Interview with Irving Kristol

A leading voice of neo-conservatism explains its intellectual tradition, evaluates the Reagan presidency, and defends public control of morality.


Irving Kristol has been called "the godfather of the neo-conservatives," that group of mostly New York intellectuals who, coming from staunch liberalism or even socialism, have arrived at qualified support of the free market coupled with a willingness to use political institutions to promote traditional American values.

It is not difficult to see why Kristol might be affectionately referred to as the godfather. He was one of the founders in 1965 and has remained a coeditor of the Public Interest, the neo-conservatives' semiacademic, semipopular journal. As a member of the board of contributors of the Wall Street Journal, he writes regularly for its editorial page. He has a long association with the Washington-based free-market-oriented American Enterprise Institute and is on the board of editors of its journal Regulation. As an editor at Basic Books in the '60s, he helped establish it as for many years nearly the sole publisher of scholars discussing capitalism and the workings of a free-market economy.

Kristol earned a bachelor's degree in 1940 from the City College of New York. After serving in the army during World War II, he spent two years in England writing for the New Leader and Commentary. In the ensuing years, he did stints as assistant editor of Commentary, a writer for Encounter, editor of the Reporter, and Basic Books editor.

In 1969 he was appointed the Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University. Two collections of his essays have been published—On the Democratic Idea in America and Two Cheers for Capitalism.

Over the years, REASON Senior Editor Tibor Machan has followed the writings of Mr. Kristol and corresponded with him to exchange and debate ideas. In New York recently, he carried on with this in an interview for the magazine.

REASON: I have followed your writings for many years, but maybe I should start with the mundane and just ask, what is a neo-conservative?

KRISTOL: I don't think anyone can define what a neoconservative is. Neo-conservatism is an intellectual impulse, and one might define it this way: There have been two traditions of conservatism in this country. One is the cultural tradition, represented by, let us say, Russell Kirk. That is, efforts to preserve essentially the Judeo-Christian tradition and bourgeois ethic and cultural and moral standards. That tradition had no connection with the economic system—sometimes it was friendly to the economic system; sometimes it was hostile. Go back to the 1920s, look at people like Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and T.S. Eliot—they were not procapitalist. The other conservative tradition involves our economic institutions and is essentially laissez-faire libertarian and market-oriented. And that tradition, strongly entrenched in the business community and among economists, had no connection with the other intellectual tradition. That is, if you ask me what is the connection between Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman, well, there is no intellectual connection. And if I were to say what neo-conservatism is as an intellectual impulse, I'd say it's an effort to link these two conservative traditions represented on the one hand by Edmund Burke, on the other by Adam Smith—who, as it happened, were very good friends and said they admired each other's work; so apparently some synthesis is possible. But that synthesis was so precarious in its origins, in the first two decades of its existence, that by the year 1800 it had practically dissolved.

REASON: Well, in your own writing it is evident that there is some tension between these two sorts of conservatisms if you respect both of them. For example, you've said that there is nothing about deregulation that one can endorse in principle, so in this respect you probably come closer to the Russell Kirk tradition.

KRISTOL: No, I wander on this. I think all neo-conservatives do—all people do. But what is involved intellectually is an effort to say, okay, how do we link these two traditions? And that's what Mike Novak is trying to do in the area of religion and theology.

REASON: When did you find yourself changing from a left-oriented intellectual to someone who's more of a neoconservative, takes the market more seriously?

KRISTOL: As far as economics went, that began in the 1960s. But I really ceased being a socialist in the 1940s, and I was never all that orthodox a liberal. I was called a revisionist liberal, but I was not interested in economics, really, until the 1960s.

REASON: Sidney Hook was in the same boat, in a way.

KRISTOL: Yes, right, except he never got interested in economics.

REASON: Now, I take it that neo-conservatives hold out for the welfare state as a compassionate part of the social system or something like that. Is that accurate?

KRISTOL: I think most neo-conservatives would say that some kind of welfare state is an inevitable and appropriate response to the conditions of modern industrial or postindustrial, highly urbanized society.

REASON: Doesn't that usher in, though—maybe in embryonic form, but it does usher in—so many of the problems that we find with socialist calculations and with central planning?

KRISTOL: I would make a very sharp distinction between a welfare state and a planned economy. Neo-conservatism has nothing to say in favor of a planned economy or economic planning.

REASON: But you have to plan things like distribution of wealth.

