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Remembering Irving Kristol

19 Sep 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

I didn't know Irving Kristol well, but I knew him for a long time. There are many people who can say the same thing. He was the central figure in the post-Watergate revival of conservatism and the Republican Party. Sadly, the "movement" that he created, neoconservatism, is pretty well dead. What goes by that name today bears no resemblance to Kristol's creation.

As is well known, Kristol was for many years a man of the left. But its excesses pushed him inexorably to the right. In the 1960s Kristol recognized that conservatism desperately needed to be grounded on serious social science if it hoped to influence public policy and, hence, politics.

Kristol founded a small quasi-academic journal called The Public Interest to build the foundation of a social science-based conservatism. I say "quasi" because, annoyingly to me, it refused to have footnotes or references in its articles.

One of Kristol's most important insights was that there were many academics who had generally liberal views, but came to conservative conclusions on some specific issues like crime, housing, race, labor, taxes and many others. He got them to write articles on these subjects, gradually building an impressive body of research that added depth and breadth to the conservative literature.

At the time, conservatism was very narrowly focused on anti-communism and futile efforts to repeal the New Deal. Conservative publications only published the work of people who were part of the movement and held conservative views on every issue. The idea of a "big tent" that included people who were conservative on only one or a handful of issues was foreign to the conservative philosophy in those days. You had to buy the whole conservative worldview on every issue or conservatives wanted nothing to do with you.

This led to the excommunication of libertarians, objectivists, atheists, isolationists and others that were part of the right, but held views on one or more issues that were inconsistent with the conservative positions of Bill Buckley and the rest of the National Review crowd. The extreme Catholicism of that crowd also tended to push Jews away from conservatism.

Kristol embraced these conservative Jews who felt uncomfortable among the dogmatic Christian conservatives. Eventually, he was joined by Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary, who pushed that magazine well to the right of its traditional base among liberal Jews.

The first clips of Kristol's articles in the Wall Street Journal that I have in my files date from 1976, so that's probably when I first became aware of his work. I don't remember when I first met him, but it was probably the following year when I was working for Jack Kemp, who was very much a devotee of Kristol's work. Just the other day I came across an old copy of The Public Interest on which Jack had circled an article listed on the cover for me to read.

It's important for people to understand that in those days neoconservatism was almost exclusively devoted to domestic, especially urban, issues. There was nothing in The Public Interest on foreign policy. Commentary was more foreign policy oriented, but other than having a special interest in Israel its foreign policy was pretty standard anti-communism. What we call neoconservatism today, which more closely resembles imperialism than anything else, was nowhere in evidence.

As Kristol slowly built the foundation of neoconservatism on solid social science research, it became clear that it needed a political outlet so that its policies could be implemented. Although many, perhaps most, early neocons were Democrats--Daniel Patrick Moynihan in particular--Kristol threw in with the Republicans. In the wake of Watergate they were more desperate and in need of intellectual firepower. This meant that there were many more opportunities for neocon ideas to advance within the GOP than among Democrats, who were going through a post-McGovern, post-Vietnam leftist phase that made them vulnerable to a conservative counterattack.

Kemp was really the central political figure in the neocon infiltration of the Republican Party. He brought along Dave Stockman, who had a number of articles in The Public Interest in the 1970s, and introduced Ronald Reagan to neocon ideas as well.

To make a long story short, Kristol was extraordinarily successful; so successful, in fact, that The Public Interest ceased publication in 2005. He felt that the journal had pretty much achieved all it set out to do and was no longer necessary. Its subscribers received copies of Commentary to fill out their subscriptions.

In the years since, it became clear that Kristol's decision was wrong. There is still a need for serious conservative social science research that has no other publication outlet. Commentary is now just a highbrow version of National Review, which is just a glossy version of Human Events, which has become a slightly less hysterical version of nutty websites like WorldNetDaily. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard, founded by Kristol's son Bill, just parrot the Republican Party line of the day.

The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism today is even greater than it was when Irving Kristol founded The Public Interest in 1965. What passes for a conservative movement these days wears its anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor. But as Kristol correctly understood, right-wing populism has no future and fundamental changes in the direction of government policy must be based on serious research and analysis that is grounded on hard data; that is to say, reality.

There is a now a new journal called National Affairs that aspires to fill the gap left by the demise of The Public Interest. It's too soon to say if it will do so, but it has done an enormous public service by making all of the archives of The Public Interest freely available on the Internet. I urge people to delve into them. I think they will be amazed that there were once a group of serious conservative scholars in this country who weren't crazy or completely in the pockets of the Republican Party or some corporate interest. The archive is available here:


Where are the GOP's economic experts?

Mr. Bartlett,

Slightly off-topic . . .

Any advice regarding economists worthy of our attention that are regularly blogging about current events who take a position consistent with the current Republican party platform?

