The Theological Politics of Irving Kristol

Matthew Continetti

Summer 2014

The February 13, 1979, issue of Esquire magazine did not feature a typical cover model. He was not an actor, a politician, or a sports star. A professor but not a Ph.D., an editor but much more than a journalist, Irving Kristol thought of himself, he told Esquire, as a "man of letters."

That may have been too limiting a description. Kristol was part of a tradition that sought not only to understand the world, but to change it. He was at the center of the small but influential movement known as neoconservatism — an idea, Esquire proclaimed, "whose time is now." Irving Kristol was the "godfather" of the neoconservatives, Esquire asserted, a leader of the disillusioned social scientists and intellectuals whose drift rightward in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in supply-side economics, the broken-windows theory of policing, the rejection of détente, and other innovations in economic, social, and foreign policy. What neoconservatism was — and is — and Kristol's relation to it, has been a subject of intense interest ever since.

The Esquire article was typical of a certain style of writing about Irving Kristol. It was more interested in the man than in his thought. It was Kristol's role as a political entrepreneur, as an activist and organizer as well as a commentator, which provided most of the fodder for magazine profiles. Journalists studied him and his associates as anthropologists study foreign cultures. He was thought to be a catalyst of ideas rather than an originator of them. "Unlike most intellectuals, who advance their fortunes by staking out ideas in books, Kristol has achieved prominence advancing other people's ideas," Esquire noted. "He operates more like a man of affairs with interlocking titles than like a solitary thinker."

This belief was and is widespread. A fascination with the professional biography of Irving Kristol — with his journey from the Young People's Socialist League to the Republican Party; his institutional affiliations with City College, Basic Books, New York University, and the American Enterprise Institute; his founding of Encounter, The Public Interest, and The National Interest; his advice to politicians such as Jack Kemp and to journalists such as Jude Wanniski — has characterized much of the writing about the man and his work. Kristol's various occupations have been the preoccupation, as it were, of articles from Robert Bartley's "Irving Kristol and Friends" in the Wall Street Journal in 1972, to the numerous obituaries published after Kristol's death, five years ago this fall.

If writers did not focus on his career, they focused on his personality: his wit, detachment, realism, modesty, ironic sensibility, equanimity, directness, consistency, and cheerfulness. Charles Krauthammer has called him the right's "Cool Hand Luke." Conservatives, Peter Wehner recently observed, would do well to emulate his disposition: "He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could." Again and again in writings about Irving Kristol, one encounters descriptions of his temperament, his powers of persuasion, and how they relate to the neoconservative approach to social analysis — its skepticism, empiricism, meliorism, and gradualism. The example of Kristol is held up as superior to the supposed populism, dogmatism, idealism, and immoderation of the contemporary right.

It is long past time, then, to examine not Kristol the man but Kristol the political thinker, to subject his writings and views to close reading, and to discern what lessons they might hold for today. The recent launch of the Foundation for Constitutional Government's and the forthcoming publication by Mosaic Books of the posthumous essay collection On Jews and Judaism present us with such an opportunity. Reading these materials, along with Kristol's five previous collections, it soon becomes clear that it is not quite true to write, as Esquire did so many decades ago, that Irving Kristol achieved notoriety mainly for his role in "advancing other people's ideas."

He had some big and important and significant ideas of his own: on religion, on capitalism, on socialism, on nihilism, and on the welfare state. These ideas reveal Kristol to be a sort of theologian — a writer whose deep interest in religious matters informed his cultural and political criticism. And these ideas are as relevant and provocative today as they were when Kristol first committed them to paper. Neoconservatism very much remains an idea "whose time is now."

Indeed, sifting through the materials, one is struck by the similarities between the political climate of the 1970s and the political climate of today. We, too, are experiencing a lack of economic growth, a preoccupation with income inequality, an apocalyptic environmentalism, an intellectually exhausted left, and an intellectually confused right. As we think through the multiplying challenges confronting America and begin to formulate responses — and perhaps even tentative solutions — to them, it is worth recalling the teachings of Irving Kristol.


