- Historic Sites
A True Capacity For Governance’
Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
Well, conservatism is a word that is very easily misused. The radical right is not conservatism at all. And some of it is very destructive. David Stockman is a very important figure in that he went from the left-wing ideology of that period into the right-wing ideology of this period and he seems to have gotten it all out of his system but not before he did an awful lot of damage to the structure of the fiscal policy in this country. We will be living with a protracted crisis of government for the rest of this century. You know—within five years’ time we became a net debtor nation. And they talk about Brazil and Argentina!
That must be a “first” in our history.
Oh, no. We were a debtor nation from the day the first Europeans arrived here. We brought in capital of all kinds in the nineteenth century to build things like railroads. Bismarck, North Dakota, was so named in the hopes of attracting German capital. But then the Europeans had to liquidate their holdings in the first years of World War 1, and we became a net capital exporter. Now we are again a capital importer. But this time we are not importing capital to build things: we are importing capital to pay our bills —which is not a very good way. We’re going to leave the younger generation paying the bills we have run up in the last five years, and they are going to be paying for the rest of their lives.
What in your opinion are our strengths and weaknesses?
Our strengths are our extraordinary resilience and a viable system of popular government—a true capacity for governance. Our weaknesses are increasingly economic. When I was a counselor to the President, Nixon would often say that nothing could do any harm to the economy of the United States. He said: “Hit it on the head with an ax and it wouldn’t do anything to it. But in foreign policy —you could destroy the United States in an afternoon.” Well, it has turned out that that may not be so—that our foreign policy may be much more basically secure but the economy is where we may be vulnerable. That is a big change in twenty years.
The greatest challenge to government, the elemental challenge, is to control the use of force.
The one elemental expectation is that the economy will always be strong enough to get us through any internal, and for that matter, any external problem that we are willing to face up to. The great civil rights movements back in the sixties, and then the war on poverty, all that just seemed a matter of political will—if you decided to do it, it would happen. I don’t think that is the case any more. I gave the Godkin Lectures at Harvard in the spring of 1985 and made the simple proposition, which is an extraordinary one, that the United States was the first nation—the first society in history—in which the poorest people, the poorest group in the population, were children. We have achieved the miracle of eliminating hopeless poverty among the aged—for all practical purposes—with Social Security retirement benefits, supplemented by Medicare. But if you are a child under six, you are seven times more likely to be poor than if you are a person over sixty-five.
Has this ever happened before in a modern industrial democracy?
Never. One-third of the children born in 1980 can expect to be on welfare before they are eighteen. That’s not to say they are going to be on welfare all their childhood, but at some point in their childhood. Well, that is extraordinary, and absolutely unpredicted. And nobody knows how to deal with it.
What do you think are the limits to government and the limits to social policy?
Well, the limits to social policy basically come down to the fact that governments have a very small capacity to change behavior. And our problems are more and more associated with the way people behave. They drop out of school; they take drugs; they get themselves into trouble of one kind or another. The consequences have caused whole sections of cities to collapse. Depending on the government to change this isn’t enough. If you don’t have a strong, sensible movement to emphasize character, early schooling, personal formation—if you ever give up on those things (and in the 1960s we were telling ourselves we could) then you end up in the 1980s with a lot of people in awful shape.