My son has become a Marxist. I’m not that concerned about it. I was one at that age, too.
He’s in college in Chicago and got hooked up with a group called the Midwest Workers’ Association, a division of the National Labor Federation. It’s one of those community-organizing groups that canvases door-to-door. It’s actually pretty good. They go out on the South Side of Chicago trying to get people to join food cooperatives and sign on to a health insurance program they’ve created. It’s very constructive. I thought it would be a great opportunity to get off campus and meet people in the real world.
But then his political interests started taking a turn for the worse. In true Marxist fashion, he decided it didn’t make sense anymore to help poor people improve their lives. It would actually be better if their lives got worse because then they would be better prepared to rise up and overthrow the system, etc. etc. So he quit.
Where to begin? I suggested maybe he read a little Dostoevsky. I told him I thought that any movement, no matter what its beliefs, starts going off in the wrong direction when it decides that ideas and ideals are more important than real people. I told him about a column I always remember as particularly gruesome — Anna Quindlen’s take on Kimberly Bergalis, the 22-year-old woman in Florida who was dying of AIDS after being infected by her dentist, who knew he had the disease but didn’t tell anyone.
Quindlen announced that in order to protect the rights of doctors with AIDS, we might have to “ask some parents to put their children at some risk, however small, for the sake of principle and fairness.” I remember thinking, “This is where totalitarianism begins, when we decide that principles are more important than other people’s lives.”
As I wrestled with all this, I tried to formulate in my mind why it is that I prefer conservatives to liberals. I finally hit upon it. Conservatives don’t make as many demands on the world. They are more attuned to the idea of working with the way things are rather than despairing that they don’t conform to some ideal. Of course there are conservatives who adopt this simple-minded approach as well: Government is always bad. Everything that goes wrong is the result of too much government. If the government would just leave us alone, we’d be living in a perfect world.
I don’t believe government is the cause of all the world’s problems, I believe the world is the cause of the world’s problems. It’s an imperfect place. There are things that have been wrong, things that are wrong now, and things that are probably always going to be wrong. Some will get more than others. People don’t always get what they deserve. If you don’t like things, work to change it. But don’t sit around blaming all this on other people — “the rich,” “the politicians,” or whoever happens to be the evil genius of the day.
DAVID MAMET SUMMED all this up beautifully in his recent Village Voice confession, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” Mamet describes his epiphany as follows:
I recognized that I held those two views of America (politics, government, corporations, the military). One was of a state where everything was magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost; and the other — the world in which I actually functioned day to day — was made up of people, most of whom were reasonably trying to maximize their comfort by getting along with each other (in the workplace, the marketplace, the jury room, on the freeway, even at the school-board meeting).
And I realized that the time had come for me to avow my participation in that America in which I chose to live, and that that country was not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace.
I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.
This is really marvelous. I’ve read Thomas Sowell for 20 years and consider Knowledge and Decisions to be the basis of my understanding of the world, yet it never occurred to me that Sowell is our greatest living philosopher. Yet indeed he is, although I would never dare say so myself.
“You mean Paul Krugman isn’t our greatest living philosopher,” declared Dan Henninger in the Wall Street Journal after reading Mamet’s piece. There’s another bull’s eye.
Krugman is practically having a nervous breakdown in public these days obsessing that “income inequality in America today is the greatest that it’s been since the 1920s.” He gets all this from two French economists, Thomas Picketty and Emmanuel Saez, who — apparently without even setting foot in this country — have decided that America now resembles the days leading up to the French Revolution.
Picketty and Saez took data from personal tax filings and came up with the astounding figure that the bottom 80 percent of Americans are now living on only $25,000 a year. (To see what’s wrong with that, think of what happens when your own teenager files a tax return for his or her summer job.) Meanwhile, according to Picketty, Saez and Krugman, the bad guys — the “superrich” — have scarfed up all the nation’s economic gains since 1980.
How could a pair of intelligent economists spend even two weeks in this country and believe that was true? (Saez is still in Paris while Picketty has landed in Berkeley, which perhaps explains everything.)
One of the biggest controversies going on all over the country right now is the practice of knocking down older suburban houses from before 1970 and putting up “mini-mansions” in their place. You drive past these structures and say to yourself, “Can that possibly be a single-family home?” They’re the size of resort hotels.
WHO IS PUTTING up all these houses? Is it the top .01 percent — the “superrich” that so fever Krugman’s imagination?
Or is it just possible that prosperity in this country is far more widely distributed than Picketty and Saez have been able to discern from picking over tax filings? (To see where the two French economists went wrong, read any of Alan Reynolds’ many writings, including this study, or his book, Income and Wealth.)
There is inequality in this country. The main inequality is between people who have a college education and those who do not, people who have stable families and those who do not, people who go to work and earn a living and those who do not.
But of course none of this impresses Krugman. For him the problem is the whole system. “Americans, understandably, have lost confidence in the prospects for a return to real prosperity. They have also, I’d suggest, lost confidence in the integrity of our economic institutions…..[T]he subprime crisis…has resurrected the sense that something is rotten in the state of our economy.”
To liberals there are never any manageable problems. Instead it is always a new dawn. We have just spent a whole century discovering that when “people lose confidence in the integrity of economic institutions,” what they put in its place is likely to be something far worse.
I’m not surprised that my 22-year-old son hasn’t yet learned this lesson. I’m astonished that it is still a mystery to the likes of Krugman as well.
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