KRISTOL: No you don't, no you don't. The welfare state need not be involved in planning distribution of wealth. Everything depends on what your original intention is with regard to a welfare state. If you really regard the welfare state as a safety net, literally that, then the question of redistribution is incidental. In constructing the welfare state, you probably will have some redistribution, but it need not be very much, and you would not in any case be much interested in that as a goal, certainly.

REASON: Would you say that something like the regulatory apparatus that is well-known to us all—and especially to you, since you're involved with a magazine called Regulation—is part of that neo-conservative welfare state or is not connected with it at all?

KRISTOL: No, I think the regulatory—well, the Clean Air Act is another matter—but certain areas of regulation with drugs, chemicals, toxic wastes, would have come about and do come about regardless of what kind of a government you have and what kind of ideology.

REASON: Let's talk about another area, which I call the spiritual welfare state, and not the economic welfare state. You are instrumental in forging some rather controversial ideas having to do with pornography and obscenity and so on. Recently you had a review in the New Republic in which you took some pains to distinguish your views from some of the militant feminists who are now coming around and perhaps advocating a form of censorship. What is your attitude about censorship in a presumably free society?

KRISTOL: I have no problem with censorship at all. I'm for it. I wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine on pornography—it must have been 15 years ago—and said I'm for censorship. I think that in a civilized society you have censorship.

REASON: By imposing certain standards of thought and expression and publication on people, might you not actually thwart their capacity to excel in these areas and sort of preempt their moral life in some ways? If the publisher of Hustler is an evil person, he's evil in his own account if he is evil in a free market of ideas, but if you don't allow him to be evil, then his soul is not even up for test, so to speak.

KRISTOL: But I believe there is such a thing as public morality, and I think one of the functions of any society is to preserve public morality. I have no interest in Larry Flynt finding expression for his soul any more than I had an interest in the Marquis de Sade finding expression for his soul. Now, I am, as I said in my original article, for decentralized censorship, because I think that does permit new developments. Obviously, public morality evolves, it changes; and if you have decentralized censorship at a city and local level, rather than the national level, then it's possible for new ideas to filter through and if they're any good—or even if they're not good but have sufficient popular support—to survive. But I have no problem with interfering in what you call the free market of ideas, because the idea of the free market of ideas was always originally limited to politics. That was the Founding Fathers' views. I'm simply enunciating a very traditional view on these matters—yes, obviously, you want a free market in political ideas, and you want a free market in academic ideas, but that you want a free market in all ideas in the public realm, no.

REASON: Isn't it the case that if the likelihood of viciousness and indecency is so pressing in a culture that censorship comes up as an idea, it is already a lost cause? People have to select the people to do the censoring, and won't they, especially in a democracy, in some sense reflect the souls of the very people who are to be censored? Why not encourage good men and women to write good works and do the battle in that way, instead of trying to suppress bad works with people who might themselves be tainted?

KRISTOL: First, you talk as if censorship—and so many people talk as if censorship—is some kind of new, untried, dangerous experiment. We lived under censorship in this country ever since its founding. Up until 15 years ago, censorship was normal. If you look at the history of the United States, the history of the American republic, I am not aware that there were enormous difficulties of any kind, concerning freedom of thought for creativity, created by censorship. The difficulties one ran into were quite trivial.

Second, it's not the case that censorship simply represents, is simply a mirror image of, what people want. Censorship reflects, or should reflect, what people think they ought to want. And people want to be protected against their own impulses. I think it is legitimate for people to be protected against their own impulses. After all, at the political level, our whole constitutional system is a mechanism for protecting people against their own impulses, so that deliberated decisions prevail over impulsive ones.

REASON: So, essentially the model that, say, a purist libertarian would put forth to you is just an unrealistic model from which one can't deduce any workable public policy concerning at least this issue but probably others too? Generally, what do you think of models? Plato's Republic is regarded as a model, and in a way, a constitutional democracy is a model. Do you think the libertarian model whereby government is limited to protecting fundamental rights is a defective model and there's a better one? Or do you think it's a good one but shouldn't be taken too seriously?

KRISTOL: First of all let me say that models, whether in politics or economics, are very useful pedagogical devices, but they are not blueprints for any kind of society. Plato's Republic was not, and I don't believe it was even so intended, nor was More's Utopia. They are devices whereby in political philosophy you think through issues. Similarly, in economics models are useful for thinking through certain issues in economic theory, but they are not necessarily terribly useful as guides to economic policy.

