Commentary Magazine


The Exploring Spirit, by Daniel J. Boorstin; Today and Tomorrow in America, by Martin Mayer

The Exploring Spirit: America and the World then and Now.
by Daniel J. Boorstin.
Random House. 102 pp. $6.95.

Today and Tomorrow in America.
by Martin Mayer.
Harper & Row. 217 pp. $8.95.

Bicentennial fever might be expected to infect writers and publishers along with everybody else, and this season may therefore see more than the usual number of slender hardbacks by thoughtful people who take the occasion not to unveil their latest research but rather to share with us their meditations on the state of the nation. Both these brief volumes are sober, lucid, flecked with insight, and pleasant to read. Each, as befits a bird’s-eye view of America, got started across the Atlantic, Boorstin’s as a series of lectures for the BBC in late 1975, Mayer’s as a “highly irritated” essay while “more or less stranded” in a Geneva hostelry in early 1973. Beyond that they have little in common, save a dearer than usual price-per-word

Boorstin, who is now Librarian of Congress, looks back as a historian to the age of Columbus, chasing an animus he calls the “exploring spirit.” He sharply distinguishes between the mere “discoverer” who tracks down something he knew would be there, and the “explorer” who thrusts himself into the unknown to see what it may hold. His point, of course, is that Americans have been true explorers and that “if the United States is to continue to play its catalytic role in the world, if it is to continue to stir mankind to the impossible, we must keep alive and socialize the exploring spirit.”

For all its rhetorical uplift—the dust jacket calls it “refreshingly positive”—this book is more than a Fourth of July oration. Boorstin attempts to show how the pressure of high technology and the impulse to perfect democracy have altered the American context and made it harder to nurture the exploring spirit. He sketches, for example, the role that distance used to play—distance from the Old World, distance among our own communities—and the mixed blessings of a technology that has all but obliterated those spatial barriers while encapsulating individuals in their automobiles and television-dominated living rooms. Self-government got started on this continent because settlements were too remote for any other scheme to work. Our federal structure was the inescapable result of geographic sprawl and the heterogeneity of communities that, by the late 18th century, were accustomed to looking after their own affairs. Just as the gifts of high-speed transportation and instantaneous communication all but ended the discretion we once entrusted to our ambassadors—the Louisiana Purchase would likely never have been consummated if Monroe and Livingston had been able to cable their capital about Napoleon’s sudden offer—so have they extended the reach of the national government and eroded the informal institutions which formerly held us together in reasonably amiable and secure social units.

The barriers of time have fallen, too, as technology has “enlarged our sense of the contemporary.” Overwhelmed by what is happening today, as organized and edited on the evening news, we discard the past, lose perspective, and elevate television anchormen to the priesthood formerly comprised of “those who made the authentically new,” those who chronicled the past and those who explored the future.

Boorstin worries that an infatuation with market research and the margins-of-error of modern social science is “boxing in” the future, that the educators’ compulsion to teach only the “relevant” has a similar effect on the past, that our love affair with professionalism splinters the intellectual enterprise and rewards the discoverer at the cost of the true explorer. He is also deeply troubled by the “minority veto” that slams the door to honest inquiry in every realm that one interest group or another feels touchy about.

Yet rays of hope still shine. He salutes the press for refusing to be daunted in its zeal for exploration into every nook and cranny of contemporary life. He lauds the Congress for keeping our “messy surface” exposed to view and reminding us how much we do not really know for sure. He cherishes the “skeptical layman” as an antidote to public relations, overconfident technology, smug government officials, and exotic specialists. “However unwittingly,” Boorstin believes, the ordinary citizen “has become the catalyst for the exploring spirit.”

I am not absolutely certain that I know what this last means. The book has a shorthand quality that leaves the reader wishing for examples and nuance, something to redeem Boorstin’s bald pronouncements from the realm of truism. Yet the book is likable. It is good to have as Librarian of Congress a man who can squeeze Ferdinand and Isabella, Will Rogers, and Senator Joseph McCarthy into two paragraphs, and it is healthy and stimulating to be able to read cogent reflections on the contemporary state of the nation that are grounded in five centuries of history. One need not share all Boorstin’s worries or enthusiasms to like the way he thinks and writes.

_____________

 

Martin Mayer seldom transports his reader further back in history than World War II; in fact his volume focuses mainly on the 60′s and 70′s. It has a grumpy, stop-the-world tone, that of a grandfather dismayed by the younger generation, but it is neither wholly negative nor backward looking. Sprinkled with prescriptions and recommendations, Today and Tomorrow in America urges—though it does not succeed in describing—a reconceptualization of the ties between individual and government, between man and society.

