Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying that the most reliable indicator of a person’s political beliefs was the year he or she was born. Born in 1927, Moynihan came of age in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and thus was a New Deal liberal through-and-through. Shifts in the Democratic coalition and its approach to public policy should not obscure Moynihan’s own consistency, though they did for many of his contemporaries. Accused by the hard Left of being a neoconservative and by neoconservatives of betraying what they thought was his loyalty, Moynihan was simply Moynihan.

Moynihan’s liberalism was of the prudent variety that believes in the capacity of government to alleviate suffering, but is skeptical of its ability to transform society. This endorsement of government and acceptance of limitation formed the foundation of his political reflection and action.

A prolific writer, whose publications included nineteen books and hundreds of essays, Moynihan remains the foremost modern exemplar of the scholar-statesman. Michael Barone famously called him “the best thinker among politicians since Lincoln, and the best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.” His friend George F. Will remarked that Moynihan had written more books than most senators read.

Moynihan was renowned for his uncanny ability to reconceptualize problems and to foresee social phenomena. Moynihan’s use of epidemiological techniques to analyze traffic safety helped lead to the requirement of seat belts in automobiles. His insight into the importance and deterioration of family was a lifelong preoccupation, from his 1965 “Moynihan Report” (The Negro Family: The Case for National Action) to his last, posthumously published book chapter. He predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire more than a decade before the event, saw the primacy of ethnicity in both domestic and foreign affairs, and recast government secrecy as a form of regulation.

As both statesman and thinker, Moynihan was a polymath. His policy and his scholarly concerns included poverty, transportation, ethnicity, diplomacy, international law, and more.

Philosophy of Government

Raised on the New Deal, some of Moynihan’s most perceptive political reflections were induced by the conversion of the Roosevelt philosophy—that government could ameliorate economic ills on the model of social insurance to the Great Society vision of government as an agent of social transformation. Moynihan held consistently to the former belief, but was skeptical of the latter.

Social Security, Moynihan often noted, was the most successful anti-poverty program in American history because it acted within core government competencies (collecting taxes and distributing checks): “The Federal government is good at collecting revenues, and rather bad at disbursing services. Therefore, we use the Federal fiscal system as an instrument for redistributing income as between different levels of government, different regions and different classes.”

Moynihan, an original architect of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, had pushed hard for a comprehensive jobs program financed by an increase in the cigarette tax. Johnson rejected the tax increase, and the Great Society drifted in the direction of “community action” programs that aimed not just to redistribute income but also to redistribute political power. Moynihan hypothesized that the Great Society inadvertently distributed income upward by initially taxing the poor and using the revenue to pay social workers.

These events led Moynihan to reflect on the limitations of what government could achieve even as he insisted upon its substantial ability to improve people’s lives. Writing about the heady promise of the 1960s, which by the end of the decade had devolved into an often millenarian “New Left” whose resort to violence he detested, Moynihan noted that the Port Huron Statement addressed the anomie of middle-class college students but said nothing about his abiding concern: poverty. Similarly, in the introduction to his book Coping: Essays on the Practice of Government, Moynihan argued: “Having through all my adult life worked to make the American national government larger, stronger, more active, I nonetheless plead that there are limits to what it may be asked to do.”

This combination of aspiration and limitation—a confidence that government can do good combined with a grounded sense of the objectives it might realistically achieve—formed the core of Moynihan’s prudential disposition. It is important not to confuse his criticism of overreaching government with a skepticism of government per se. The importance of government not promising too much, he said, is that the resulting disappointment undermines confidence in what government can and should do.

The themes of aspiration and limitation are also evident in Moynihan’s attitude toward social science. He was a perceptive analyst of data but largely resisted its use in policy formulation. Rather, data was useful in evaluating policies already in place.

Poverty and Families

Throughout his public and scholarly decades, Moynihan’s most persistent preoccupation was the problem of poverty. His wife, Elizabeth B. Moynihan, who managed his political campaigns, recalls that Moynihan kept a file folder containing papers on the problem on which he was working at any given moment. Upon his 2003 death, the folder was filled with papers on poverty.

Moynihan’s New Deal liberalism was evident in his fundamental conception of poverty as a lack of money that could be remedied by transferring resources to the poor. He argued for making the federal government an employer of last resort. He persuaded Richard M. Nixon to advocate a Family Assistance Plan that was, in essence, a guaranteed income that incentivized work. When Jimmy Carter declared that government could not solve the problem of poverty, Moynihan replied that the right welfare bill could.