"There was something in me that made it impossible to become antireligious, or even non-religious," Kristol wrote in the memoirs that introduced the 1995 collection Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. A respect for religious orthodoxy as the primary source of moral knowledge, as a conduit for tradition and supra-human authority, as that which legitimizes marriage and the family and serves as a bulwark against messianic and utopian politics, is found throughout his writings.

The two epigraphs to Kristol's 1983 collection, Reflections of a Neoconservative, draw attention to the religious dimension of his thought. The first epigraph is from Kierkegaard: "Everything that passes for politics today will be unmasked as religion tomorrow." The second is from Charles Péguy: "Everything begins with the mystical and ends in the political."

These are the only epigraphs in the four books Kristol published during his lifetime. Paired in this way, the two statements suggest continuity between politics and religion, and between religion and politics, prompting us to consider whether political conflict is not another form of religious conflict. The political, for Kristol, was not "the personal." It was the theological.

The traditional understanding of Judeo-Christian religion plays a leading role in what a post-modernist might call the Kristol meta-narrative: the intellectual history of capitalism and its degeneration that is the basis for his interpretation of politics. It was in 1979, at a conference of theologians organized by Michael Novak at the American Enterprise Institute, that Kristol described most plainly the religious lens through which he viewed modernity. His talk was later condensed into an essay, "Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism." The full text of the discussion, including a partial transcript of the question-and-answer period, was published later that year in Novak's Capitalism and Socialism. It, too, begins with a version of the epigraph from Péguy, translated, more bluntly, as "Politics begins in mysticism, and mysticism always ends in politics."

Kristol began with an anecdote. He said that a recent conversation with a friend, a prominent rabbi, had reminded him of the distinction between the "prophetic" tradition in Judaism and the "rabbinic" one. The former are the rebels against the law, the critics of society's failure to live to the highest and strictest ethical standards; the latter are the followers of the law. The two tendencies, Kristol went on, are present in all of the world's major religions. "I assume the tension between the prophetic and the rabbinic — or the orthodox and the gnostic — to be eternal."

To a gnostic, the world is a very bad place. Horrible things happen to innocent creatures. There is no satisfactory explanation for the problem of evil. Society is unequal. It does not live up to our high expectations. Laws are unjust or ignored; institutions are archaic and corrupt. Human beings fail to realize their potential. These unsatisfactory conditions of life provoke a revolt. "The gnostic...tends to say that the proper and truly authentic human response to a world of multiplicity, division, conflict, suffering, and death is some kind of indignant metaphysical rebellion, a rebellion that will liberate us from the prison of this world."

Such a rebellion is directed at both the religious and civil law. "These gnostic movements tend to be antinomian — that is, they tend to be hostile to all existing laws, and to all existing institutions," Kristol said. "They tend to engender a millenarian temper — that is, to insist that this hell in which we live, this 'unfair' world, can be radically corrected."

The orthodox view is different. Whereas the gnostic sees the world as unholy and corrupt, the orthodox sees it as benign, as blessed by God, as something to be sanctified through the law or through the imitation of Jesus and the saints. Whereas the gnostic sees human beings as innately good and society or the world as evil, the orthodox sees human beings as innately sinful and society and the world as natural and morally neutral. The orthodox obey the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, to marry, have children, and keep a home. In gnostic sexuality, by contrast, a woman might participate in an orgy, but it would be "obscene" if she became pregnant as a result.

Christianity, Kristol said, emerged out of a gnostic rebellion against Judaism. Christians rejected the Mosaic law and embraced Jesus as the messiah. But for Christianity to become successful, for it to last, for it to spread beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, the Church fathers had to manage the transition from gnostic movement to orthodox faith. "They had to convert it into a doctrine for the daily living of people, into something by which an institution could spiritually govern the people." This they were able to do, in part, Kristol noted, by appropriating the Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament."

