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Commentary By Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe on the Manhattan Institute's 25th Anniversary

In the fall of 1982 an obscure, 39-year-old, out-of-work political scientist named Charles Murray received a $30,000 grant from a mouthful calling itself the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The “institute,” barely four years old, consisted of half-a-dozen souls crammed into an office dingier than a movie private eye’s, seven flights up in a sorry,-use-the-stairs,-the-elevator’s-broken building on Manhattan’s West 40th Street. For his $30,000, Murray was supposed to do a book on the done-to-death topic of welfare policy.

On the face of it, the whole project looked dim and dimmer, not to mention dull and duller. But William Hammett, head man in the little hutch on West 40th, had read an article by Murray in a policy-wonk journal and heard him speak at a forum on “the underclass” and knew that certain information Murray had uncovered was dynamite.

“Since then, Manhattan Institute writers have been dynamiting the conventional wisdom of “the intellectuals” with regularity.”

Not only that, it was exactly the sort of dynamite Hammett’s operation was in business to rattle windows with. The Manhattan Institute was the brainchild of an aristocratic onetime Battle of Britain fighter pilot, Antony Fisher, who had gone on to become an eight-digit millionaire the truly old-fashioned way, namely, raising chickens, and was alarmed by the rapid advance of socialism in post-World War II England. Friedrich Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom, convinced the Kraut-fighting farmer that it was not politicians but powerful ideas, such as Marxism and Darwinism, that changed the course of history. The people known as “intellectuals,” he said, were the “second-hand dealers” who re-sold the ideas to the politicians.

So Fisher set up a British think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, to sell and re-sell the idea of free-market economics and Small Government—and in 1978 created the Manhattan Institute (known at first as the ICEPS—full name available upon request) as the American counterpart, with the money-raising help of a Wall Street figure, William Casey (later head of the CIA in the Reagan administration). At this point Fisher, an angel among angels, withdrew and left his new creation in the hands of a tall, chisel-featured, “movie-star handsome,” highly aggressive young (34) libertarian, namely, Hammett, the intellectual talent scout destined to make Charles Murray a star.

Murray had done the dog’s work of combing through reams of statistical studies of welfare programs, many of them undertaken after Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty in 1965. The typical War on Poverty study, Murray noticed, opened with a hazy but, on balance, optimistic summary—followed by miles of statistics that contradicted it. The statistics were so full of “weighted” numbers, esoteric graphs, and stupefying equations that only a precious few could interpret them. Among them, it so happened, was Murray, who had been chief scientist for the government-backed American Institutes for Research.

Using the very same data, he concluded that not only had the War on Poverty failed to help the poor; it had driven them more deeply into poverty, in a direct cause-and effect sequence, and wiped out any motivation to improve their lot. Welfare, Great Society-style, discouraged marriage and, in fact, encouraged families to break up. As long as she had children but no man in the house—or apparently no man—a single mother’s extra payments, on top of her regular benefits, often added up to as much as her man could make by going out and getting a job.

Worst of all, said Murray, the War on Poverty changed social rankings in a disastrous way. Historically, in American slums, the man who worked at any job at all, no matter how menial, ranked far above the man who spent all day “talking shit,” as it was called, down on the corner. But for 17 years, in the War on Poverty, federal welfare officials had been busy preaching to the poor that being hard up, unemployed, and on the dole was not their fault. They were all victims of “the system,” of society’s “structural barriers.” Welfare payments were not charity but “entitlements,” money they were entitled to but had been deprived of by “the system.” In that light, the man who dragged himself off to work every day was by no means morally superior to the man down at the corner enjoying a few 40-ouncers with his friends. He was merely more of a chump.

Murray’s prescription was simple: get rid of the entire welfare system. The poor would do better left to their own normal instincts than in the clutches of Big Government, which, with the best of intentions, treated the poor as hopeless incompetents you had to keep on the dole for their own good. Therein, Hammett knew, was Murray’s dynamite.

Hammett had his own ideas about how to bring a think-tank book into the world. For a start, the book had to be based on original scholarly research and focused on policy in a practical, nonpartisan way. For all of his own take-no-prisoners opinions, sometimes delivered high-decibel while everybody else in the West 40th Street warren cowered, he had no interest in political attacks or screeds of any sorts. At the same time, he didn’t want any stiff-necked prose, either. Unlike most think tanks, the Manhattan Institute was not going to publish its own books. The authors, usually called senior fellows, had to write well enough to attract commercial publishers and get reviewed outside the monastery of scholarly journals. With Murray, who had a strong, clear, direct style, that was no problem. He wrote his book in nine months and called it Losing Ground. Basic Books published it in 1984.

To Hammett that was merely step one. He believed in the Gossage rule. Howard Gossage, the San Francisco advertising genius who in the late sixties and early seventies served as unpaid PR swami for Marshall McLuhan and the radical magazine Ramparts, said that journalists were incapable of spotting a news story in an unfamiliar publication. You had to call a news conference, open the book or magazine, hold it up in the air, point at its innards, and announce: “There’s news in there!” Then, in words of one syllable, you had to lead them through the what and why.

Hammett went Gossage one better. He invited journalists and intellectuals with influence in the field of public policy, hundreds of them at a time, for lunch at the Harvard Club. The authors themselves got up and did the show-and-tell and took questions. He set up forums and had them stand up at the podium say it all again. In 1989, Hammett would create a smartly designed quarterly, City Journal, where he had them say it once more and then twice or thrice more for good measure. Murray would later call Hammett “an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word.” He was nothing less than an entrepreneur of ideas.

