Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of my favorite liberals and public servants, recently went on to his reward. My friend Matt Ladner sent me an excerpt from Moynihan’s book, Miles to Go, which is very instructive about him as well as liberal thought as we have come to know it. It seems that Moynihan and a member of the Clinton cabinet were involved in an exchange of letters about a proposed and quite expensive “family preservation” program in which the then Senator was questioning the evidence that such a program would actually work to achieve its desired results, citing two studies of similar programs known to demonstrate results to the contrary. The text of the last few lines of his final letter to the official is priceless: “I write you at such length for what I believe to be an important purpose. In these last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the numbers of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty, with the possibility, even the likelihood, that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance. The great strength of the political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this. I had hoped twelve years in the wilderness might have changed this; it may be it has only reinforced it. If this is so, current revival of liberalism will be brief and inconsequential.”
This is vintage Moynihan, as he critiques the liberal mindset of our time—measurable results of government largesse are secondary, good intentions are all that matter, as it operates in the fantasy of what Thomas Sowell named the “unconstrained vision” of an insulated elite convinced of its own virtue. Although I disagreed with a substantial majority of Moynihan’s votes, he was intellectually honest above all and his 1965 warning about the decimation of the black family in America and his subsequent perception of our cultural decline through what he famously dubbed “defining deviancy down” will long live as landmarks in social thought.