The Church fathers, he said,

needed the Old Testament for certain key statements that are not found in the New Testament, or at least are not found there in an emphatic way, such as that when God created the world, he saw that "it was good." That is an Old Testament doctrine. It became a Christian doctrine, and it is crucial to any orthodoxy, since gnosticism says that no one knows who created the world — a demiurge or whatever — but that the world is certainly bad.

Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, in Kristol's telling, held for centuries until the beginning of modernity. Like most scholars, he identified those beginnings in the Renaissance rediscovery of the ancients, and in the Reformation discovery of the individual conscience. As it developed, Kristol said, the early modern civilization of the West was "shot through with gnostic elements."

The concept of original sin vanished from elite and then popular discourse. Science and technology became endowed with extraordinary capabilities: Tasked with the mastery of nature for the relief of man's estate, the reputation of natural science expanded until it subsumed theology and philosophy and threatened the stature of religion itself. The individual human life seemed to lack cosmic direction. Human beings became confused as to their ultimate purpose.

"All human societies have to respond to two fundamental questions," Kristol wrote in an article in the July 1968 issue of Fortune. "The first is: 'Why?' The second is: 'Why not?'...It is religion that, traditionally, has supplied the answers to these questions. In our ever more secularized society, it is still religion that has supplied the answer to the second." But that, too, was changing. "[O]n an ever-larger scale, 'why not' is ceasing to be a question at all. It is becoming a kind of answer."

Meanwhile, there arose a class of social scientists that believed the individual and society could be manipulated with the ease and skill with which natural scientists reshaped the physical world. The social scientists sought to perfect humanity in the same way that engineers perfected bridges and roads and aqueducts. "What, specifically, were (and are) the teachings of this new philosophical-spiritual impulse?" Kristol asked in a 1991 essay, "The Future of American Jewry." His answer:

They can be summed up in one phrase: "Man makes himself." That is to say, the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate.

These are gnostic ideas; these are utopian ideas. "[T]he modern world, in its modes of thinking, has become so utopian that we do not even know when we are utopian or to what degree we are utopian," Kristol told the theologians back in 1979.

It was out of the tumult of modernity, out of the clash between science and religion, between the gnostic and the orthodox, that capitalism and the Industrial Revolution were born. But capitalism, too, soon came under assault by a gnostic movement: socialism.


Capitalism was vulnerable to the attack. As a social system, it made only two promises: the gradual improvement of the material conditions of life through economic growth, and the maximum feasible amount of individual liberty. These were not lofty goals.

Unlike the social systems that supported previous civilizations, capitalism did not offer to its members a noble ideal of existence, or a comprehensive guide to virtuous living against which human beings could judge themselves. It did not establish, as Kristol wrote in 1976, "those virtues which could only exist in a political community which is something other than a 'society.' Among these virtues are a sense of distributive justice, a fund of shared moral values, and a common vision of the good life sufficiently attractive and powerful to transcend the knowledge that each individual's life ends only in death." That is why Kristol famously offered two cheers for capitalism rather than three.

The contours of all prior civilizations — their virtues, their values, and their codes of behavior — had been shaped by political or religious or cultural elites. All of these civilizations permitted some level of business, some degree of commerce, but not to the point where free enterprise became an independent center of power and the driving force behind public and private life.

That changed with capitalism. "The difference between capitalism as a system and the existence of mere commercial activity — what Robert Nozick so nicely calls commercial transactions between consenting adults — is that capitalism says this activity should be the force that defines and shapes the civilization," Kristol said at the 1979 conference. He continued:

Free commercial transactions not merely should take place, but should be permitted to shape the civilization as a whole. No previous society or civilization — and certainly no church, not even Judaism, which was very sympathetic to commercial transactions — had ever said that commercial transactions should shape the society. They believed rather that society should regulate and shape commercial transactions.

