Newsweek magazine, for which I toil, was born nine years before I was and will survive me (in several senses). It recently celebrated its 50th birthday, occasioning this reflection: since 1933, the conditions of American life have changed radically; the great questions of American life have not.

Fifty years is a lot of the life of this republic. In 1933, a few veterans still remembered their battles of 70 years earlier--Vicksburg and Gettysburg. "The Romance of Helen Trent" went on the air, "Tobacco Road" went on Broadway, "God's Little Acre" went on the best-seller list, sirloin steak was 29 cents a pound and your typical lawyer, overpaid as always, earned $4,200 a year.

Since then, the emancipation of women and the democratization of higher education have gone far toward opening careers to talents. The oral contraceptive, the jet engine, the cathode-ray tube and the silicon chip have done more than any election has done to change American life. We have compressed time by accelerating social change; we have obliterated physical distance by air travel; we have annihilated imaginative distance by communications technologies that make every sight and sound accessible to everyone.

But in doing so we have jeopardized a capacity that distinguishes us from oysters--the capacity for astonishment. It is a paradox--and a problem --that as we have become more prolific with wonders, we have felt less wonder, even about the miracle of democracy.

In late winter, 1933, politics became national in a new sense: government acknowledged what conditions taught, that our lives are woven together by an industrial economy. Beginning then, the urgent question--still an open question--has been: can a people devoted to the widest possible scope for self-interestedness--a nation of aggressive individualism--think and act collectively as much as is required to secure the public interests. The New Deal altered, fundamentally and irrevocably, the relation of the citizen to the government, which became a powerful engine of distributive justice, influencing the allocation of wealth and opportunity, not least by underwriting the rights of organized labor.

In 1933, Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority to operate a power plant at Muscle Shoals, Ala. Today, urban Americans, whose idea of the pastoral is Central Park, cannot imagine the increase of American happiness wrought by rural electrification. In 1933, one in four Americans was working the land, and the land was blowing in the wind. But reclamation, irrigation, research--all sustained by government--turned agriculture into the most successful sector of American society in the subsequent half-century. The bountifulness of California's central valley is a tribute to government's as well as nature's creativity.

It is perverse: after 50 years in which government has cushioned so many of life's sharp edges, it has fallen in esteem. A good shoe may be one you do not notice, but that is not true of good government. The accommodations required for an ameliorative state--the cost of public claims on private productivity--became the organizing questions of our domestic debate in 1933 and remain so in 1983.

Mobs lynched 42 persons in 1933. Baseball was white and the back of the bus was black, and nothing finer can be said of this 50 years than that in 1983 our children consider such social practices as bizarre and distant as we consider medieval medicine. In 1933 the problem of race was thought to be a problem of extending formal rights, especially the franchise. In 1983 we know that the task of enhancing equality of opportunity is staggeringly more complicated than that.

In 1933 Cole Porter was writing lyrics for a Broadway musical, "Anything Goes": "Good authors too who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose, anything goes." Not anything, not then, but a judge did rule that a book published in Europe in 1922 could circulate here, four-letter words and all. The case was: United States vs. One Book Called "Ulysses."

But as Edmund Burke wrote at the time our republic was born, "The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do as they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations." These five decades have seen such dissolution of restraints, such coarsening of public expression, such flight from discipline, that civilized posterity--if there is one --will not congratulate us.

Newsweek's half-century coincides with the growth of journalism on a national scale. This nation's premise is that history is made not by impersonal forces but individuals' choices. However, since 1933 the choices have been becoming complicated faster than journalism has been becoming capable of clarifying complexities. Because history here is the history of the minds of free persons, the quality of the history we shall make in the next 50 years depends to an unprecedented, and perhaps dismaying extent, on the quality of journalism.