Mayer has little use for planners and others who think they can control the future. Though he stops way short of Ayn Rand, he finds the marketplace generally a more satisfactory way of mediating conflict, responding to change, and harnessing individual energy than consigning man’s fate to an army of technocrats. “Everything we do influences our future; but nothing we can do will control it. Believing we can control the future, we grow unprepared for surprise, and we lack ideas about what to do next when the plans go wrong.”

He dotes on examples of government-run-amok. The book begins with three: an “error of technique,” the Clean Air Act of 1970, which tried to regulate pollution rather than put a price on it; an “error of social purpose,” the attempt to foster ethnicity through bilingual education, which worsens inequality by making children “illiterate in two languages”; and an “error of analysis,” the effort to mandate rapid rail transit in metropolitan areas, a vastly expensive and inflexible scheme that defies American behavioral and mobility patterns. All three errors, Mayer believes, “result from setting public policy athwart the trend lines of the society, seeking to block rather than to direct the desires of the people who will be affected.”

What are the trend lines we should reckon with? The book offers a quartet of rather familiar ones—increasing wealth, fast-developing technology, the weakening of traditional institutions, and basic demographic shifts. If that were the end of it, one might yawn, conscious of the need to take account of such basic forces and the difficulty of doing so. What makes Mayer’s analysis more arousing is his willingness to sketch new mechanisms for harnessing individual “greed” in the service of the commonwealth in ways that, he believes, cannot help but respond to such underlying trends. “Ideally,” he suggests, “a highly developed capitalist society should generate structures of incentives that make price/cost signals responsive to needs that are determined politically as well as to needs that are determined by individual immediate choice.” When those structures fail to arise spontaneously, “the highest function of government is to create them.”

We are drawn, inexorably, to the tax system as the least coercive tool for shaping incentive structures. Mayer praises some extant deductions and exemptions, and damns others for their evil consequences, such as the economic reward that “separate returns” can yield to couples who simply live together rather than being married. Acknowledging that tax benefits and penalties invite manipulation by self-seeking sorts, he concedes that direct payments are sometimes preferable, but not always. A national “value-added tax” in the European mode, and a vastly increased tax on land would, if properly designed, afford government great flexibility in allocating subsidies and incentives without killing individual initiative and would, he is confident, also make it much easier to respond to economic cycles.

Flexibility is the key. We grant too much control, says Mayer, to public and private institutions that have no stake in the practical outcomes of their actions. When the schools control the training of the young, manpower needs get lost, too many formal credentials are required, and many people waste years preparing for jobs that do not exist or that have no intrinsic relationship to what they learned in the classroom. The way to achieve equal opportunity through education is not by shackling the schools with an endless chain of court orders and government regulations but by making it worthwhile for employers—paying them, if need be—to hire people who need jobs and to equip them with the skills the jobs demand.

Alas, the book does not deliver all that it promises. The prescription is incomplete and, as Mayer concedes, defenseless before two lines of attack. It would not “fundamentally redistribute the benefits and rewards generated within a society.” And it would not equip the nation to “achieve the impossible,” arresting developments that some may dislike but that Mayer doubts can be altered in a free society. Sweeping though some of his proposals are—the creation of whole new agencies and levels of government, for example—these essays do not comprehend changes in the content of American life so much as amendments to its procedures. Today and Tomorrow in America is the work of a marvelously acute critic, not a political philosopher. Its best passages sketch opportunities missed, wrong turns taken, and simple facts overlooked. At times the analysis turns to polemic, leaving the reader thrilled by the author’s dexterity but frustrated by the lack of closure. Yet it is rich with fact and discernment, blessedly impatient with too much that too many take for granted, and downright fun to read.

The bicentennial fireworks are over, but it is safe to predict that other books will appear resembling these two, blending criticism with remedy, reflection with expectation. At the very least this seems a useful exercise, a pause that refreshes. The nation is quieter now—one hesitates to think what sort of a celebration we would have had if the 200th birthday had come five years ago—but not necessarily more pensive. Boorstin and Mayer are especially welcome, then, not because either has written a timeless contribution to man’s knowledge but because both make good sense at this point in our national life. And, not least, because they evoke a mood of thoughtfulness and self-scrutiny one hopes will endure when the sky rockets are forgotten.

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