Under the capitalist dispensation, religious orthodoxy tempered the pursuit of individual self-interest and regulated the satisfaction of material appetites. Biblical faith had the same relation to capitalism as the Hebrew Bible had to the New Testament: It was the moral ground that anchored gnostic impulses to reality. The so-called "bourgeois values," Kristol said, maintained the balance between capitalist prosperity and religious tradition. They told human beings how to live.

But they were not that strong. "The practical virtues implied by the 'bourgeois' values were not very exciting: Thrift, industry, self-reliance, self-discipline, a moderate degree of public-spiritedness, etc.," Kristol wrote in a 1975 essay, "On Conservatism and Capitalism." Being prosaic had its pluses. The bourgeois values "had the immense advantage of being rather easily attainable by everyone. You didn't have to be a saint or a hero to be a good bourgeois citizen."

This attainability itself was a problem, however: From the beginning of capitalist civilization, individuals have revolted against bourgeois morality, calling it limiting, mundane, boring, stifling, conformist. "[I]ntellectuals and artists will be (as they have been) restive in a bourgeois-capitalist society," Kristol wrote elsewhere in 1979. "The popularity of romanticism in the century after 1750 testifies to this fact, as the artists led an 'inner emigration' of the spirit — which, however, left the actual world unchanged."

But such an inner emigration included only a portion of the anti-capitalist rebels. Escapism could not satisfy the do-gooders, the world-improvers, the lifter-uppers, and the power-hungry. "Rebellion was an alternative route, as the emergence of various socialist philosophies and movements early in the 19th century demonstrated."

The socialist rebellion against bourgeois capitalism lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was, in some sense, a two-front war. What the theoreticians of capitalism had not anticipated, Kristol said, was that the free market would slowly erode the very foundation of orthodoxy on which it rested. The new capitalist testament began to consume the old religious one.

Religious viewpoints, religious practices, and belief in an afterlife lost their hold over society. Attempts to ground morality on rational premises did not work. "I know that there are some people who think that [moral] values can be rationally created, perhaps by study, by philosophical analysis, or by a computer," Kristol said in a 1989 talk. "But, of course, values are not created; values are inherited." He continued:

There is no such thing as a rationalist religion that gives you an authoritative moral code. If there were, you would have heard of it. There are no rationalist ten commandments. Morality is derived from certain fundamental dogmatic truths, and I emphasize that word dogmatic. It is the function of a religion, in a society such as ours, to provide the dogmatic basis for those truths.

But the old dogmas were vanishing from the world. Men and women began to be more concerned with the here and now, with what could be gained and lost in this life, not in the next. Rising levels of affluence and education, generated by capitalist growth, empowered an increasing number of people — poor people, middle-class people, rich people — to consume, to behave, and to think like the aristocratic rebels opposed to the bourgeois ethos. Credit replaced savings as the dominant mode of popular finance. Buy now, pay later; carpe diem; let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die — these became the slogans of capitalist civilization.

The consequences of this shift were to be far reaching and long lasting. The transformation of capitalist society, Kristol noted in his 1976 essay "Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism," also affected liberal-democratic politics. As the bourgeois mentality is forgotten, he wrote,

The purpose of politics becomes the maximum gratification of desires and appetites, and the successful politician is one who panders most skillfully to this "revolution of rising expectations," a revolution which affluent capitalism itself generates and before which the politics of bourgeois democracy prostrates itself.

The government is understood to be the only institution that can possibly meet such limitless wants:

Inevitably, the democratic state becomes ever more powerful, and more willing to supersede the processes of the free market, as it strives to satisfy these inflated demands of both the economy and polity. Equally inevitably, since the demands are inflated, the democratic state fails in this effort, and it becomes possible for a great many people to think that a non-democratic state might do better.

The quest for the immediate gratification of the population's desires results in a more intrusive state, for it is assumed that collective action and bureaucratic coercion can accomplish the goals that mere individuals cannot. The question is: Will the state succeed?

