02/10/2015 12:09 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2015

Fifty Years Ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Was Right


His prescient report on the African-American family, published March 1, 1965, was neither the first time nor the last. He was right about the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he forecast a decade ahead of the event, right about the rise of ethnicity in international politics, right about the decline of moral standards in the United States.

The question is why -- or, better put, how? And where: Where are today's Moynihans, the scholar-statesmen with unique insight and perceptive judgment into vexing problems?

The answer to the first question -- how -- is neither innate insight nor scholarly erudition. It is the combination of the two that in statesmanship is called prudence. As to the second question, if that ability could be bottled, no one would be asking where the Moynihans have gone. It can't be, nor is a figure as unique as Moynihan -- one who appears not just once in a generation but once in history -- replicable.

But understanding the principles that guided Moynihan's judgment might help other statesmen seeking at least to emulate it. That judgment was rooted in the application of reason to experience, a disposition that in a recent book, American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I have called "Burkean liberalism," after Edmund Burke, the British statesman who appreciated the complexity of society and the futility, and perils, of attempts to manipulate it.

Moynihan was liberal because he believed government could ameliorate society's harsher edges and Burkean insofar as he wanted government to recognize the limits imposed by the concrete circumstances in which it operated. Having received his doctorate in political science, he believed public policy should be rooted in evidence. But crucially, Moynihan thought social science was best used to evaluate what had already been tried, not to craft utopian schemes for tomorrow. The idea of a professor concocting the perfect policy in his or her office would have mortified Professor Moynihan, just as Senator Moynihan would never have attempted to implement it.

This conception of prudence values history and tradition because it appreciates social complexity and knows that while predicting society's future is a fool's game, the past is the one realm in which events have already played out. When Moynihan analyzed the African-American family, he thus looked first to its historic roots in slavery and the Jim Crow South.

This reliance on the past also imposes limitations, another important feature of Moynihan's judgment. There were some things government could effectively do--spending money was one of these--but other things it could not, such as social transformation. Moynihan revered the New Deal, whose signature achievement--Social Security, a simple and transparent transfer of income from the working to the retired population--drastically reduced poverty among the elderly. But he became disillusioned with the Great Society's attempts to wage war on poverty by deploying armies of caseworkers and political organizers into poor communities.

Part of recognizing limits was nourishing the institutions that stood between the individual and the state. The family was foremost among these, but neighborhoods, churches, trade unions and other "subsidiary" institutions were important too.

Moynihan's judgment arose largely from an appreciation of these limits, not from an exaggerated confidence in his own reason. When he opposed the 1996 welfare reform, for example, he pleaded with his colleagues that they did not know what the effects of their decisions would be because society was too complicated to predict them.

Those who appreciate limits and complexity also operate in an atmosphere of nuance inhospitable to the shout-fest culture of contemporary politics. Voters who reward growing stridency and are surprised when they get it are, if they want to see statesmen like Moynihan elected today, going to have to get comfortable with shades of gray.

To be sure, Moynihan possessed that intangible quality that wise judgment entails, a learned intuition informed not just by technical knowledge but by a powerful and searching mind--wise enough, also, to understand reason's limits. He had, in short, good judgment. Not everyone does. It cannot be easily reproduced; Moynihan certainly never will be. But through appreciation of complexity and nuance, his judgment might be emulated. A good initial judgment for senators to make would be using Moynihan as a model.