relevant many of them remain today — a testament less to the foresight of the estimable authors than to the perennial, or at least recurring, nature of their subjects. Indeed, although the questions asked by many of the essays in that first issue are still on our minds today, reading those half-century-old essays leaves one thinking nothing quite so much as that the authors, while immensely impressive already, might have done with some exposure to the later Public Interest.
The first such author is Moynihan, who had already, by the age of 38, amply demonstrated the conviction that would characterize the rest of his career: that one can wield political power by wielding ideas. In 1963, while serving as an assistant secretary in the Department of Labor during the Kennedy administration, he and Nathan Glazer co-authored Beyond the Melting Pot, a study of the persistence of diverse ethnic groups in New York City. Then in early 1965, while still serving in government, he produced "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" — the infamous "Moynihan Report." His Public Interest article, the first of nearly two dozen he would write for the magazine, appeared soon after he left the Johnson administration. It is a celebration of what he calls "the professionalization of reform": the rising influence of the social sciences on many aspects of economic and political life. The phenomenon he describes is not a centralized takeover but rather a diffuse, nationwide process by which ever more power should be handed over to experts whose knowledge grows in ever more fields as ever more data become available.
Moynihan endorses without reservation this process of creeping technocracy. He has high hopes for the War on Poverty. He asserts that "the industrial nations of the world seem finally about to learn how to manage their economies." ("The confidence of youth," he later called this.) He anticipates that our improving ability to predict the future — both to forecast economic indicators and to simulate various social processes — will hold great rewards: "The creation of a society that can put an end to the 'animal miseries' and stupid controversies that afflict most peoples would be an extraordinary achievement of the human spirit."
Up to a point, Moynihan was correct: The mid-1960s did see more data in many fields, more computing power for processing the data, and more specialists eager to analyze and act. But it is startling to realize that there is barely a hint in Moynihan's article of any limits to this process — no whiff of unanticipated outcomes, unintended consequences, market surprises, or failures of polling. Recognition of all of those would become mainstays of The Public Interest by the mid-1970s, and their absence at the outset is quite striking. To be fair, even in our own day these messy realities have not yet thoroughly chastened social-scientific progressivism (see, for example, William Schambra's essay "Obama and the Policy Approach," in the Fall 2009 issue of this magazine).
Moynihan refers in passing to "the concept of automation," which has contributed to "a good number of neo-apocalyptic views of the future of the American economy." Indeed, the existence of The Public Interest is owed at least in part to worries about automation that were then in vogue. In the early 1960s, the federal government and several private organizations sponsored conferences and commissions to study questions of automation and employment. Daniel Bell served on the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, and he became fed up with what he called the "bogey" of automation. This annoyance "persuaded Dan there was an urgent need for a journal like The Public Interest," Kristol later recalled.
And so it was that the first issue of the PI includes two essays taking up "The Great Automation Question." It turns out, this question is not so great after all. The first essay of the pair is by Robert Solow, an economist who served with Bell on the automation commission (and who would in 1987 be awarded a Nobel Prize in economics). Solow argues that the common question about automation — whether it is a net creator or destroyer of jobs — is "not only unanswerable, it is the wrong question." He describes the difficulty of disentangling particular technological developments from other economic factors, but he concludes that technological unemployment will not be a major problem so long as demand can be kept growing at the same pace as capacity, which government can ensure by pulling on the right economic levers.
The companion essay, by the economic historian Robert Heilbroner, offers a more nuanced account and suggests that "complicated computers" and "[v]ery simple machines" could start to reshape the service and office-based sectors of the economy, just as machinery had already transformed farming and factories. Heilbroner recommends that, if automation-induced unemployment proves to be significant, government should put the labor force back to work through massive infrastructure projects, like the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. (The high cost of such a project, he admits, would be a problem.)
Heilbroner was of course correct to predict that computers would remake or eliminate many office-based and service-sector jobs, especially with the rise of the personal computer in the mid-1980s and the spread of internet access a decade later. No mass unemployment resulted, in part because the new technologies helped to create industries that had not previously existed. Yet concerns about technological unemployment are forcefully returning today, with a new focus on advanced robotics, which could displace unskilled workers, and artificial intelligence, which could displace even skilled labor and the "mind workers," in the peculiar terminology of those worried about such things. While the technologies have changed in the intervening years, the challenges they pose for men have not, and the concluding words of Heilbroner's essay remain apt half a century later:
The machine does challenge man, mechanical energies do replace human energies, the harnessing of nature does imply the releasing of humanity. The question is — and it is not too early to ask it, even though the answers be only visions for the future — for what is it to be released?