It will not, of course; unreasonable demands are by definition insatiable. But it is true that the nondemocratic state will have the power to curb and repress these demands, where it cannot satisfy them, whereas the bourgeois-democratic state can rely only on the self-discipline of the individual, which affluent capitalism itself subverts.

Capitalist society was missing key elements of political community. It was hampered by the utopian expectations heaped upon the temporal authorities by the increasingly secular and rationalist population. And it was unable to fulfill the desire for community among its members. "In an individualistic society, voluntary communities can be created and sustained only with great difficulty," Kristol told the theologians in 1979.

Human beings chose either to create the perfect community here on Earth — through anarchic protests, small experiments in communal living, or totalitarian states — or to escape into self-examination, introspection, self-absorption, and a search for authenticity. Neither of these options proved satisfactory. Communes collapsed, fascism and communism imploded, and the exploration of self was self-defeating because, as Kristol wrote in "The Adversary Culture of the Intellectuals" (also in 1979), "[t]he deeper one explores into the self, without any transcendental frame of reference, the clearer it becomes that nothing is there."

So, injured and beleaguered, capitalism has soldiered on, because of the wealth it produces but also because of the heritage — waning, yet lingering — of Biblical religion.


The death of the socialist idea, and later the collapse of communism, did not make life any easier for the defenders of orthodox religion, the bourgeois ethos, and capitalism.

"[I]f the death of socialism is not simply to mean a general disintegration into political pseudo-socialist forms whose only common element is a repudiation, in the name of 'equality,' of individual liberty as a prime political value," Kristol wrote in his 1976 essay "Socialism: An Obituary for an Idea," then proponents of liberal capitalism would have to combat egalitarianism, deal prudentially with the rise of corporations, and somehow deal with the decline in traditional religion. A glance at today's headlines is enough to confirm that these challenges remain.

Kristol was immune to egalitarian impulses, voiced then and now in calls to address rising income inequality. "I do not like equality," he told the theologians at AEI in 1979. "I do not like it in sports, in the arts, or in economics. I just don't like it in the world. A world of equality for me would be a very dreary place, and I do not even know how to argue the issue of equality. Apparently, many of my professor friends feel very keenly on the issue of equality, and I have lived long enough to know that people's feelings must be respected, even if one cannot make sense of them."

The reference to his "professor friends" was pointed. For Kristol, egalitarian movements were examples of class conflict — not between rich and poor but between the professional classes and the business classes. "The liberal community — i.e., the teachers, the journalists, the civil servants, the trade unionists, the leaders of minority groups, etc. — envisages the welfare state as the one institution through which it can exercise a power and authority over the nation's affairs which it does not otherwise possess," he wrote in a 1963 Harper's essay.

This liberal community faces opposition, however. "The conservative community — i.e., businessmen and their associates — sees the welfare state as a parvenu authority that usurps its traditional power and prerogatives, obstructs its habitual freedom of action." Kristol was careful not to attack any motives. "Each party doubtless sincerely believes that its sovereignty is most conducive to the human good," he wrote. "Whom the gods would make power-hungry, they first make sincere."

Nor did his views change over the ensuing years. "The simple truth," he wrote in 1972, "is that the professional classes of our modern bureaucratized societies are engaged in a class struggle with the business community for status and power." Ideological appeals to social justice, economic tracts, the lamentations of politicians and of media personalities — "what it comes down to is that our nuovi uomini are persuaded they can do a better job of running our society and feel entitled to have the opportunity. This is what they mean by 'equality.'"

Under the banner of equality, the professional and political classes use the state to manage a greater portion of national income, distributing the resources — spreading the wealth — as they see fit. It is no accident, Kristol might say, that the loudest calls for addressing income inequality come from members of those professions — public-sector unions, academic economists, liberal journalists, attorneys — that would benefit most in status, power, and wealth from an America where government controls a larger portion of GDP. As he put it in 1976:

Egalitarianism, in Sweden, does not reflect any sincere personal commitment on the part of the Swedish people to the ideal of equality. It is, rather, a strategy whereby organized labor on the one hand, and the state bureaucracy on the other, receive an ever-increasing share of the national income and of political power. This appetite will not be appeased by a more equal distribution of income or wealth. The demand for "more" — not for "more equal" but for "more" — will feed upon itself, until an economic, and eventually political, crisis will either create an authoritarian regime that copes with discontent by repressing it or provoke a reversion to a more liberal-capitalist economic order.

