Missing Liberty


Counting Our Blessings, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Boston: Little, Brown, 1980, 348 pp., $12.95

In the author's words, this book of essays, collected from various magazines and journals and published during the 1970s, concerns, first of all, "American values in foreign affairs"; then "issues in social science that touch upon questions of law and government" (Moynihan's original expertise); next, "political issues of the present"; and finally, "arms control." They are not the usual academic discussions, however, nor mere polemical outpourings, but a mixture of analysis and rhetoric in the classical tradition.

These are pieces that aim to persuade or at least to reinforce support for certain ideas and policies by those who like to think that they are high-minded people. They may well be—but then they deserve a book of greater moral substance.

A general problem with Moynihan and his neoconservative friends and associates is that they have defended America eloquently, but their conception of what is essential about America does not square with the facts. Counting Our Blessings illustrates the point well.

Early, on page 4, Moynihan refers to the work of the late Prof. Martin Diamond, who argued against the revolutionary nature of the American political tradition and claimed that the Declaration of Independence offers no political advice. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is, not surprisingly, pleased with Diamond's message. Throughout his book he stresses many more conservative themes than anyone who understands the truly revolutionary nature of the American political tradition could.

The concept of liberty, though important enough in Moynihan's view, just does not figure as a central feature of "Reflections on the Future of America," the subtitle of his book. National defense; wise management of the ship of state; the significance of religion for maintaining public morality and decency; the enormous, even all-encompassing, threat of the Soviet Union, not just to the United States, but the Western world—these are themes Moynihan reiterates throughout. But, like other neoconservatives—most of whom really do not entertain much hope of a world in which individuals can freely embark upon their own projects, leaving to the State but some minimal functions spelled out in the Declaration of Independence—Moynihan loses sight of the point of defending America, namely, that it respects individual liberty.

Pres. Woodrow Wilson plays an all-important role in Moynihan's early chapters, and not surprisingly. Wilson's conception of America has much in common with that entertained by Moynihan and neoconservatives, albeit seriously modified to fit a less-ambitious and self-confident period of American consciousness. It is true that Wilson saw America's role as that of upholding the ideal of liberty for all human beings. As Moynihan quotes Wilson following the latter's visit to France, where he saw French women tending American graves: "France was free and the world was free because Americans had come." But the freedom at issue is not very clearly spelled out, especially by Moynihan. Throughout this work one gets the impression that national independence and power are more important than the individual liberty in behalf of which that independence and power had been originally established and thought justifiable.

Frankly, Moynihan comes off in this work as little more than a Harvard-educated and well-read Hubert Humphrey. He has heart; but unlike Humphrey, he also thinks that heart must be given some prudent direction by social science, by political IQ. As to what ideals our society should support, beyond national independence and power, it is difficult to ascertain. Nationalism is not by itself a good thing, as the history of Europe, for example, amply demonstrates. Nationalism is justified only when the nation at issue stands for values that are justifiable apart from the fact that they are our values.

My liking for this book is greater than I have given evidence of in these observations. Indeed, there is much that one can learn from Moynihan's often careful scrutiny of major events on the fronts of America's recent judicial, legislative, and diplomatic histories. But much of that intelligence lacks purpose when one realizes that the ultimate substance of which America is composed—its absolutely unique concern with individual liberty—is lost in Moynihan's penetrating discussion of often important but never decisive details.

Let me conclude by suggesting that Senator Moynihan and those who share his views address the following questions:

• Should the national defense of America ever permit the sacrifice of the ideals of individual rights and the free society?

• Can the vitality of the American economy be recovered—via, for example, a freer market economy—while maintaining the kind of security state Senator Moynihan seems to endorse?

• Is the American citizen responsible to live his life so as to provide for the defense of the rights of all human beings, even those whose rights are threatened thousands of miles away? Does an affirmative answer not imply that every free human being is the slave of an unfree one?

• Does not the conception of the United States of America along Wilsonian lines constitute a serious insult to the people of other regions of the world? Do these people depend so much on Americans? Is it not enough that America teach the rest of the world, by example, what liberty can accomplish?

With these and similar issues squarely confronted, the eloquence and passion that show through Senator Moynihan's discussions could gain far more substance than, unfortunately, they now possess.

Tibor Machan, a senior editor of REASON, is currently a visiting associate professor of philosophy at the State University of New York, Fredonia.