Christopher DeMuth Transcript

Taped March 19, 2014

Table of Contents

I: Becoming Conservative 00:15 – 9:12
II: Edward C. Banfield 9:12 –31:27
III: The Nixon White House 31:27 – 42:02
IV: James Q. Wilson 42:02 – 1:02:20
V: Big Government Today 1:02:20
 – 1:11:16
VI: Friedrich Hayek 1:11:16 – 1:34:54

I: Becoming Conservative (00:15 – 09:12)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. Our guest today is Chris DeMuth, who I’m very happy to welcome here and look forward to learning from Chris about American politics, American conservatism, American political thought, and everything else, as well.


KRISTOL: So, you – you – you went to Harvard, went to Chicago Law School, became, had a seated position in the Reagan administration, head of the most prestigious think tank in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute. You’ve written very interestingly on many, many topics. How did you get into this racket?

DEMUTH: I got into politics in the 1960s when I was a student at Harvard. I was not highly political or formed. I was a good liberal in the sense that young men and women are good liberals. I wanted – I thought that liberalism was the natural position of an intelligent, well-meaning person. I saw problems in the world. It seemed to me that government ought to be out solving those problems. And we were in the midst of a genuine political revolution in policies respecting black Americans, the Civil Rights Revolution.

I had – I grew up in comfortable circumstances but would – my father always made a point of taking me around the rural South and showing me the segregated life of the South. He was a jazz aficionado and we would go listen to jazz on the south side. So I was very committed to the cause of civil rights. By accident, I went to work in a political campaign one summer. A neighbor of ours, Charles Percy, was running for the Senate. He won the race; this was in 1966.

KRISTOL: A liberal Republican, right?

DEMUTH: Liberal Republican. And it in those days, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party both had liberal and conservative wings. I fell in in the course of the campaign with some people back at Harvard in the Ripon Society, which was known as a liberal Republican brainy people at Ivy League universities and so forth, looked down upon by many people in the party itself. And we thought of ourselves as liberals. Nelson Rockefeller and Pete McCloskey, people like that were our heroes.

In retrospect – and I should say many leaders of the conservative movement came out of that milieu, of Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, George Gilder, many others. What we were was pro-civil rights libertarians. We were for the negative income tax; we wanted to abolish the draft; we wanted a professional military. We were great admirers of Milton Friedman. But the organizing issue, the most salient issue of the day was civil rights for black Americans, and that was a central concern of ours. Barry Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act and that had divided the party, and that’s – that’s how we saw ourselves.

KRISTOL: And one forgets how much being a liberal Republican then was disagreeing with Goldwater on – as much as anything else.

DEMUTH: That really, that was the defining issue. The second was a stumbling into a friendship with a professor at Harvard named Edward C. Banfield. I first encountered Banfield in the form of a pamphlet published by the American Enterprise Institute, which one of my professors had assigned, I think as an example. They were trying to bow toward diversity of intellectual opinion. And he had written a piece on foreign aid. It challenged every doctrine, every precept, every pro-foreign aid argument, root and branch. And I remember being astounded by this publication. I knew it had to be wrong and –

KRISTOL: So you were an undergraduate –

DEMUTH: This was, was actually my freshman year, it was the introduction to government course. But it was argued with such lucidity and it acknowledged the arguments – it, it made the proponents’ arguments better than the proponents did. And then it would come around and criticize them, both for the notion that American aid could actually help development in poor countries where cultural obstacles to the formation of voluntary associations and businesses would stand in the way of any of the theories of economic development coming out of Yale and Harvard or the dollars coming out of the American taxpayers’ payments. And it was a very powerful work and I found it extremely disturbing.

I took a course of his in urban policy problems which was about race, poverty, crime. The problems of the cities were the big problems in addition to civil rights in those days. And I found in Banfield a man who was on one issue after another offering arguments that I’d never heard before, challenging liberal orthodoxies, but doing so from a position of profoundly informed scholarship and assigning us works of sociology to understand the particular problems of lower-class consciousness.

There was a great book called Elmtown’s Youth [by Yale sociologist August De Belmont Hollingshead]. And this was not about blacks, this was about whites because one of his great arguments was what we perceive as racial problems of the inner cities are much more cultural and class arguments – a heretical idea at the time which has since become conventional wisdom.

And we would – we would study books that brought us face-to-face with the life of people living in very poor circumstances in American cities. And this was a serious man, he was not indifferent to the plight of the poor. In fact, he seemed more alert to the plight of the poor and attentive to what might be done to help them than the liberals were.

KRISTOL: But deeply skeptical of the Great Society?

DEMUTH: Of the Great Society programs. In fact, he argued a style of argument that became conventional over the next 10 or 15 years that the government efforts that were intended to alleviate, improve the lives of the poor were making things worse, urban renewal was demolishing, certainly, a very poor and underdeveloped, but nevertheless communities – but nevertheless communities that people knew their friends and they knew the shopkeepers and they were being replaced by towering public housing projects.

It was the course changed my views eventually. At first, I simply wanted to argue with him and I eventually found myself in his office and somewhat amazed that a big professor, one of the senior people in the government department, would spend time with a mere undergraduate. I read the entire reading list for the course and begged him to give me more things to read. So he would give me books to read and he charted my intellectual course, which eventually moved in a conservative direction, but it was it was many years and a lot of study and actual confrontation with the realities of government, in, during two stints when I was working in government. But I would say that the Ripon Society and Banfield were the beginnings of my being jarred out of my conventional young man’s liberalism.

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