One of the means by which egalitarians rally support for the furtherance of their class prerogatives is demonization of large corporations. Corporate capitalism, for Kristol, presented a danger not because of economic inequality or environmental pollution but because of the possibility that "the large corporation will be thoroughly integrated into the public sector, and lose its private character altogether." By criticizing the "externalities" of corporate capitalism — "air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, traffic pollution, health pollution, or what have you" — liberals are able to transfer more power and decision-making from the private sector to the public one. "The transformation of American capitalism that this would represent — a radical departure from the quasi-bourgeois 'mixed economy' to a system that could be fairly described as kind of 'state capitalism' — does constitute a huge potential threat to the individual liberties Americans have traditionally enjoyed."

Returning to his theme of the religious conflict between orthodoxy and Gnosticism that underlies political argument, Kristol suggested that the deeper impulses animating the liberal or progressive left are not ultimately political. The roots of egalitarianism, he taught, went back to the religious thinness of capitalist civilization:

[T]he real trouble is not sociological or economic at all. It is that the "middling" nature of a bourgeois society falls short of corresponding adequately to the full range of man's spiritual nature, which makes more than middling demands upon the universe, and demands more than middling answers. This weakness of bourgeois society has been highlighted by its intellectual critics from the very beginning. And it is this weakness that generates continual dissatisfaction, especially among those for whom material problems are no longer so urgent. They may speak about "equality"; they may even be obsessed with statistics and pseudo-statistics about equality; but it is a religious vacuum — a lack of meaning in their own lives, and the absence of a sense of larger purpose in their society — that terrifies them and provokes them to "alienation" and unappeasable indignation.

"Unappeasable indignation" — the phrase captures well the personality of the activist left. It was Kristol's insight that this indignation was a response to the failure of secular liberal society to provide to its members a comprehensive and compelling theory of distributive justice. "I think it is becoming clear that religion, and a moral philosophy associated with religion, is far more important politically than the philosophy of liberal individualism admits," Kristol wrote in his 1973 essay "Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism."

Into the spiritual vacuum created by advanced liberal capitalism step the forces of the left, seeking to reassert control over the market and prevent it from determining society's shape. Society is to be shaped instead by the left. The egalitarians seek redistribution to effect social justice. The environmentalists seek control over business and natural resources in their quest to stop climate change. Public-health bureaucrats tell us what to eat, what not to smoke, which drugs we can and cannot take. The censors have returned, policing speech and attitudes in the same way authorities once policed entertainment and pornography.

"I am convinced that, when the history of these decades is written 150 years from now, there will be a chapter called 'The Aristocratic Impulse,'" Kristol said at AEI in 1979. "The environmentalist movement as well as all movements for economic planning embody an aristocratic impulse, an impulse to tell this society what shape it should take. The environmentalists and the economic planners do not want ordinary men and women to participate in such decisions. They know; they are the experts, the spiritual authorities on what is good for humanity and what is not."

The trial lawyers, journalists, Silicon Valley executives, Wall Street bankers, foundation officers, social workers, bureaucrats, Hollywood types, university administrators, public employees, and college professors ascendant in the 1970s and today constitute more than a "New Class." They are a new clerisy.


