Miles to Go

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A sociologist by training, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has spent much of his lifetime in public office. First in the executive branch under both Republican and Democratic presidents and later in the Senate, he has devoted much of his career to finding solutions to problems that beset modern society. MILES TO GO: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SOCIAL POLICY represents a survey of those problems along with recommended solutions.

The book is divided into problems of a general nature and those more immediate. Generally optimistic, Moynihan gives a favorable assessment of the economic policies of modern industrial nations. Business cycles have been successfully moderated through government intervention into the economy. He further applauds the fact that a corps of academically trained specialists, not just in economics but in the social service areas of government, are now involved as never before.

His examination of specific issues, however, is not so optimistic. He believes that a balanced budget amendment will seriously limit governmental power to prevent depressions. Certain welfare legislation, he argues, will likely result in the impoverishment of millions of children. The constant rise in nonmarital births since 1960, not only in the United States but in other developed nations as well, will burden the institutions of society far into the future. As with other issues, Moynihan acknowledges that too little is known about the subject for governments to manage it effectively. As for the drug problem, Moynihan explores it but offers only tentative suggestions for its solution.

Moynihan’s analyses are supported by his knowledge of economic and social theory and by frequent use of statistical data. For the most part his positions are centrist. His thoughtful and often bold excursions into contested issues are sure to stir controversy, yet they make for illuminating reading.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, September 15, 1996, p. 190.

Business Week. November 18, 1996, p. 19.

Commentary. CII, October, 1996, p. 63.

Commonweal. CXXIII, November 8, 1996, p. 17.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 27, 1996, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXIII, October 21, 1996, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, November 10, 1996, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, September 16, 1996, p. 62.

Washington Monthly. XXVIII, December, 1996, p. 59.

Miles to Go

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior United States senator from New York, has had a long and distinguished career in public service. Initially a professor of sociology at Harvard University, he has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as an advisor on labor policy and as ambassador to both India and the United Nations.

In Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy, Moynihan borrows the main title from Robert Frost’s lyric “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Moynihan refrains, however, from equating himself with Frost’s bemused poetic persona; rather he applies the quotation to the evolution of the national society of which he is a part. Like Frost’s speaker, leaders may pause and ponder society’s direction, but they too have promises to keep. Presumably, Moynihan would agree with Aristotle’s dictum that organized societies exist not that men may live, but that they may live well. At the same time, he recognizes important limitations in the role of government.

Although he labels his work “personal” in the subtitle, Moynihan’s perspective is enhanced by expertise and informed by firsthand experience. For an understanding of issues, he draws heavily upon social science. Clearly, Moynihan retains his sociologist’s perspective concerning the way societies operate. Further, he borrows heavily from economic theory as it has developed from the late nineteenth century. After economics emerged from its parent field, “political economy,” the “political” half eventually became political science. From this discipline, the book explores the subdivision designated public policy, a field in which Moynihan has had a wide range of experience. Despite the application of three separate social sciences, Moynihan repeatedly admits that there remains much to be learned about all the issues he discusses.

Although not pessimistic, the book leaves the impression that the major challenges confronting the nation’s political institutions are not amenable to solutions by any currently available means. Instead, they are long-term problems to be addressed over time. By couching issues as they are commonly understood in terms of a problem-solution metaphor, Moynihan invites readers to accept the widespread impression that either a solution is forthcoming or those who deal with the problems are incompetent. A more realistic assessment might be that, even when functioning most effectively, governments can at best meliorate social problems.

In economic policy, Moynihan suggests that governments have experienced a measure of success. During the post-World War II era, government policies in developed countries have promoted both growth and stability. Postwar recessions have not sunk into depressions, and economic growth has not resulted in hyperinflation. While societies have not repealed business cycles, their economic controls have functioned much more successfully that earlier laissez-faire policies.

A further success has been the appearance of the academically trained specialist in public policy fields, not just in economics but in domestic welfare programs, education, and other government services. This development has made it possible for governments to apply statistical methodology (the method of inquiry common to the social sciences) to a host of public issues and to seek solutions. One problem with relying on specialists, however, is that specialization removes decision-making into an arcane arena and thus undercuts the consensus necessary for major policy initiatives. Yet the availability of trained specialists, a corps of competent professionals in the area of public policy, remains a plus for the social system.

Moynihan rightly points out that the nation has entered a new age, a postindustrial age, that poses challenges previously unknown. He goes a step further by suggesting that the United States is encountering these problems simultaneously with other advanced economies. As a consequence, the nation can no longer fall back upon European solutions, as it did with problems that beset the industrial age. In the past, European nations encountered the social effects of industrialization earlier than the United States, and thus had to find ways of coping with them. American policy makers were thus bequeathed precedents for confronting the difficulties of industrialization. Whether Moynihan is in reality correct that foreign precedents no longer apply, his statement reads like a new Declaration of Independence for American social science and may prove seminal. It is as though Moynihan is making the claim for social science that the American Transcendentalists made for literature in the mid-nineteenth century, as they demanded an indigenous literature.

After turning to more specific major issues, the book becomes less optimistic. Much of the text is devoted to two very complex issues: health care reform (not an issue without precedents) and the proposed balanced budget amendment. From his previous experience as chair of the...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)