While I greatly appreciate your column in Forbes and am glad to see you join this site, I can not find intellectually honest dissenting arguments to the Democrats' agenda coming from functional experts supportive of the Republican party and influencing Republican positions. Maybe there aren't any? I sure don't hear their formal leaders refer to any, including in their columns in the WSJ. I currently regularly read you and Richard Posner, whose positions appear to be frustratingly ignored by the likes of Boehner, Kantor, Ryan, McConnell, etc.

I hang-out online at a liberal/libertarian forum and frequently post comments there linking to your columns. The reaction to your articles are always treated with respectful consideration by nearly all of the readers there in spite of their nearly all voting for Democrats. Our collective frustration is that we can't find coherent functional experts supportive of the current GOP agenda to test the validity of the Democrats and our own positions (there are plenty of incoherent arguments in the WSJ opinion pages). The site is Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and while it's not an economy-centric blog, Mr. Brayton does cover current events and therefore economics is topic that's coming up far more frequently:

I joined the GOP in 1978 at age 18 and while never a conservative, proudly supported Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush. Coming from Michigan, I seem to have adopted and maintain the politics of Gerald Ford and William Milliken along with the school of thought most popular with Michigan State Univ's economists, where I got my business degree. I left the GOP the evening of the 2008 Republican National Convention when the delegates unanimously approved Sen. McCain's VP pick of Sarah Palin; a move I thought solidified the GOP's slide into religious right insanity. That observation unfortunately seems to have been validated in spades since then.

It doesn't exist

Economics is another form of social studies using differential mathematics as a marketing tool. #1 example is the steadfast assertion that the markets are rational. While any common sense examination of them easily reveals they're not. If that was not so marketing would be seen in the same light as astrology.

You seem to have a similar experience to mine. I didn't leave the Republican Party, they left me. I wasn't 18 yet in 1980 but I was a newsalcoholic who read the WSJ everyday and had been following the DOW since it was at 400. ( Pop worked in finiance). And I totally agreed with HW Bush's opinion that supply side economics is Voodoo economics, but that is the theory we have used to formulate economic policy for almost 30 years.

The Crisis in Economic Theory

Irving Kristol around 1979-1980 created quite a prescient book, The Crisis in Economic Theory, whose authors included KJ Arrow and (my own professor) FH Hahn, among the most prominent of economic theorists. Not many today seem to know or recall this.


Donald Marron probably has the best blog among Republican economists. It's well worth reading.


Re: Blogs

Marron's blog is indeed excellent. I'd add


"I say "quasi" because, annoyingly to me, it refused to have footnotes or references in its articles."

Then there is nothing quasi about it. It was a hack journal designed to push an agenda-just like Fox News, relying more on emotion than science.

Kristol and neo-con cooption of right wing christiandom

The neo-cons were very clever in using the right wing christian base for their own purposes.And using media such as right wing radio and Fox news they have many outlets for thei propaganda purposes.

Michael Lind;
The influence of Leo Strauss and his disciples on neoconservatism has generated some controversy, with Lind asserting:

For the neoconservatives, religion is an instrument of promoting morality. Religion becomes what Plato called a noble lie. It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order... In being a kind of secretive elitist approach, Straussianism does resemble Marxism. These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it.

{Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea}

They have shown themselves to be enemies to democracy and have helped to destroy the american dream for profit and power.

Off Base

I think the last two comments are off base regarding Irving Kristol and The Public Interest. They may be valid regarding neoconservatism as it is today.  But as I said in my post, that neoconservatism bears no resemblance to the neoconservatism of the 1960s and 1970s that was relevant to my discussion of its historical importance from my point of view.


The Crisis in Economic Theory is a nice resource for understanding some of the late 1970s/early 80s economic schisms (and a very easy read).

I also think the last two comments get it wrong: I always found the articles in public interest informed and well reasoned. Though many of the authors and articles wore their politics on their sleeve a quite a bit more than what Bruce seems to imply. It doesn't match the "rigor" of an academic journal, but it's miles beyond what the right is currently putting out (and, IMHO, capable of).

totalitarian and anti-democratic

"These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it." To which I would only add that it was concealment from people "incapable of or unwilling to understand it in the way they wanted it to be understood." They tolerated no dissent. There was only "one" understanding. In a sense they were totalitarian and anti-democratic.


I think the last comment makes neoconservatism into something conspiratorial. What people like Kristol brought to the table for conservatives was an understanding of the left from the inside and an appreciation for its methods, which had been very successful in pushing America to the left from the 1930s to the 1970s. Suggesting to the right that it emulate the left's methods and techniques isn't conspiratorial. Nor would it be conspiratorial to suggest that the left learn from some of the right's methods and techniques today.

Methods vs. Principles

I very much wish there were considerable less learning of cynical "methods and techniques", and more articulation of persuasive, coherent ideas.

Case in point: Health Care Reform. As a "technique" - winning resistance by scaring seniors about the likelihood that a current Democratic bill will result in some limitation on future delivered services (in order to save the nation from insolvency) may indeed prove effective at derailing legislation in the short-term, but how does such a method emerge genuinely from a set of conservative principles?