REASON: Now if we compare these models, granted their limited application, which is the model that you would give honor to and uphold as something worth fighting for?

KRISTOL: My model is the traditional American republic, which I think has been a very good, very successful, republic.

REASON: Some of its parts I think are open to question. I myself am very disturbed about the notion of Congress regulating commerce. I think that power has been used in a way it wasn't intended to be used. And I'm wondering which way you would go…

KRISTOL: It is impossible to conceive of any system ever existing in which political people don't interfere with economic activity. I think even Adam Smith was well aware of that. It's just not going to happen, and in my view it's just as well that it won't happen.

REASON: Since we're talking about public policy, what is your general assessment of how President Reagan is doing, both domestically and in foreign policy?

KRISTOL: The foreign is easy to answer. I think he's doing very badly, on all specifics. After all, one expected Ronald Reagan to have a coherent foreign policy of a kind that he has been enunciating for 20 years, and instead one finds essentially a continuation of the foreign policy of the last three administrations.

REASON: Do you have a turning point where you could imagine that he would have done one thing but in fact just fell back to previous policies?

KRISTOL: There are several such turning points. One was El Salvador. He should have mobilized American opinion behind the proposition that we would not tolerate a Communist government in El Salvador and we would do whatever is necessary to stop it.

REASON: If the US government should have intervened in El Salvador, why is it that it is thought to be objectionable then for the Soviet Union to act in certain ways in Afghanistan and Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia?

KRISTOL: Well, first of all, to say that there are certain morphological similarities in foreign policy between great powers, however different at any time—it's true, but irrelevant. Of course all great powers have certain structural similarities in the way they act, but it all depends on what the great power is, what its ultimate intentions are. Moreover, I think there are some very significant practical differences between the Soviet Union in, say, Eastern Europe and the United States in El Salvador. The United States, after all, is not trying to replicate the American system in El Salvador. We don't really give a damn what kind of economic system they have in El Salvador. What we do care about is that it not be a nation in effect allied with the Soviet Union, as Cuba is and as Nicaragua will surely be. That, I think, is a legitimate concern of a great power.

REASON: Suppose that by some chance—and I don't imagine this is ever going to be true—but something like El Salvador really goes Communist in a kind of a perverse democratic way. In other words, people get caught up with this idea, maybe through misrepresentation, maybe through delusion or whatever, and they just want to be Communist and want to be allied with the Soviet Union. What do we do then? Do we not allow it?

KRISTOL: That would be a very, very tough issue for us to face. Fortunately, we'll never have to face it, since people on the whole do not make any voluntary transitions to a Communist totalitarian state.

REASON: Is Reagan's domestic agenda going to be something he can carry out?

KRISTOL: Well, as you know, there's a tremendous debate going on about economic policy. My own view is that the Federal Reserve has been overly tight with the money supply. Here I take issue with Milton Friedman and all my monetarist friends—I think the Fed has been much too tight. However, let me say this. As one of the original so-called supply siders, I am willing to face the possibility that the original tax cut was too big. It was certainly larger than the president asked for, much larger.

REASON: But it wasn't even really a cut—it was a decrease in the rate of increase.

KRISTOL: If the rate of inflation goes down as far as it looks as if it might, it turns out to be a very real tax cut. But, obviously, it would be more desirable to cut government social expenditures.

REASON: Is the current ethos in the culture going to make that possible?

KRISTOL: It's not the ethos; the ethos in the culture is changing. But you have powerful interest groups committed to whole areas of social expenditure and you have the media committed to it. And it's also true that the administration has not been good at articulating its arguments in favor of cutting these expenditures. That's not surprising at all. Republican administrations are always tongue-tied. Reagan's a great communicator in the general sense, but when you want to argue student cuts or when you want to argue food stamps, you need sharp people. David Stockman's tragedy was a loss to us all, because he was very good at that. He could really explain, first, that the cuts weren't as big as they looked, second, that the proportion of poor people that are really going to be hurt is very tiny, and third, that if you don't make the cuts, where you will be five years from now is insupportable. So, Dave was a great loss, and this administration doesn't have many such people who are articulate. Look, it's a Republican administration, which means it doesn't have, or doesn't have very many, intellectually nimble, intellectually active types. That's the nature of Republican administrations.

REASON: What do you think is going to happen in 1984? Are they going to be able to come back with a new show?

