To the Editor:
. . . Melville J. Ulmer [“Economic Futures,” February] says my book, An Immodest Agenda, deals with the nation’s need for “civility, ‘mutuality’ [caring], rationality, sympathy, and good will.” The last two are never so much as mentioned in my book. He faults my examination of the influence of Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, and Friedrich von Hayek on conservative philosophy and the Reagan administration because none of these “holds a government position,” which is like saying that since Marx is not on the payroll of the USSR, he has no influence.
Mr. Ulmer writes that I do not mention, much less discuss, several topics in a book he criticizes as too long (460 pages)—among them, he says, “regional economic rivalries.” It is the subject of Chapter Seven. And so it goes.
I can only hope that the readers of COMMENTARY will at least open the covers of An Immodest Agenda to sample my discussion of human values, family, school, and community, to see for themselves what I did write—and did not say.
George Washington University
Melville J. Ulmer writes:
Amitai Etzioni’s complaint reminds me of the response my young son received, many years ago, when he angrily called a playmate “a fat idiot.” Tearfully, his friend replied, “I’m not fat!” And so it is with Mr. Etzioni. I’ll readily grant, without checking, that he never once used the words “sympathy” or “good will” in his treatise. But he did stress the supposed need of the U.S. population for mutual “affection,” “caring and being cared for,” “shared concerns,” placing itself in “the voluntary service of larger objectives,” working toward “a higher level of commitment,” etc.; and he did oppose all this to what he termed the nation’s “excessive individualism.” At any rate, I did not score his ideals as such, but did point out that he advanced no clear or practical path for their realization. And who could, when such a path is viewed in the Etzioni manner as a concrete plan for “rebuilding America”? And at what cost? On such dreams the noble Chinese and Russian experiments were founded.
As for Mr. Etzioni’s discussion of Milton Friedman, von Hayek, et al., I faulted him not for including them, but for equating their views with the Reagan administration’s social philosophy, especially in the absence of more representative authorities. Nor did I charge that Mr. Etzioni’s book was too long, but only that it said too little in the (relatively) generous space allowed
Yes, as Mr. Etzioni says, he did discuss “regionalism,” but not in the context to which I referred. I cited six formidable and mostly menacing obstacles to peaceful community living today, which is of course one hundred steps below Mr. Etzioni’s lofty image of “mutuality.” The least imposing of the six was what I termed “regional economic rivalries,” the topic he touched on in another setting. The others, including such frightening phenomena as violent crime and racial tensions, he doesn’t even mention in his book, nor, of course, are they acknowledged in his letter.
No, I do not think that Mr. Etzioni needed additional pages for proper exposition. What is needed is a complete rewrite. For reasons made plain in my article, the count against An Immodest Agenda, as it stands, is that it is one of the most uninformative, vacantly pretentious, and boring books that have crossed my desk within memory.