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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
And at the same time, remember, a lot of these things have to do with the impact of technology on society. Both alcohol and drugs are phenomena of the nineteenth century. Morphine, which is opium, raised to a higher level of intensity, was developed in Germany in the 182Os, about the same time as the hypodermic needle. With the combination of the hypodermic needle and morphine, used very extensively in the Civil War, morphine addiction became known as the “soldier’s disease.” It had a certain cachet. Doctors would prescribe it for mothers in childbirth and they would become addicted. Well, there was no way to do that before the hypodermic needle and morphine came along. The same thing with the intense drinking of whiskey and other distilled liquors, like gin. Distillation was invented in Renaissance Italy: brandy made from wine. The Celts always seem to have known how to distill alcohol, but they didn’t have any surplus of grain with which to do so. You know, you could get yourself blind drunk once a year maybe but you couldn’t do it every night, because there wasn’t enough alcohol around. Well, the nineteenth century produced all that surplus of grain, and the next thing you know, you have rye whiskey and corn whiskey and so forth and people were dealing with a phenomenon new to the species. It took us some time to adjust to the new technology and to learn that people should not drink whiskey for breakfast.
But now you’ve got kids who smoke marijuana for breakfast.
I think it will take a couple of generations to learn not to abuse drugs. Not to use them at all.
What would you say are the challenges to government that have always existed?
The greatest challenge to government, the elemental challenge to government, is to control the use of force. The first principle of government is that it represents a monopoly on the use of force. Under a legal system, only government can be permitted to be violent. And it usually does work out that way. The next great challenge is to see that the monopoly of force is not misused. To wit: Don’t get yourself into wars that destroy us. You know, our great challenge is to learn how not to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile you must be alert every day of your life to the possibility that your adversaries may misuse their power.
Can we learn anything from the study of history that would help us?
Well, the study of history does not tell us much about controlling arms. There used to be great expectations that you could do things like this—by treaty—as with the naval treaties of the 1920s, but all they accomplished was to inhibit the people who wanted to be inhibited. As long as there are nations that want to be aggressors, they will find ways around arms control—as Germany and Japan did—while the satisfied nations, as they are called—Britain, United States, France—liked the world arrangements the way they were and didn’t expand their arsenal illegally. They abided by the treaty and expected the others to do the same.
So we should learn to be cautious.
Maybe we have learned to be more cautious than is perhaps good for either the Soviets or us. There was a possibility that we might get an agreement on arms control on President Reagan’s watch, as they say in the Navy. He brought the Soviets back to the bargaining table with his Space Defense Initiative. He did this by announcing something we were doing anyway and saying we’re going to keep on doing it. We’re going to do the research, no matter what. It was possible that if he then agreed to pull back on that, and if the Soviets could agree to take down their heavy SS-18 missiles —those big city-busters—and if we had both gone to single-warhead, mobile, land-based missiles, and submarine missiles, by the end of the century we would all be deployed in a deterrent mode. We wouldn’t be on a hair trigger, we wouldn’t be on a launch on warning, we wouldn’t be in a situation where either party could seriously talk about a first strike that would wipe out the arsenal of its adversary. I think that opportunity is slipping away rapidly now. On the other hand, something different and new has arisen as we are speaking. We have just gone through a series of extraordinary events—the Challenger blew up, NASA is in trouble, the Soviets’ nuclear plant blew up. Two of our rockets that were going to get satellites into space have blown up. I would think that is going to make people more conscious of the dangers of nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, and the frailty of the expectations that it will all work out somehow.
Well, Dad, you said in your 1984 Commencement Address at New York University that “we should wait the Russians out.” I thought that was a very interesting idea.
What I have said was something that I have felt for a long time—that Marxism is a failed idea, it’s a defunct idea. Nobody believes it. It’s not true. It doesn’t predict events, economic or otherwise. The Leninist state is a failed state. It doesn’t work very well—they can’t feed themselves. And now that we are entering into what we call an information-rich society, one asks, “How are they going to have home computers in a society that doesn’t dare have telephone directories?” My view of the Soviet Union is that our great problem is how to manage its decline. They may want to have one last throw of the dice.
Does the Marxist interpretation of history still have any currency in American academic life?