Book Review: A Time for Truth; Two Cheers for Capitalism

This book review was originally published in the June 26, 1978 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Viva Horatio

by William E. Simon
Reader’s Digest Press
248 pages; $12. 50

by Irving Kristol
Basic Books; 274pages; $10

While most people would not be caught dead reading the novels of Horatio Alger, two current writers are quite proud that they are fans. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon and Political Commentator Irving Kristol believe the trouble with conservatives is that they do not read Alger and subscribe to his values of uplift through hard work, diligence, self-reliance and probity. This disinterment of an author whom liberals thought they had buried is another illustration of a certain sprightliness in conservative thought these days. If conservatives are not advancing bold new ideas, they are recycling old ones with considerable inventiveness.

In his foreword to Simon’s book, Economist Friedrich A. Hayek says he cannot understand how a man of such outspoken views could have held a high Government post. Simon indeed prides himself on speaking out with all the exuberance of an Alger hero, and although it was always rumored that he was on the brink of being fired, he managed to survive. As Richard Nixon’s energy czar, he hoped, in vain, to preside over the liquidation of his own empire. He writes, “There is nothing like becoming an economic planner oneself to learn what is desperately, stupidly wrong with such a system.”

Simon’s harsh, free enterprise medicine is easy to take because it is spiced with considerable wit, especially at the expense of dissembling politicians. During New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, he was cast as the villain because he would not offer a federal bailout. In private, some New York politicians told him to continue to hang tough for the good of the city; when he asked for their public support, they recoiled in horror. Yet conservatives were frequently no better, writes Simon. “As is so often the case in our society, when the liberals orchestrate a nationwide uproar over good vs. evil, all those defined as evil suffer an acute loss of nerve.”

Simon wants to restore their nerve by establishing a conservative “counterintelligentsia” that will answer the liberal Establishment, charge for charge. Forget about giving any more money to foundations that simply sponsor attacks on capitalism, says Simon. Swamp the new group of conservative thinkers with “grants, grants and more grants in exchange for books, books and more books.”

Like Simon, Kristol believes that conservatives have suffered from a lack of ideas. He takes issue with such champions of the free market as Hayek and Milton Friedman, who believe that capitalism is its own reward, that its blessings are automatic and should be appreciated for what they are. Echoing untold prophets and philosophers, Kristol warns that materialism is not enough. People have to believe that an institution offers a model for behavior.

Capitalism must recover its moral content, argues Kristol, if it is going to survive. This is what Horatio Alger provided in such abundance for generations gone by. A businessman did not become a success just by making money. Heaven forbid! He was successful because capitalism encouraged certain character traits that used to be admired and are now disdained as “bourgeois virtues.” For decades, writes Kristol, “liberal capitalism has been living off the inherited cultural capital of the bourgeois era and has benefited from a moral sanction it no longer even claims. That legacy is now depleted, and the cultural environment has turned radically hostile.”

Republicans, writes Kristol, are going to have to start thinking less like businessmen and more like statesmen. By being practical instead of thoughtful, they become prisoners of circumstances beyond their control: namely, the governmental machinery that has been set up by Democrats with blueprints to burn. Their schemes may be bogus or Utopian, but they stir emotions and build up a following. Instead of sourly sniping at the welfare state, which is here to stay, Kristol urges Republicans to offer their own conservative version. A basic principle would be to let people provide for their own security as much as possible instead of having the Government do it through taxation. Medical or life insurance premiums, for instance, could be made taxdeductible, at least up to a point. Such policies, says Kristol, would combine the “maximum degree of individual independence and the least bureaucratic coercion.”

These books indicate a certain shift in conservative thinking. They are not so much polemical assaults on the left as probing critiques of their own faith. Such candid self-examination may give liberals genuine cause for alarm.

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