KRISTOL: Come back with what? I do think that Ronald Reagan has made some basic changes in the United States that will powerfully affect the shape of politics for many years to come, regardless of who wins the elections in '82 or '84. For instance, the Democrats are going to come in with what kind of agenda, if they come in? They will have budgetary constraints. What Reagan has done through these tax cuts is put government expenditures in a kind of straight jacket. You can wiggle around, but they're not going to be able to come in with new expensive programs. They will therefore look for changes, reforms that do not cost money.

REASON: That's when the socialists become fascists—start abandoning democracy.

KRISTOL: Yes, I think they will move in that direction.

REASON: Why is it that the intellectual left is so hell-bent on believing that it's more important to make it difficult for the rich than to actually make it better for the poor?

KRISTOL: You're asking, Why does the intellectual left exist in the first place? We know why it exists. I've written about that, others have written about that. The intellectuals in societies such as ours—certain intellectuals, anyhow—feel deprived of the status and the power that they think they are entitled to, and that is why they move toward at least some form of collectivism.

REASON: You wrote a book of essays once called Two Cheers for Capitalism, which includes two eloquent and challenging pieces, both having to do roughly with the limits of a free market. One is "When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness"; the other one, "Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism." In both of these pieces you take it that libertarians are amoral, that they have no concern for morality.

KRISTOL: I certainly never accused libertarians of being individually amoral, although…

REASON: No, but that somehow they have a lack of concern for standards of human conduct.

KRISTOL: But if you have standards, moral standards, you have to want to make them prevail, and at the very least you have to argue in their favor. Now, show me where libertarians have argued in some comprehensive way for a set of moral standards.

REASON: Not as libertarians. When libertarians are talking liberty, they are talking a certain realm of the entire cultural structure—they're talking about the legal and the political realm. Libertarians tend to say: Look, at least let us talk a little bit about freedom, and then if you want to know something about how I should conduct myself once I'm free, I have arguments, I have my ethics, and it's not arbitrary.

KRISTOL: I don't think morality can be decided on the private level. I think you need public guidance and public support for a moral consensus. The average person has to know instinctively, without thinking too much about it, how he should raise his children.

REASON: But even there, there's a difference between social and public. There can be the culture, which through art, through education, through religion, through the neighborhood and friendship and so on, reinforces and encourages and supports morality. Or there can be the politicians who try to do it, and this is what libertarians…

KRISTOL: But politicians is the wrong term. At the local school board level it's not the politicians—it's parents very often who are doing it. But I really think it is utopian to expect to have the kind of moral consensus—not moral unanimity, but moral consensus—that any society needs simply through persuasion, because most people are not interested in even getting into that level of ideological argument. They want to inherit their beliefs.

REASON: I'm suggesting a little more sophisticated approach than persuasion—exemplification and peer interaction and showing that living a certain life is a more noble thing to do than living another kind.

KRISTOL: Yes, but for that you need not only exemplification but an articulated exemplification. I'm not aware that libertarians are doing what you say they could be doing. I'm aware of some of the philosophical writings, including your own, but in terms of moral philosophy, I'm not aware of any systematic writing on these matters, like education, sex—the key issues, which parents want to know about. The basic fact about morality at a social level is that it's something that you want to see transmitted from generation to generation without too much turbulence, and for that you need some public institutionalization of that morality through local censorship, through some general attitude of the government toward religion.

REASON: You see, the way I would put it is that you need it through the local theater group, through the local churches, through the local schools.

KRISTOL: I think that's fine, but I think that's not enough. If we could get where I assume you and I both want to get through your way, I'd be delighted. But I don't think we can.

REASON: Probably because we don't precisely want to get the same thing, and that comes out in your essay "When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness." I think that you have a view of morality that is more oriented toward mortification and sacrifice and sticking out a bad life than the morality I have in mind. I'm more Hellenic in this respect, and I think libertarians tend to be more Hellenic—they view morality in terms of a life of excellence, a life of achievement, a life of ambition and accomplishment, and so they can promise something with morality besides just negative rules.

KRISTOL: Well, I'm not Kantian in my morality. I'm very Jewish in morality, and the Jewish tradition has never been all that self-sacrificial. The assumption among Jews is that the moral life leads to the happy life.

REASON: Then I'm surprised, because, unless you have a view of human beings that really tilts them toward evil, like original sin or something, why not be hopeful and try to just promulgate this morality?

KRISTOL: Because I don't have that view of human beings, that's all.