That, in the end, is the true Great Automation Question.
PROFESSORS, ARTISTS, SCIENTISTS
For sheer panache, no essay in the first issue of The Public Interest beats Robert Nisbet's critique of tenure for university professors. Nisbet, himself a tenured professor of sociology at that point at the University of California, Riverside, takes to his subject with gusto: "Once attained by an individual," tenure is "proof against virtually any degree of moral obliquity, mental deterioration, or academic torpor." The presence of "permanent professors" in higher education has had the result of "crippling departmental teaching and research programs, and stupefying generations of students."
In the half-century since Nisbet wrote, tenure has been a matter of recurring controversy. Just this year, for example, Governor Scott Walker signed into law a budget that opens the door to changing tenure policy at the University of Wisconsin. But the landscape of American higher education has changed considerably since Nisbet criticized permanent professorship, and today's critics of tenure may be unaware of the extent to which colleges and universities now depend on untenured adjunct professors and lecturers, who are paid much less than tenured faculty and who can be hired or fired at will. They may also be unaware of the extent to which conservative-minded professors now depend on tenure for even minimal job security.
At one point in his essay, Nisbet worries that the new National Endowment for the Humanities would have the effect of turning professors of the humanities into grant-seekers like their peers in the sciences. A similar criticism is raised by Jacques Barzun in his essay in the PI's premier issue on behalf of the arts. Barzun, the provost of Columbia University at the time, criticizes the also-new National Endowment for the Arts, lamenting the way that government aid for the arts
cannot help generating a bureaucracy of critics and accountants, seekers and prize-winners. To say that the judges and dispensers of favors will be drawn "from the arts themselves" is no reassurance. Cliques and clans and dictatorships will arise. It is no use instancing the panels of scientific referees that now pass on projects for government sponsorship, and proving that they have on the whole been fair. Science can use more impersonal criteria for judgment and, fads apart, the effort of science has a common goal and no doctrinal implications. The arts and the humanities on the contrary are always in the thick of the battle of ideas.
What is most arresting about Barzun's essay is not its initial tone (weary, sarcastic, with liberally deployed scare quotes), nor its recommendations (wholly reasonable), but rather the hints he drops that the American people may by nature be incapable of appreciating the arts on their own terms. In remarks harsher than Tocqueville's description of the fine arts in a democratic society, Barzun says that we Americans
are very new at this culture game. As individuals we "work up" with the zest and pedantry of a sports enthusiast "the facts" on this or that "favorite" art, period, style, or man. But from this effort, stimulated by advertising, has come more sense of accomplishment than inner joy. The educational note tops the rest like the shrill piccolo. Nearly every museum in the country posts critical notices next to each picture or pipes the doctrine through ambulatory earphones, but there is not one general magazine that publishes civilized discussions of the several arts side by side. Indeed few are those who could write these articles, even if a fair number would read, profit, and enjoy.
Even if too extreme, that description still rings familiar 50 years on.
There is some irony in the way that Nisbet and Barzun each invoked scientists as money-grubbing grant-seekers, since the essay that sits between theirs in that first issue of the PI argues that it is a good thing that American scientists are hungry for support — for it disproves the paranoid fantasy that they had ascended into an elite status with undemocratic access to power and money. Daniel Greenberg, who would go on to become the most important postwar chronicler of the relationship between science and politics in the United States, sets the record straight:
The scientist is a familiar figure in national affairs today, and if anyone thinks the political community is giving the scientists blank checks for money or policy, he is living with a stereotype that makes good fiction but bears little relation to how things work in Washington.
Greenberg's piece closes with a brief description of the involvement of the scientific community in the 1964 presidential campaign, when tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, and doctors organized and raised money to support President Lyndon Johnson's re-election. Not until 2004 would scientists politically mobilize in such numbers again, in an attempt to defeat President George W. Bush. Why is such mass-politicking by scientists rare? What do the scientists actually want out of politics? Greenberg's answer:
My impression is that they want to practice science, without any interference, and without very much regard for the consequences of their work. It is a tough profession and the best invariably love it and devote themselves to it with a fanatical passion.
Greenberg nods to the virtues cultivated in the practice of science — hard work, discipline, patience, dedication to the pursuit of truth — but also implies a warning: Scientists will not police themselves. They need ethical boundaries and democratic oversight.
THE PERILS OF PREDICTING
The most timeless essay in the first issue of The Public Interest was penned by Martin Diamond, a professor of political philosophy, an explicator of and reviver of interest in the Federalist Papers, and a student of Leo Strauss who, Irving Kristol would recall, "helped me understand what Strauss was up to."