Brought out Hammett-style, Losing Ground ignited precisely the explosion the maestro had hoped for. All was uproar. Attacks from the Left, which in 1984 rated the capital L, were furious. The New York Review of Books, the Left’s Miss Manners for correct intellectuals, excoriated the book and ran a caricature of Murray wearing a 1910 robber-baron stiff silk topper and digging graves for the poor. The New Republic ran a long essay calling Losing Ground a piece of “slick marketing” of a concept with no bottom to it. Others of the usual suspects called him a “fraud” who “makes up his numbers” as he goes along. The New York Times ran an editorial denouncing the book and its dangerous delusions.

But when the smoke cleared, Losing Ground was still standing. It had proved impossible to pigeonhole it in any ideological fashion. Murray had served in the Peace Corps in Thailand for six years after graduating from Harvard and wrote with a genuine sympathy for the poor. Has wasn’t talking about “welfare queens” but poor people smothered by a government policy that assumed they were hopeless cases with childish minds. He had no political agenda. His research proved to be incontestable, despite the early outcries. And his prescription was simple: for humanitarian reasons it was time to scrap welfare as it currently existed.

Losing Ground proved to be one of those extraordinary books that redirect public policy all by themselves, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michael Harrington’s The Other America, the book that triggered the War on Poverty in the first place. By 1996, Bill Clinton, the most liberal president since Franklin Roosevelt, was calling for “an end to welfare as we know it” and saying about Murray: “He did the country a service.”

Losing Ground was the Manhattan Institute’s first policy triumph. But the triumph of all triumphs was the now-famous Broken Windows strategy for reducing crime in big cities by first cracking down on the quality-of-life misdemeanors that create an atmosphere of lawlessness.

“Losing Ground proved to be one of those extraordinary books that redirect public policy all by themselves...”

A Harvard criminologist, George Kelling, and the famous political scientist James Q. Wilson introduced the concept in an article, “Broken Windows,” in the March 1982 Atlantic Monthly. It went relatively unnoticed until Hammett’s second-in-command, Lawrence Mone, came across it while doing some research on urban crime in 1989. He invited Kelling to become a contributing editor of the soon-to-be launched City Journal.

The quarterly’s Summer 1992 issue ran an interview by Kelling with New York’s young transit police chief William J. Bratton, already a believer in the Broken Windows theory, about how he intended to put it to the test in New York’s subways. That followed a forum called “Rethinking New York,” starring Kelling. At that moment, the conventional wisdom among those secondhand idea salesmen, the intellectuals, was that “America’s large cities have become ungovernable.” Hammett and Mone, who would succeed Hammett as the Manhattan Institute’s president, used the forum to kick off their campaign to prove otherwise. Rudy Giuliani came early, stayed late, and took notes throughout. He wanted to run for mayor in 1993.

As soon as he was elected, Giuliani appointed Bratton as police commissioner. The breathtaking decline in the crime rate that followed has become legend.

There were still Old Guard intellectuals who argued that Hammett, Mone, and crew were “conservatives,” part of the “vast Right-wing conspiracy” Hillary Clinton would imagineer later. But there was no arguing—not among citizens, not among politicians, not even among the Old Guard—about the miracle Broken Windows had wrought in the supposedly most vicious and ungovernable metropolis of all. Hammett’s T-tank was now fireproof, insulated from the heat and static of ideological squabbles.

In 1993 a 35-year-old senior fellow named Elizabeth McCaughey, as obscure as Charles Murray had been 11 years earlier, wrote an article for The New Republic relating what she had discovered after a close reading of the 143-page document containing the Clinton Healthcare Plan: namely, that it would put every citizen, without exception and without means of escape, in a single government-operated HMO. That one article shot down the entire blimp, and Betsy McCaughey became a 35-year-old {check it} Cinderella. New York Governor George Pataki made her Lieutenant Governor, and one of the richest men in America, financier Wilber Ross, married her in a blowout of a white-gown-avec-trailing-train-and-swallow-tailcoat-avec-striped-pants wedding at the Cathedral of Saint Vincent Ferrer on New York’s Upper East Side, the church of choice for Roman Catholic celebrities.

Since then, Manhattan Institute writers have been dynamiting the conventional wisdom of “the intellectuals” with regularity. City Journal editor Myron Magnet’s book The Dream and the Nightmare argued that the louche late-20th century lives led by would-be ideological benefactors of the poor, including legions of marriage-flouting intellectuals and celebrities with live-in lemon (i.e., blond) tarts installed in the house as sex appliances and the urge to rut-rut-rut-rut dogs-in-the-park-style oozing by the pint from their amygdalas, had provided decadent examples that directly subverted the moral health and resolve of the poor and pushed them further down under, as in underclass. The book became the scripture for George Bush’s doctrine of “compassionate conservatism.” Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White and Linda Chavez’s Out of the Barrio demolished the notion that “the system”—or anything else—had prevented economic, social and political progress by minorities. Peter Huber, a scientist as well as a lawyer, coined the term “junk science” and touched off the judicial system’s, and juries’, growing skepticism of that busy breed, the “expert witness” for hire. Sol Stern’s City Journal articles on school vouchers prompted Mayor Giuliani to propose virtually the same thing: scholarships to private schools for promising students whose families couldn’t afford it. {check it}

There have been Old Guard as well as adulatory explanations of the Manhattan Institute’s victories. Either way, the F.A. Hayek and Fighter Farmer Fisher focus on the arenas where the battles of ideas are fought and the William Hammett emphasis on solid documentation plus clear, energetic, nonpartisan prose—saleable to the second-hand dealers in ideas and their customers—have worked. The matter is perhaps summed up by a comment attributed to Henry Kissinger after a long Machiavellian discussion of why a certain controversial position of his had in the end prevailed: “Also, it helped that we were right.”