The end of the Cold War (how matter of fact those words already appear) requires reconsiderations in every aspect of American political life. Dean Acheson wrote of his postwar generation that its members were “present at the creation” of a new world. So also, it seems, are we, and the occasion of a new world teaches new political duties. That such is the case in foreign affairs is self-evident, but it is the case as well, if less obviously so, in domestic affairs.

We have heard already considerable discussion of a 1990s “peace dividend,” a diversion of spending from military needs to social concerns made possible by the radical diminution of the Soviet threat. There is wide disagreement as to the likely size of the dividend (some question whether it will materialize at all) and even more as to the uses to which it should be put. Conservatives speak of applying it to the budget deficit or of seizing the opportunity to cut taxes and reinvigorate the private sector. But the more commonly heard suggestion is that proceeds from the dividend should go to any of a wide variety of social programs: AIDS research, day care, education, drug control, medical care, public housing, environmental protection, repair of the nation’s infrastructure. Proponents of increased public spending refer repeatedly to our “starved public sector,” and they look to the potential peace dividend as an opportunity to return to liberal social programs fallen on lean days because of budget restrictions and the conservative social philosophy of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

That there is a case to be made for selective increases in federal spending we do not doubt, but the general proposition lurking behind those specific instances needs careful evaluation. Since the emergence of Populism in the 1890s, thinking about American public policy has been dominated by what might be called the progressive paradigm. In recent years that paradigm and the scheme of political morality that follows from it have come under critical scrutiny, and it would be unfortunate if in our eagerness to fund particular programs we would disregard the lessons suggested by that scrutiny.

The progressive paradigm is disarmingly simple. It suggests that the growth of a complex economy required the comparable development of a complex national governing authority. The emergence of industrial civilization, in other words, called forth a federal apparatus sufficient to the need to regulate the private sector in the public interest, to provide macroeconomic stability amidst the uncertainties of the business cycle, and to offer the nation’s citizens welfare and security programs appropriate to the vicissitudes of modern life.

Only libertarians of an absolutist persuasion would reject the progressive paradigm altogether. It cannot be denied that big government did in some sense follow necessarily from the growth of large institutions in the private sector. Big government is to that extent an unavoidable part of the bargain of modernity.

But the cost of that bargain requires continuous monitoring. It is all too easy to accept unthinkingly the assumption that if some increase in government is good, even necessary, then more of that necessary good thing must be even better. From that innocent assumption has flowed a series of social disasters, ranging all the way from inefficiency and petty meddlesomeness to fullscale tyranny. Thomas Jefferson believed that that government is best which governs least. That observation no longer holds”perhaps it never did”but its polar opposite has wrought evils far more disastrous in their consequences.

Recent economic and social developments have led thoughtful people to question the progressive paradigm as never before. Socialism has conclusively failed and the comprehensive regulatory/welfare state has come under severe challenge. Experts on political economy differ notoriously, but no one any longer takes it as given that an artfully contrived government can create or maintain the good life for its citizens or that we most effectively respond to social problems by, as the saying goes, throwing money at them. Government can, in some cases, make things better. It can also make them considerably worse.

Even many liberals for whom faith in activist government had earlier been the central doctrine of their political creed have recently felt twinges of agnostic uncertainty. Most liberals today call for selective increases in federal spending, but few if any urge a return to the practices of the Great Society. We know from rueful experience that federal regulation can be at once ineffective and economically damaging, that the government’s ability to “fine-tune” the economy has been highly exaggerated, and that the tendency of welfare spending to create conditions of dependency is more than a hobgoblin of timid or reactionary minds.

Yet even as the politics of the progressive paradigm comes under skeptical reconsideration, the model of public morality that goes with it remains largely unexamined. Political rhetoric continues to assume that social morality simply means government activism on behalf of those deemed to be the least advantaged members of society. That assumption made sense when we could assume in turn that activist government could deliver what it intended. We know better by now”the law of unintended consequences having become a commonplace of social analysis”yet conversation in the moral realm proceeds as if nothing had changed.

We hear the language of “compassion” and “caring” and our minds turn by conditioned reflex to consideration of new laws to be passed, new bureaucracies to be put in place, new monies to be spent. The superstition persists that to be a decent person in politics is to be, at the very least, a social democrat. That explains why the Reagan administration was so widely condemned, at least in the elite culture, as morally inadequate, even “mean- spirited.” Those condemnations followed as night the day from the equation of social decency with activist government: an administration skeptical of activist government placed itself by definition in the moral wrong.

The tendency of our moral elites to follow the patterns of the progressive paradigm stems from their membership in the new class, for it is that class that by sociological and political inclination clings most stubbornly to the progressive faith. It has been for not a few of them a form of political religion. But ingrained commitments and prejudices do not explain everything about the persistence of the old paradigm. There is also the point of which John Cardinal Newman famously reminded us: only the force of a superior argument can dislodge an antiquated idea from our minds. A major attraction of the old paradigm was that by providing a schematic framework within which the details of modern American development could be placed it helped make sense of the national experience. It provided, we might say, the story line for explaining America. That story line is by now more than a little frayed at the intellectual edges, but the absence of an alternative delays its final demise.

A plausible case can be made that much of the current disarray and uncertainty in our politics”including the politics of the anticipated peace dividend”stems from the crisis of the progressive paradigm. It has lost its vitality, but it will not die. We know it doesn’t work any more but we can’t quite let go of it because even a bad theory seems better than no theory at all. But if we cannot yet replace it, we can at least be disenthralled of it. A useful step in that direction would be to conduct our political dialogue concerning the peace dividend in conscious disregard of the paradigm’s preconceptions. That may not take us all that far, but it is a place to start. There is, we should be able to agree, no prima facie case either for or against activist government. Everything in politics comes down to prudence and experience. In such modest knowledge may lie the beginning of wisdom.