As a senator, Moynihan pushed for welfare reform that allowed states to experiment with different approaches to the problem of poverty. He bitterly opposed the 1996 welfare reform—the federal government would now spend a preset and declining amount on those in poverty, regardless of whether the poverty rate rose or fell—on the grounds that it repealed  entitlement to welfare and thus imperiled children in particular.

Moynihan grasped earlier than most that the dissolution of families was driving poverty and inflicting grave social ill, especially among children growing up without fathers. The Moynihan Report first observed this phenomenon with respect to African American families, and traced it to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, which he said the American government therefore bore a special responsibility to address.

Moynihan would later note that this phenomenon became a trend that extended across society. The decline of families played a role in poverty, crime and moral standards. In his famous essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” Moynihan noted that society tended to allow rather than accept the scale of deviancy a consistent standard would reveal. While he always rejected as unproven the idea that the Great Society caused the erosion of the family—the Moynihan Report was based on data collected before the War on Poverty—Moynihan also believed that a range of government activities inherently affected families, and that they should consequently be coordinated with the goal of promoting family cohesion.

His response was to call for a national family “policy” rather than discrete “programs,” a distinction he applied in other areas as well. Programs tended to accrete interests and be disjointed, whereas a policy could unite the broad sweep of government activities behind the goal of strengthening families.


Moynihan first came to national prominence with the publication of Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, coauthored with his frequent collaborator Nathan Glazer. The book argued that the “liberal expectancy” that ethnic ties would dissolve into a comparatively undifferentiated society rooted in shared principles, had been disconfirmed. “The point about the melting pot,” they wrote, “is that it did not happen.”

The persistence of ethnic ties can contribute to strong communities— a reflection of the Catholic social teaching of subsidiarity (the idea that a problem should be resolved by the social entity closest to it), by which Moynihan was much influenced. But he also felt that ethnicity could become divisive, and even “tragic,” if used as a wedge to make demands on government.

Ethnicity is endemic not just to the United States but to the human condition. In 1979, writing for a Newsweek issue featuring predictions for the 1980s, Moynihan observed that communism had not suppressed ethnicity. He prophesied that the Soviet Union, then at nearly the peak of its power, would collapse along ethnic lines within a decade. Moynihan, a Cold War liberal, who entered the Senate as an ally to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in rebuilding American military strength to combat Soviet influence, would argue in the early 1980s that the Cold War was effectively over, and that the rebuilding was no longer necessary.

Moynihan’s 1993 book Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics applied this insight to the post-Cold War world, which was—consistent with his prediction—riven with ethnic conflicts loosed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Diplomacy and International Law

In 1975, Moynihan’s essay “The United States in Opposition” appeared in Commentary. Catapulting Moynihan into the American ambassadorship to the United Nations, it argued that the UN General Assembly was effectively a parliament in which the United States, the champion of freedom against communism, should use the rhetorical tools of parliamentary opposition. Moynihan detested the Soviet empire as well as the cabal of nations under its influence that used the United Nations as a forum for bashing the United States. Rather than a posture of self-flagellation and apology, Moynihan insisted that the United States defend itself with rhetorical force and call out the hypocrisy of its critics.

He did so most famously in his 1975 speech denouncing Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. Under Henry Kissinger’s leadership, the State Department hoped the resolution would fade away with backroom parliamentary tactics. Moynihan, by contrast, recognized its totalitarian essence.  His address to the UN General Assembly warned that by polluting the language of human rights, the resolution would make that concept less available when it was genuinely needed. “I had wanted to speak to the issue of language; to say that to preserve the meaning of words is the first responsibility of liberalism,” Moynihan recalled in A Dangerous Place, his memoir of his UN service.

Yet for all his criticism, Moynihan retained faith in the basic promise of the United Nations and the use of international law to avert conflict. He gave his Senate staff copies of both the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Charter. His 1992 book On the Law of Nations sought a revival of international law against a brute realpolitik.


Moynihan’s legacy is of a liberalism less in fashion now than it was when he espoused it: one that embraces government’s capabilities and recognizes its limitations. The Democratic Party’s recent embrace of progressivism—an ideology of relentless progress rather than the amelioration of ills—resembles the New Left of the late 1960s. One should resist proclaiming what Moynihan would say about any given contemporary controversy; he is, after all, not here to speak for himself. But it is reasonable both to predict that he would defend government and its limits and to say that the American polity—the Senate in particular—could use more of his ilk.

—Essay by Greg Weiner