If what Kristol called the "problematics" of liberal capitalist democracies remain the same today as in the 1970s — increasing secularization, a rise in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation, family fragmentation, a popular culture that is hostile to the bourgeois ethos, rampant consumerism and materialism, an empowered and triumphalist class of liberal aristocrats, minuscule economic growth, a weak and inadequately defended capitalism — then the response to these problematics may also be the same. It is impossible, of course, to know precisely what Irving Kristol might think of the presidency of Barack Obama, the economics of Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty, the culture of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. But his writings offer some guidance about how to approach today's problems in American politics, economics, and culture. And the solutions to which they point are as likely to unsettle the libertarian right as the progressive left.

The foremost consideration must be the restoration of economic growth. Only growth can shift the focus of our economic debates from distribution to production. Only growth, through tight labor markets, rising wages, and the material improvement of all, can lessen class envy and class conflict, moderate sentiments of resentment, and deprive the liberal aristocracy of political ammunition.

Growth acts as a balm for democratic politics. It legitimizes capitalist exchange. "It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously," Kristol wrote in his 2003 essay "The Neoconservative Persuasion," "that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability."

A pro-growth agenda shares elements of a social agenda that protects and promotes bourgeois values. "The reason cultural nihilism will not prevail," Kristol said in 1992, "is that a bourgeois, property-owning democracy tends to breed its own antibodies. These antibodies immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists."

Such antibodies are produced through the lived experience of the middle class. As Kristol wrote in "The Cultural Revolution and the Future of Capitalism," "They learn their economics by taking out a mortgage, they learn their politics by watching the local school board in action, and they learn the impossibility of 'social engineering' by trying to raise their children to be decent human beings."

Life should be made easier for middle-class families. Public policy could help produce bourgeois antibodies by lowering the cost of family formation, by limiting or rolling back land-use regulations and zoning restrictions that raise the cost of property and housing, and by aiding and encouraging the mobility of families — both by easing commutes and enabling families to move to new communities in search of better jobs. "These households represent the conservative ideal of the normal household — the household that exemplifies 'family values' — and we wish to encourage such households instead of adding to their financial difficulties, as we have been doing," Kristol wrote in 1993.

The bourgeois agenda also includes helping families protect children from the depredations of the culture by enabling families to take advantage of more educational options, such as home schooling, school choice, vocational training, and new online resources. With a public-school system captured by unions and by the ideology of the multicultural left, these alternatives can help families reclaim bourgeois values.

Kristol's vehicle for measures to promote bourgeois flourishing was what he called the "conservative welfare state." Not only did he say it was fruitless to believe that the welfare state could be overturned; he also said that a welfare state was, in principle, compatible with conservative politics.

How? "The demand for a 'welfare state' is, on the part of the majority of the people, a demand for a greater minimum of political community, for more 'social justice' (i.e., distributive justice) than capitalism, in its pristine, individualistic form, can provide," he wrote in 1976. "It is not at all a demand for 'socialism' or anything like it."

He went on:

Nor is it really a demand for intrusive government by a powerful and ubiquitous bureaucracy — though that is how socialists and neo-socialists prefer to interpret it. Practically all of the truly popular and widespread support for a "welfare state" would be satisfied by a mixture of voluntary and compulsory insurance schemes — old-age insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, medical insurance — that are reasonably (if not perfectly) compatible with a liberal capitalist society.

It is the idea of a conservative welfare state that most discomfits the right, for the idea suggests that there really is no turning back the political clock. The theoretical principles of the founding fathers can be recovered, laws can be passed and interpreted according to the original text of the Constitution, but it is folly, the advocates of a conservative welfare state say, to believe that the government of the United States of America can or should be reduced to the size it was 50 or 100 or 200 years ago.

What is more important than rolling back the New Deal or the Progressive era, Kristol said, is to shape the welfare state in a conservative direction: to ensure it incarnates conservative values rather than liberal ones, and to direct its benefits to individuals and families and associations that behave in conservative rather than in liberal ways. "A conservative welfare state should...discriminate in favor of satisfactory human results," he wrote in a 1993 Wall Street Journal column, "not humane intentions."

