DEAR CHARLIE:

Since your book is really a personal manifesto with supporting essays, I have to respond with this letter rather than a review. And I'm going to have to explain why I can't join your neoliberal movement.

I'm a liberal who's been criticizing liberalism for more than 16 years since the publication of my The End of Liberalism -- a book for which you once expressed some admiration. So it makes me very sad to have to reject your spirited and well-intentioned effort. But you and your colleagues just don't offer enough neo to bring liberalism into the 21st century as an adequate alternative to the Reagan Right.

The decline of contemporary liberalism came directly out of its success. Liberalism didn't run out; it ran down. Its steadfast avoidance of a single moral code for government led liberalism, needlessly, to an almost complete abandonment of priorities. Liberal leaders gave up that task and turned it over to organized groups, yielding to the decadent form of liberalism I refer to in my work as "interest-group liberalism." During the 1960s, government became a center of gravity without a calculus of right or of need but only a dynamic of demand: "To each according to his claim."

You define your neoliberals as liberals who "decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices." As far as I can tell, you added some goals but abandoned few prejudices. If I may be permitted to substitute sentiment for prejudice, your book is a collection of some standard liberal sentiments -- sentiments I share -- but without any rationale. Second, the sentiments (or even prejudices) aren't grounded in anything. And in at least these two respects, the book is actually a representation of the problem liberalism was having all during the years of its decline. Let me take up each point.

Is there any rationale for chapters, respectively, on education, law and the courts, health and the environment, values, national security, entitlements, democratic accountability, and economic growth? What else can we call your choice of chapters but a hodgepodge? Even the order of the chapters is perplexing, since substantive issues like education are interspersed with institutional and philosophic issues like law, values, and democratic accountability. The only rationale you give in your introduction is that the selection arose out of "the areas neoliberals have explored at greatest length." But why have neoliberals explored those issues at greatest length? Your readers would have been most enlightened and possibly inspired to know.

Even more revealing is your explanation for the absence of women, blacks and minorities from your deliberations. I certainly believe you when you say it was bad luck that certain members of minorities were invited but were unable to attend. But that still leaves unexplained why you did not have panels on the substantive issues of civil rights and civil liberties.

More critical is the absence of grounding for the choices of subject and the recommendations that you made. I grant that your commitments are genuine. But it is still a disappointment that you offer no justification. For example, the neoliberal solution to the problem of education is to attack bad teachers and the specialization, credentialism and unionism that produce and protect them. At no point is there any effort to explore the constitutional basis of compulsion, the character of courses and curricula the students are compelled to follow, and the purposes of it all. In your national security chapter you call for reordering of national priorities, yet you don't come forth with a single criterion for a new ordering. But at least you mention the need for priorities. Where education is concerned, you didn't even bother with the concept of priorities. Late in your book Robert Kaus introduces the Constitution but even here he does it with an apology, and he brings it in not to help establish where and how questions of right should guide policy recommendations but to support some rather dubious arguments about democratic accountability (for example, "Give the President more of a whip hand over Congress" by allowing him to propose national referenda and to appoint chairmen of Congressional committees).

Or take the chapter on health and the environment. Some of the most intelligent criticism and intriguing proposals are made in this chapter, such as for needs testing for Medicare, for "an agenda for primary care" to check the drift to subspecialty that is the source of so much unnecessary medical cost, for a national institute of primary care and for an international health service for work abroad. Nevertheless, I was left asking "So what?" All I could think of was President Johnson's first State of the Union message in 1964, where he presented his smorgasboard or Texas barbecue, of what America needs. If everything is good to do, is anything compelling?

In the chapter on law and the courts bold propositions are made about ending the lawyers' monopoly, simplifying divorce and probate laws, writing genuine no-fault auto insurance, cutting down on the "zany extremes" to which certain ideals have been pushed in the courts by liberals, and in particular cutting down on the liberals' extreme use of such constitutional privileges as protection against self-incrimination and the exclusionary rule. But again, where are the principles behind the suggestions?

I thought I might find some answers in your chapter on values. It seemed rather peculiar that such a chapter was in the middle instead of at the beginning where it might have provided the rationale for your choice of subjects, your various criticisms and proposals. But values got a chapter exactly equal to all the other chapters. And what were those values? The only goal the several contributors to this chapter seemed to share was the distance they wanted to put between neoliberalism and Jimmy Carter. And the only positive value they seemed to agree upon was community, or community coupled with compassion and realism. One of the authors suggested, without embarrassment, that this be summed up in the slogan Beloved Community! I almost forgot; there was one other thing the contributors agreed on -- the need for values.

I am very sad to say that your neoliberalism will not stand up against the Reagan Right. One of the enduring strengths of liberalism was its capacity to make Americans ashamed of democratic shortfall. Americans have had the most active doctrines of equality in the world; and, although our record of observance may have been poor, our shame gave us the urge to continue trying. Conservatives have removed that shame. That's why conservatism has been so popular. You appear to answer their moral complacency with articles of surrender.

You and the other neoliberal authors are chock full of new ideas. Some are exciting and all are worthy of debate. But without grounding in liberal principles of right and need, they are nothing more than collections of sentiments that don't add up to a movement. At best they are guilty of what a critic once said of Debussy: They opened up a new street that turned out to be a blind alley.