It simple does not. If conservatism has any relationship to ideas of fiscal responsibility and restraint, and skepticism of socialized generational-transfer schemes, how does wearing the costume as the "dogmatic defenders of Medicare as it is, as if we consider it an ideal and wouldn't try to fix it ourselves should we find ourselves in power" make sense?

It's not enough to have some tax-code-tuning proposal posted, almost as a face-saving afterthought, on your website as an "alternative plan" that you don't believe will ever see the light of a congressional committee. One needs to express and contrast the alternative vision of what government should do to cultivate the conditions necessary to optimize the experiences of men in a society determined to leave them as free as possible from all great institutional accumulations of power - government, corporations, and so on.

That is the thing that I believe Irving Kristol tried to do. He tried to make the case that would win in the jury room after long, sober reflection and consideration. Today, we have knee-jerk emotionally evocative methods - but while the horse still runs, it no longer seems to serve a master.

Neo=conservatism is and always was an ugly elitist vision

"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work," - Irving Kristol.

He didnt believe in truth,but he did believe in the big lie.

"the left" != liberals

The "left" from which Kristol & co came was the Trotskyite precursor to the New Left of the likes of the SDS. This left had exactly zero to do with the industrial regulation, the New Deal, civil rights, and the Great Society that remain liberalism's landmark accomplishments (also that winning WW2 thing, steadfastly opposed at the time by pretty much exactly the same people who endorsed a laissez-faire approach to the Depression).

American liberalism is an entirely indigenous phenomenon, with roots in the agrarian Populist movement from the turn of the century, and the bourgeois Progressive movement from shortly thereafter. The founding figures in our liberal tradition, from out of the Gilded Age, are William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. The notion that there is even the slightest influence from the Marxist figures admired by Kristol's circle in their youth betrays an utter misunderstanding of the American liberal tradition.

Wiinning WII. Opposed by...?

Not after Pearl Harbor.

Heavens no!

I only meant that the Republicans opposed our entry inot the war against Hitler, never meant to imply that they didn't want us to win once we were in.

Defense of Leo Strauss

In defense of Leo Strauss, it should be pointed out that regarding popular religion as a "noble lie," to be supported for the sake of morality and the social order, does not necessarily imply the negation of morality nor the obligation of all, including philosophers, to live in accordance with it. So Plato, and so, it may be inferred, Maimonides, Strauss's other paramount teacher and exemplar of the socially-engaged philosopher.

One who reads Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed very carefully, as Strauss contends it was intended to be read, comes to understand that Maimonides did not accept the literal truth of the biblical account of the revelation at Sinai, the cornerstone of traditional Judaism. For Maimonides, Moses was a divinely "inspired" philosopher-lawgiver, not a recipient of divine dictation. [I put "inspired" in quotes because although there is no better word, it misrepresents his thought-world to the modern mind.] Nevertheless, although we can only guess at his own personal, fundamental religious convictions, Maimonides was convinced of the value of the Jewish legal system, and devoted his life to teaching, expounding and upholding its letter and spirit.

Although an advocate of "orthodoxy," Maimonides opposed divisive fanaticism and demagoguery, urging caution and skepticism toward messianic claims in his Letter to Yemen, and in his Letter on Apostasy rebuking an over-zealous rabbi for treating as apostates those who had made a token gesture of submission to Islam under persecution.

This was Strauss's ideal; any implication that he saw a philosophical elite as being "beyond good and evil," or as supporting popular religion as a Machiavellian deception for the sake of its own power, is a slander in the service of a cheap shot at neoconservatives.

If one wants to accuse neoconservatives of hypocritically pandering to popular religion, there is no need to mention Strauss. If this is "Straussianism," Hitler was a Straussian when Strauss fled Germany. The evident purpose behind calling neoconservatives "Straussians" is to invoke anti-elitist sentiment with a baseless whiff of conspiracy -- a lie, and an ignoble one.

The Public Interest was neither scholarly, nor honest

I disagree with your positive characterization of "The Public Interest". Thomas Gale Moore's (of the Hoover Institution) article on climate, an area in which I have professional training and expertise, was laughably bad. It was published simply because it was "party line" -- it was "sceptical" about climate change science and critical of The Great Satan Al Gore -- and the author was a movement insider. So for an area I know, "The Public Interest" was neither competent, nor scholarly, nor intellectually honest.


"Commentary was more foreign policy oriented, but other than having a special interest in Israel its foreign policy was pretty standard anti-communism. What we call neoconservatism today, which more closely resembles imperialism than anything else, was nowhere in evidence."

I don't see how anyone, especially with hindsight, could see the US' crusade against communism across the globe (Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, etc.) as anything but a cover for imperialism. It seems that neo-conservatives formed from a group that, sadly, was *always* imperialist in nature.

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