It was not so long ago that liberals in this country, were bemoaning the absence of an intelligent right. Bill Buckley seemed more interested in being puckish than in having his ideas taken seriously; apart from him and Milton Friedman, the burden of conservative thought was borne by the Roman Hruskas and Robert Doles of the world. This side of Ayn Rand, it was hard to find an intellectual impediment to the on-rush of orthodox liberalism.

How times have changed. The recent overhaul in domestic ideology, surely the most important since the New Deal, is by now an established fact. From the popularity of the mysterious Jerry Brown, to the broadly based clamor for deregulation, to the emergence of George Will as the premier political columnist, the indications of a new sort of conservatism are unmistakably clear.

As one who can look back on an earlier passion for Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand, I often wonder whether this change portends another decade of wrenching gyrations, as we are again torn between the partial truths of one political pole and those of the other. The problem is brought to a head by two books, which present the best faces of the new “conservative” movement. One is Robert Nozick’s case for libertarianism, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a book that has been widely discussed (and won the National Book Award) in the year since its publication. The other is the more traditional conservatism of Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority. No one who has cast a skeptical eye at government over the last decade can deny that both books are often on target, as they hurl their darts at the sitting duck of government-as-usual. The points they develop are among the most valuable to be found anywhere in the current “conservative” mood. Yet when one lays them aside, there is a sense of incompleteness and imbalance left; what they do not say begins to seem as important as what they do.

The Minimal State

What both books do well is to emphasize the failure of our public institutions. Nozick does it by insisting upon individual rights; in his libertarian scheme, the government would maintain public order but do little else to interfere with private lives. As he puts it on the book’s first page, “a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; [and] any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified.”

Although Nozick makes few specific allusions to current policies or problems (this, as we will see, becomes a serious problem), the practical applications of his argument are obvious. His emphasis on “rights” shows what a constricted meaning that term has acquired within the liberal orthodoxy. The American Civil liberties Union and other groups on the Left have been prickly as porcupines about defending the rights of William Kunstler, the dirty-moviemakers, and accused criminals out on bail—causes to which Nozick would subscribe—but they have been plainly deaf to the complaints of those who feel oppressed by the bureaucratic state. The whites of South Boston (the blacks, too, for that matter), the owners of small businesses, those who complain about any tax burden that can’t immediately be blamed on big business or an unjust loophole—these and other victims of the courts and HEW find little support for their “rights” among the civil liberties crowd of the Left.

Nozick’s book reminds us that these are questions of ends and means. The ends have been fine-sounding—economic equality, racial justice, environmental improvement—but the means have clearly involved a sacrifice of rights, a point not often mentioned in Washington. One of the ironies of political debate in this country is that few people genuinely believe in freedom of speech—when opinions they find repulsive are involved. Nozick repeats the message that there is little real respect for civil liberties, at least not for those that are considered “regressive.” Those who complain are called racist, or greedy, or dangerous to the environment—and in many cases those labels are apt; still the clear implication of Nozick’s arguments is that their rights must be taken more seriously if we truly care about civil liberties.

The great value of Nisbet’s book is in emphasizing that a society is held together by bonds more complicated than regulations published in the Federal Register. There are places where he strikes too autumnal a tone in denouncing the decline of modern society, but time and again his analysis rings true. Local governments, voluntary organizations, and of course such moribund forces as the church have all lost their power to cement the blocs of society together. In their place has come rule from Washington. “Few things so clearly separate the liberalism of the 19th century from 20th-century liberalism and progressivism as the nearly complete acceptance by the latter of bureaucracy,” Nisbet says. “The word bureaucracy has come to symbolize, above all others in our time, the transfer of government from the people, as organized in their natural communities in the social order, as equipped with the tastes, desires, and aspirations which are the natural elements of their nurture, to a class of professional technicians whose principal job is that of substituting their organizations, their tastes, desires, and aspirations, for those of the people.”

These are significant points, and presented better in these books than they have been in the indistinct political rhetoric that Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter have inspired. But a nagging doubt remains about the package as a whole. One way to get a grip on it is to consider the abstraction of the arguments.

