09/22/2015 01:35 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2016

In Defense of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The new excoriation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan is under way. The character of this one is different from the last. When he published his report on the African-American family, he was denounced as a racist and willfully misunderstood. Now he is being denounced as a racist and connected to issues for which he manifestly bears no responsibility.

The reason is Ta-Nehisi Coates' decision to use Moynihan as the literary framework--one is tempted to say "foil"--for his powerful investigation into what he aptly calls America's "carceral state." He does not impute that state to Moynihan, but his association of the topics has encouraged others to do so.

If Moynihan is responsible for the uses to which his generalizations were put, ought Coates not to have been more careful with the ways in which he generalized Moynihan? For generalize he certainly did.

On Coates' reading, for example, Moynihan believed in "patriarchy" because he advocated the need for male authority and employment. Coates mentions this without the crucial qualifier that Moynihan's particular concern lay with the mismatch between the authority structure young people were encountering at home and the reality of a male authority structure in the broader society--a simple empirical reality in 1965. Moynihan, whose record on women's issues as a Senator was impeccable, can hardly be accused of patriarchal ambitions to perpetuate that structure over time.

Indeed, Coates' use of Moynihan is a case of putting two unrelated topics next to each other and inviting the reader, by implication, to associate them.

Coates opens with an extended commentary on the Moynihan Report, including some criticisms. Fair enough. One criticism is that Moynihan did not prescribe specific solutions, on the basis of which Lichtenstein inaccurately concludes he did not fully support affirmative action. But Moynihan, who wrote an essay on the difference between policies and programs, felt that stating a broad-based national policy of strengthening the African-American family would do more to coordinate and galvanize creative action than a laundry list of programs.

Coates concludes that section with the failure of, ironically enough, Moynihan's specific prescription, a guaranteed income--not mentioning, incidentally, that it was liberals like Eugene McCarthy who suffocated it in the Senate--and then lurches into America's alternative solution: the carceral state.

On this point, Coates is wholly persuasive. That solution is outrageous. But it is not Moynihan's. Coates does not allege that it was. Why, then, the implication? He simply switches topics here, and the reader is left to infer a causal link that is not there.

A confession--make that "boast"--is in order before proceeding: I am one of the "new [Moynihan] acolytes" of whom Coates writes. I wrote a recent book on Moynihan's political thought. I admire him profoundly.

But regardless of whether one does, the bidding merits reviewing: Pat Moynihan crusaded for a guaranteed income that would have extended the principle of social insurance to families and that would be treated as a celestial gift by any liberal in America today. He fought nearly entirely alone against the punitive welfare reform of 1996. He battled the Reagan Administration on the same issue.

It is entirely true, as Coates writes, that Moynihan felt the family was the proper vehicle for the transmission of values, economic wellbeing, education, a sense of personal security and place and other social goods. He consequently sought to strengthen it. That was the idea behind a guaranteed income. The wage system, Moynihan wrote, compensated people for the amount of labor they performed regardless of the extent of their economic responsibilities.

This is wholly within the tradition of the New Deal liberalism in which he believed his entire career. One is, indeed, pressed to ask whether anyone seriously disagrees with Moynihan about the primacy of family. In my own experience--which is informal and anecdotal to be sure--Moynihan's harshest academic critics on this topic, and the most imaginative fantasizers of alternative social structures, choose to raise their own children in two-parent families. Not all are able to, but most aspire to. Their experiments are for others.

Moynihan simply said the two-parent family was ideal for children, and that ill consequences would flow from marriage's collapse. Doubtless some of his predictions missed their mark; it would be extraordinary if all struck their target. But as the erosion of marriage spread across racial lines, so did his warnings. Coates is right that the carceral state is responsible for many of the consequences Moynihan imputed to the collapse of the family. Both may be true. Problems are often over-determined.

That may make Moynihan an interesting literary foil. It does not merit the associative guilt. Moynihan spent his career fighting to lift the poor and advance civil rights. He deserves this round of excoriation even less than he did the first.