Another ‘Great Recant’ Cuts Social Theory

Nancy B. Alston

December 10, 1975

In our continuing series of Great Recants, that pronounced recently by former Ohio Governor John J. Gilligan has to rank near the top.

The once-vocal champion of labor-liberal causes startled his fellow Democrats at a recent National Issues Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, by blasting a trio of popular programs – a national health proposal, federal involvement in environmental protection, and federal housing and community development.

“Heretical as it may sound to some, I am very reluctant to see the federal government launch a nation-wide health insurance program simply on the grounds that in the decade since Medicare and Medicaid have appeared, we have poured millions into the health care delivery system without improving materially either the level of health or its availability for most American families,”
said Gilligan.

He went on to suggest that most of these federal programs could be better handled on a state or regional level. Inasmuch as this position is exactly that of Presidential Hopeful Ronald Reagan, the convention delegates were flabbergasted.

“I guess it is a departure from some of my previous thinking,” Gilligan said, “but there are many things I believed in ten years ago when I was in Congress that now have proved not to work.”

The aplomb with which dogmatic opinion leaders whirl 180 degrees when their assertions fail never ceases to amaze me.

Yet we must acknowledge the intellectual courage such reversals require.

If only those clearer thinkers who tell it like it is could be accorded the same consideration as the self-appointed oracles!

We delay or destroy good causes at great expense and travail simply because those who advocate caution are vilified.

We are justified in questioning the remaining pie-in-the-sky proposals still being thumped up by activists with much rhetoric and little logic.

Regular readers of this column will recall some of the other Great Recants of recent years:

  1. On school bussing – by Dr. James Coleman, sociologist for the University of Chicago who launched the integration tool with a federal report in 1964. He now says, “Only under certain specific circumstances does integration improve black classroom performance – when the number of blacks introduced is not sufficiently large to alter the middle-class ethos of the classroom. When these limits are exceeded, the ghetto ethos prevails.”
  2. On deficit spending – by New York Mayor Abraham Beame as America’s largest city neared bankruptcy. He now says, “The very practices I advocated 10 and 20 years ago are responsible for our present difficulty. The borrowing of money to pay debt was a mistake. It is a bitter lesson.”
  3. On federal control – by U.N. Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor under President John F. Kennedy. He now says, “American liberals are guilty of over-protecting the good name of the poor, of over-selling underfinanced programs and of avoiding evidence of poor results. In particular (we liberals) have paid too little heed to the limited capacities of government bureaus to bring about social change.”
  4. On new math – by the California State Board of Education which a decade ago started the education fad. The board now says, “Not everyone needs conceptual theory. The ability to balance a checkbook or add up a grocery list is basic.”
  5. On permissive behavior – by Dr. Benjamin Spock, baby care specialist and Vietnam War objector. He now says, “We have reared a generation of brats. Parents aren’t firm enough with their children for fear of losing their love or incurring their resentment. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions. We didn’t realize until it was too late how our know-it-all attitude was undermining the self assurance of parents.”

Let us concede that those who espouse hard work, self sufficiency, thrift, simple skills, craftsmanship and all the other old fashioned virtues may know what they are talking about.

As we search the list of beautiful social theories of the last few decades, what has succeeded?

Not the New Deal, nor the Square Deal, nor the New Frontier, nor the Great Society.

Not public housing, rent subsidies, campus rioting, black power, isolationism, foreign aid, sexual freedom, affirmative action, welfare, hiring quotas, free tuition.

Social Security, Medicare and unemployment compensation survive at great expense but stand in jeopardy.

In view of the long and sorry record of error on the part of yesterday’s theorists, we would be better served by a new generation of pragmatists.

Better to count small blessings than recant large mistakes.

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