Both books (but especially Nozick’s) are serious works of political philosophy: heavy on theory, short on specifics. There is nothing wrong with theory; I do not mean to suggest that Kant would have been a worthier citizen had he devoted his time to the Konigsberg city council. But in this case the abstraction steers the writers away from some of the problems of the real world, and from the unpalatable consequences of their theories. The effect is that of a session with Ralph Waldo Emerson; what seems wholly plausible while the book is in hand begins to fall apart when the twists and complications of reality reassert their place in your mind. The problem is easier to identify in Nozick, both because he invites it and because he displays so many of the classic libertarian traits. The most spectacular admission comes after he develops his “entitlement” theory of justice—roughly, that as long as economic exchanges are voluntary and no one is applying force or illegal coercion, what the market dictates will be “just.” If one man ends up with 99 per cent of the money and everyone else with the rest, that is fine. If everyone ends up with the same amount of money, that is fine too. The thing the government must not do is tamper with the result by such infringements as the progressive income tax.

Lighting Up a Fantasy World

As libertarians often do, Nozick argues this case as if the world were created yesterday. There is no history in this book, apart from a fable about how his minimal state might conceivably have evolved. Eventually, though, Nozick gets around to admitting that the world did not develop in quite the fashion he has described and that there has been some record of “injustices” piled up by now. Over the millennia, pillage, warfare, slavery, and expropriation have all shaped the distribution of wealth. It is hard to tell any more who, theoretically, is entitled to what. With a wave of the hand, Nozick makes what seems to me a staggering concession, saying, in effect, that his entitlement theory doesn’t have anything to do with the world we live in:

If [the principles of fair exchange] are violated, the principle of rectification comes into play. . . An important question for each society will be the following: given its particular history, what operable rule of thumb best approximates the results of a detailed application in that society of the principle of rectification. These issues are very complex and are best left to a full treatment of the principle of rectification. In the absence of such a treatment applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to it. Although to introduce socialism as the punishment for our sins would be to go too far, past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them.

It is, perhaps, the philosopher’s privilege to wave such trivialities aside, but in light of this admission does his argument have any application at all? It is as if someone wrote a tract on crime based on the premise that all men were good, and then threw in a paragraph saying that, of course, many men were bad. The most significant aspect of this concession is its nonchalance; whether his principles illuminate reality or simply light up their own fantasy world is not cause of great concern to Nozick. Again, I do not mean to suggest that everyone must spend his time sweating out some “relevant” solution to the world’s problems, but when you are writing political philosophy that has little to do with the real world, you end up with little more than a hit-and-miss sort of plausibility.

Nozick also displays the personal frostiness that is so typical of libertarians. I have never met Nozick, but I have known a good many libertarians, have been one myself, and I have always been struck by several distinct patterns of mind. Prime among them is an absolute inability to empathize with the difficulties that the world imposes on people, the little victories and, more important, the defeats, that make up most lives. In fairness, this is less an indication of basic meanness than of limited experience; libertarianism is usually most appealing to bright young things in high school and college, who cannot imagine that the world will ever muss their hair.

A Quarter to See Wilt

Nozick reveals this attitude most clearly with the chief illustration he provides for ‘his “entitlement” theory. There are a good many illustrations he might have chosen. If a rancher can get wetbacks to work for him for 75 cents an hour, that is, just great. No one is “forcing” them to work. If a company, through its sheer market power, can make customers pay $10 a loaf for the bread they eat, that is fine, too. No one is forcing them to buy. Any number of similar; unsavory illustrations can be thought of to flesh out the dark side of laissez-faire. Yet what is the illustration Nozick provides to show how entitlement works? He says that people may willingly decide to pay an extra quarter for the privilege of seeing Wilt Chamberlain play basketball, and if all those quarters go to Wilt he will soon be a very rich man.