The goal of reform would be not to abolish social-insurance programs for the aged and infirm and unemployed and unemployable, but to preserve those programs for the long haul by introducing competition and choice and making them friendly to the cause of healthy, stable, working, growing families. A distinction would have to be drawn between core functions of a conservative welfare state — national defense, border control, social insurance — and the secondary and tertiary functions of economic and environmental regulation and social engineering, through which liberals hope to impose their values on an unenthusiastic populace. "The wasted billions of today's welfare state are not to be found in the older social insurance schemes, but rather in later efforts to 'solve social problems,' — i.e., to take every disagreeable condition and convert it into a 'problem,' maybe even a 'deprivation,'" Kristol wrote in 1976. It is these intrusive social programs that would bear the brunt of conservative opposition.

Above all, a conservative welfare state would be future oriented. "It must be committed to shaping the future with at least as much energy as to preserving a traditional attachment to the past." It would build on human motivations, rather than try to change them "through the practical exercise of our unadulterated compassion, our universal benevolence, our gentle paternalistic authority." And it would not be hostile to religion. "The plain truth is that if we are ever going to cope with the deficit, and the social programs that inflate it," Kristol wrote in a 1993 column, "we are going to have to begin with a very different view of human nature and human responsibility in relation to such issues as criminality, sexuality, welfare dependency, even medical insurance." We are going to have to begin, in other words, with a religious view.


In the end, however, such an agenda could accomplish only so much. The religious sources of our modern predicament lead one to the conclusion that our problems will not be solved overnight or even over decades. It might not be possible to "solve" them at all.

One can hope to dissuade others from embracing utopian policies, and one can work to preserve the bourgeois virtues and the market economy. But one cannot rid the world of the gnostic temptation. No paean to free enterprise, no call to "End the Fed" or to abolish three cabinet departments, no Fair Tax or 9-9-9 plan will smooth out the business cycle, let alone end social conflict or provide meaning and direction to individual lives. These vulnerabilities are endemic to capitalism, and defenders of the free market ought always to keep them in mind.

Kristol's metaphor for wishful political thinking, it is interesting to note, was a religious one:

Too many conservatives today, like the Catholic church of the 16th Century, view the difficulties of the reformation we are living through as an opportunity to restore the status quo ante. They are wrong, as the Catholic Church was wrong. There is no more chance today of returning to a society of "free enterprise" and enfeebled government than there was, in the 16th Century, of returning to a Rome-centered Christendom. The world and the people in it have changed. One may regret this fact — nostalgia is always permissible. But the politics of nostalgia is always self-destructive.

With the temptation of nostalgia on the one hand and the danger of utopianism on the other, students of Kristol's work today must nonetheless participate vigorously in the ongoing clash between orthodoxy and Gnosticism, between the bourgeoisie and the liberal aristocracy. It is an uphill fight, but not necessarily hopeless. As new entrants join the battle, they can draw not only on the professional history and the personality of Irving Kristol. They can draw also on his words, on his theological and political ideas. They can draw on his prudence. As Kristol told Esquire in 1979:

Prudence is a virtue, a way of looking at the world and taking your principles from the world as it is. Not determining your principles first, then trying to shape the world to fit them. You always hear people say, "I lost interest in politics because I was always having to compromise my principles." I think they didn't start with very good principles.

"When you apply the prudential view to politics," he continued, "you see that the job of government is not to shape society according to some design of perfection but to cope. The business of government is coping."

It is a serious business, a business that is not likely to become any easier in the years ahead. "We have lived through a century of ever more extreme hedonism, antinomianism, personal and sexual individualism, licentiousness (as it used to be called)," Kristol wrote in a 1995 essay on American conservatism. "[A]nd no one who has bothered to read a bit of history ought to be surprised if it culminates in some kind of aggressive religious awakening."

That awakening could take many forms: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even gnostic. The theological dispute between the prophetic and rabbinic has taken unexpected turns in the past. It may do so again. "We — all of us — could be in for some shocking surprises."

Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and National Affairs.


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