In "Conservatives, Liberals, and the Constitution," Diamond quotes a short passage from Federalist No. 51 and, starting with just that one thread, weaves a whole tapestry of interpretation, finally demonstrating how the liberal "dislikes the Constitution for what at bottom are correct reasons" while the conservative "likes the Constitution for what at bottom are wrong reasons." It is a brilliant performance, and an early indication of the crucial role The Public Interest would come to play: bringing together political theory and political practice, and appreciating the virtues of our partisan politics without itself becoming encumbered by partisan blinders.
Rather less eternal is the only contribution from overseas, a piece by Timothy Raison, the founding editor of the young London-based magazine New Society. Most noticeable about his piece, "The British debate the welfare state," is the smallness of the debate he describes compared to what would come in the Thatcher era. (Raison would later spend two decades in the House of Commons and serve as a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.)
Two essays on poverty — paired under the heading "Why are the poor still with us?" — are most remarkable for what is absent from them. Nathan Glazer with great care describes some of the differences between the poor in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the differences in the ways the two countries conceive of poverty. The "chief reason" for the differences, he concludes, is the salience of the race problem in America.
In England, the poor "are the bottom stratum of almost randomly defined unfortunates, with no common social definition larger than that of being casualties of the welfare state." By contrast, "[i]n many of our great cities" in America, blacks constitute the majority of those seeking public assistance. The distinguished economist Eveline Burns, in her essay, takes a tour of several varieties of War on Poverty programs, highlighting the flaws of each. Glazer's and Burns's essays barely mention the kinds of subjects for which the PI would in later years be best known: how poverty is affected by family structures, behavior, virtues, faith, education, and so on.
The final essay in the inaugural issue is by Daniel Bell. Its focus is "the study of the future." Like Moynihan, Bell puts great stock in the new tools of social analysis and prediction, which he would soon use to great effect in his work on "the post-industrial society." Unlike Moynihan, Bell actually gives us some predictions — forecasts made by a panel of 82 engineers, economists, physical and social scientists, and other "experts" assembled by the Rand Corporation. Herewith, a taste of their predictions for the year 2000, 35 years in their future:
New food sources will have been opened up through large-scale ocean farming and the fabrication of synthetic protein. Controlled thermonuclear power will be a source of new energy. New mineral raw materials will be derived from the oceans. Regional weather control will be past the experimental stage....Automation will have advanced further, from many menial robot services to sophisticated, high-IQ machines. A universal language will have evolved through automated communication.
On the moon, the mining and manufacture of propellant materials will be in progress. Men will have landed on Mars, and permanent unmanned research stations will have been established there, and on earth commercial global ballistic transport will have been instituted....
These predictions are not just worth a laugh. Their wrongness is of a piece with Bell's End of Ideology epilogue and its adapted form in the PI's inaugural editorial and with Moynihan's overconfidence in professional reformers. Enraptured by the possibilities of technology, science, and progress, they have no eyes for — or at best they can only squint at — the moral, the cultural, and the personal.
IN THE BEGINNING
Before long, of course, The Public Interest would bring together policy, philosophy, morality, social science, and political economy as had never been done before. Kristol, Bell, Glazer, Adam Wolfson (the journal's final editor), and their colleagues and writers found a way to eschew both stale ideology and the cold, dead-end empiricism of The End of Ideology.
What emerges when we consider the first issue of the magazine in its own terms, rather than through the lens of what it began, is that these editors and writers were plainly themselves in the process of learning what they would soon teach the rest of us. The mentality or disposition that ultimately became the greatest gift The Public Interest gave to America was not fully present at the birth of the journal. The intellectual drama of the quarterly issues that followed, especially in the magazine's first decade or so, put on display the painful education endured by some of America's wisest intellectuals as the illusions of the 1960s were shattered and both the potential and the limits of America's postwar order presented themselves. By returning to the origins of the PI, we can more fully appreciate its achievement: It did not so much bring together wise observers who had always been aware of what no one else could see. It gathered a community of mature and learned observers who would learn together what to make of America in the late 20th century.
It was the right magazine for its times. And insofar as the consequences of ideas can be traced, the ideas in the pages of The Public Interest helped us to live more wisely with the challenges of modernity, to become more prosperous and free, and to better understand human nature — no small achievement.
There are millions of people who never heard of The Public Interest but whose lives were improved for its having existed. That's the beauty of little magazines, as Kristol put it: "With a circulation of a few hundred, you could change the world."