The vividness of this illustration makes it a tree in the desert of abstraction, and who could quarrel with the arrangement Nozick proposes? Such a small amount of money to pay for the excitement of seeing a great athlete, or a great actor, or a great artist in performance: the money they receive is worth the joy they bring. But do we approach with the same delight the prospect of sweating in the sun for 75 cents an hour because there’s no other work to be had and a surplus of field hands? Or paying through the nose for essentials, because the provider has obtained a monopoly? Nozick’s assertion that these decisions are “voluntary,” because they are not made at the point of a gun, would be simple fatuity did it not seem so obvious that he had not thought of the less-charming consequences. When he is building his life-is-tough case, saying that unpleasant choices may still be voluntary ones, how does he illustrate it? By saying, “I may voluntarily walk to someplace I would prefer to fly unaided.” How delightful it seems when put that way, and how much of life it ignores.

Consider how Nozick’s formula would affect the “Texas Airline War,” described by George Hopkins in this issue. Here we have a situation seemingly tailor-made for libertarian analysis. One airline—the unregulated Southwest—can do the job so much more efficiently than the fat, government-protected monopolies that it can beat their price by 5.0 per cent and still offer service the customers prefer. If Nozick werenat the helm, he would extend the scope of Southwest’s deregulation, let it fight with Braniff, and watch as poor, enfeebled Texas International Airlines bit the dust. All the principles of laissez-faire would be honored. Everyone’s liberties would be safe.

Then one considers the consequences. In half a dozen cities in Texas, and a hundred others through the rest of the country, scheduled airline service would simply disappear. The subsidy now paid to Texas International is the only thing that makes its flight to Brownwood and Dig Spring and Waco worthwhile. Without the subsidy no one would bother—or at least no one beside an air-taxi service, which will charge more and take longer to get passengers out to the major cities. Hard cheese, say the libertarians. Let the people move elsewhere—as they will certainly have to do, since in many of these cities airline connections make the difference between gradual stagnation and normal economic health. These quick (compared to cars) and inexpensive (compared to air-taxis) connections often determine whether a city can hold its industry and lure new ones, whether it seems to be part of the modern world or an isolated backwater. No one who has been to Big Spring or Brownwood, or Charleston, West Virginia, or Fort Smith, Arkansas, can doubt the importance of the regional, subsidized airline services to these small cities. To the libertarians these interests are irrelevant; if the service is important, let the people pay for it. In any case, they say, the need of Brownwood does not constitute a claim on the resources of the other citizens of the country, who pay high fares to the CAB’s carriers to subsidize Texas International’s flights into remote corners of the state. Let the hicks move. What we have here, once again, is a case of constricted understanding. Experience with human nature suggests that some “utilitarian” calculus— horrible as that word is to Nozick—underlies most common-sense decisions. Getting off the subsidies will be a large inconvenience to the people of the small cities, while continuing them is at most a small imposition on the rest of the public. The Nozicks of the world might understand this better if Harvard, eager to cut its heating bills, decided to move to Midland-Odessa. Libertarian arguments often give the sense that they cannot consider such a possibility, that they can imagine only one side of the coin. They can imagine being Wilt Chamberlain, can even imagine paying the quarter to see him play. But they cannot imagine being driven out of town or forced to sweat in the field, or made to put up with an indignity of any sort. In the real world, a substantial number of people are in all of these predicaments, and their interests cannot be willed out of existence.

(It may be, of course, that the CAB’s current method of keeping the Brownwoods alive is misguided and impractical. Now the subsidy is financed by a selective tax on those who fly with the regulated carriers and pay a higher ticket price than they otherwise would. Support from general tax funds would make more sense.)

All Power to Jersey City?

When we turn to Robert Nisbet, we find a very different theory affected by a very similar reluctance to tangle with realities. Nisbet’s appeal for more private organizations, more vital local governments, is sound and persuasive, but there is part of the story he leaves out. Think for a moment about actual examples of these “voluntary associations” on which he rests such high hopes. The dairy co-ops? The American Bar Association? The American Medical Association? Not all of them have such grasping implications as these, but the same failures of character which have affected our public institutions are familiar in these private organizations as well. In discussing the lawyers, Nisbet speaks with eloquence about the perils of the modern bar— the way it institutionalizes paranoia and, by making every relationship into a litigious one, exacts a terrible price in social efficiency. But there is no trace of humor or irony about the way one of his sainted “voluntary associations,” the American Bar Association, exacerbates the problem by merging the lawyers into a guild. Nor does Nisbet reveal any sense of what happens when different associations compete. The result is most often multiple victimization of those outside the guild, rather than the paradise of the invisible hand. The most amusing example is the ongoing warfare between the doctors and the lawyers over malpractice insurance. All of a sudden the doctors have gotten wise to the lawyers’ monopoly. They will go on and on about how reform is impossible as long as legislatures and the Congress are packed with lawyers. My sympathies are all with the doctors in this case; but not one doctor in a hundred has paused to think that maybe the AMA should cut back on some of its guild advantages, too.

Nisbet’s rhapsodies about state and local government have the same blindered tone. Yes, the federal government has failed; but does he really believe that corruption and oppression will disappear when power is turned back to the Jersey Cities and the Duvall counties? All levels of government need some sort of revitalization and reform—and that point, which escapes Nisbet’s mention, is part of the most important implication of these two books.

What has been most impressive—in these books, in the teachings of Chairman Jerry Brown, in criticism from the traditional Right—is the keen perception of the federal government’s failings. But many of these critics have been blind to the related failures of private institutions and of other levels of government. There has been pathetically little sense that what we are seeing now is a failure of large organizations as a whole and not simply the bureaucratic giants in Washington. The AMA and HEW, General Motors and the General Services Administration; the U.S. Congress and the New York City Board of Education—all of them have shown failures of efficiency and morality which no simple redistribution of power will correct. Yes, a redistribution will do some good; Nozick is right about reducing the government’s power, and Nisbet is right about shifting some of the action to the private and local levels. But steps like these are hopelessly inadequate unless we also pay attention to the pathology of organizations—as organizations—be they public or private. If the wave of anti-government feeling can be channeled into a critique of our organizational life, it may have greater potential benefits than anything we’ve seen from it so far.

With the possible exception of Watergate, when our institutions have done evil, they have not consciously set out to do so. The U. S. did not intend to slaughter civilians in Vietnam. The chemical-makers did not intend to deform babies with Thalidomide. But somehow it happened. Most often it happened because those making decisions were insulated, by layer upon layer of people, from the truth about their effects. The war provided a ghastly set of variations on this theme. We conducted “body counts” to find out how the war was going, and ended up lying to ourselves. We had a massacre at My Lai, and everyone from Captain Medina on up thanked heaven that he had not known about it so he couldn’t be blamed. We had planes which dropped bombs from such heights that no one inside the plane could see the results. In the White House, a host of invisible minefields made sure that bearers of bad news did not penetrate the optimistic inner circle. Truth became the first victim of large organizations. The ugly reality does not survive the long journey back to headquarters.

Putting Yourself on the Line

What was true in Vietnam was true at HEW and is true in business as well. In the corporate world, the device of public ownership is perhaps the most effective insulating device ever developed. As we survey the sins of the business world, it is clear they are caused not by the desire to make a profit, but by the need to maximize it—to cut every corner and exploit every opening. These days only one kind of company can avoid the drive toward maximization—the family-owned business, in which those who run the company day-to-day need satisfy only themselves with their financial performance. When the company is publicly owned—by anonymous thousands of stockholders, by pension funds and banks— a wall of insulation is thrown up. The people who manage the company—who decide whether the shielding on the nuclear plant is thick enough, whether to compromise or play it tough on labor negotiations, whether to close down a small-town plant—always have a cattle prod at their backs; they know that the stockholders want results. Those who own the stock need never know what steps were taken to produce their quarterly dividend. The situation is perfect—except for those who buy the products, work in the factories, and live with the consequences.

In revitalizing the government and businesses, then, it seems important to break down these insulating walls. One way to do so is to figure out how to facilitate protest—both criticism inside the organization, and, as a last resort, public protest—”whistleblowing.” Whenever the political landscape looks bleak, you might recall the good news from the beginning of this year: two groups of professional men, three from General Electric and three from the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned with a public protest about the risks their employers were taking with the public’s health and safety. Then the federal safety engineer for the nuclear reactors at Indian Point, New York, resigned with a public charge that the reactors were unsafe in design and construction and “could cause a catastrophe.” These seven resignations—four by federal employees—equal the entire number of protest resignations by public officials during the Kennedy-Johnson years and exceed the five of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. No one at the top can do a good job if he doesn’t know what’s happening out in the field; those who tolerate bad jobs won’t be able to do so if we take away from them the excuse the generals used at My Lai and Nixon clung to during Watergate: I didn’t know what my subordinates were doing.

Performance Traps

Nisbet’s moans about the end of the world seem plausible when he discusses the decline of dedication; companies don’t care about making good products, the government doesn’t care about doing its job; If there is such a decay—and the evidence lies all around us—its roots may lie with the traps that keep people from performing. One of them is the trap of simple greed, most evident in state and local goverment, where bribery is still a way of life. While members of the federal bureaucracy know they’ll make out all’ right if they simply stay on the GS pay scale, the traditionally low salaries paid by state and local governments have taught their employees that God helps those who help themselves. A second, and more important trap, is that of bureaucratic climbing—the difference between advancing one’s career and doing the job well. As organizations become more specialized, as one corporate province has a harder time knowing what’s going on in the far reaches of the organization, it becomes easier and easier for bright performers to leap from rung to rung; leaving before anyone can see their mistakes. This was Robert McNamara’s trick at Ford; great proponent of the Edsel, he left the company in glory before the car turned out to be a bomb. Among federal bureaucrats it is referred to as “getting out of town just ahead of the posse,” which usually means securing within a couple of years a promotion to another division or department where your sins can’t catch up with you. This is why I think Nisbet is dead wrong when he says that we need more hierarchy and stratification in American society. The more of these layers we get, the greater is the potential chasm between what helps an employee and what helps make a good car or an honest program.

Another is the security trap, its effects most visible in the federal government, the larger corporations, and the public interest world of foundations and academia. Tenure, a certain security in one’s job, is often a prerequisite to fine performance—a senator, for example, has a bit more breathing space than a congressman, who spends all his time running for reelection. But there is a fine line; quite easily security can become soporific, stifling, less a base for efforts that couldn’t be undertaken without some security than a simple featherbed. In the civil service and much of academia the line has been not so much crossed as obliterated. (Neither professor Nozick nor professor Nisbet has anything to say about the perils of tenure.)

Radical Optimism

Part of the passion for security is simple to understand; our society makes it tough to be at economic loose ends; for those who have children, it is almost impossible. This suggests at least one practical way to reduce the lure of security: public protection against enormous medical bills, public policies which would enable the student to borrow the cost of his education and pay it back over the course of his working life, would remove at least the most obvious constraints on the breadwinner. A modest guaranteed annual income, too, might enable people who wanted to take chances to do so without facing oblivion. My point is not that everyone should change jobs, nor that security of any sort is harmful, but that, on the whole, it is harder to take risks now than it should be. We all suffer when people feel chained to jobs they no longer perform well.

After taking these practical steps to eliminate performance traps, a question of the spirit remains. It is hard even to mention it without sounding like a sap, but from somewhere we need to recapture a sense of pride in performance, commercial and governmental. Every now and then you come across a company or a department where people are not just counting the hours but actually enjoying their work. The staff of the House Judiciary Committee, for instance, labored like beavers during the impeachment hearings. Not all of us have rewards that tempting on the horizon, so the question that remains to be answered is how to make basic productivity and basic administrative efficiency into more attractive, even honorable, goals. Nisbet’s appeals for more private activities are just fine, but I hate to see them take the tone—already evident in much of the current new conservative movement— of putting down government. We may need less government and fewer people working in it, but those who remain should be proud of their calling and take it seriously. The surest guarantee of a lousy civil service, after all, is to make it an object of public scorn.

Equally important as the need for pride in performance are the factors Nozick and Nisbet never mention: the need to reduce the current levels of greed and cowardice in our organizational life. While history suggests nothing more clearly than the permanence of these elements in human nature, it also suggests that they are less dominant in some periods than in others. Thus there is hope that we can find a better—if not a perfect—way. Hope that we can put an end to the grotesque escalation of federal salaries and of doctors and lawyers fees, to the corruption among our state and local officials, and to the tyranny of profit in our corporations. Hope that we can encourage people to criticize and tell the truth about their organizations. Hope not that we can turn sinners into saints but that we can find ways of encouraging people to be their best rather than their worst selves.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.