Please welcome author Daniel Brook and reviewer Rick Perlstein for our book chat, and keep the conversation on topic. Thanks! Other open discussion can go on for the fresh topic thread just below this one. The original version of this review ran here: be sure to bookmark Rick’s blog! Also, to buy the book, one option for you is here.
Brook’s got guts. Because frankly, his topic – the fate of the best and brightest graduates of our top-flight universities – sounds like a subject for whiners. Who cares about them, right? They’ll do fine on their own. What do the lifestyle and career choices they make after college have to do with the well-being, moral and material, of the rest of us?
A whole lot, Brook has me convinced. Their plight is a window onto the fate of nothing less than American liberty itself – and how the right has run it into the ground.
The book begins, provocatively enough, by quoting Barry Goldwater’s 1964 nomination speech – the one in which he proclaimed, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” What he also said was, “The tide has been running against freedom…. In our vision of a good and decent future, free and peaceful, there must be room for the liberation of the energy and talent of the individual… Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our own time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
What’s the argument? That conservatives’ tragic misunderstanding of freedom has produced exactly what Goldwater feared most: stifling the energy and talent of the individual, crushing creative differences, forcing conformity – and, yes, even leading us to despotism (and I’m not talking about habeas corpus or NSA spying). By methodically undermining the public’s will and ability to underwrite the public good, systematically accelerating economic inequality, and making turning oneself into a commodity – “selling out” – the only possible route for young people who wish a reasonably secure middle class existence, conservatives killed liberty. The canary in the coal mine is the death of young people’s “freedom to live adult lives typified by choice rather than economic compulsion.”
And, despite all Goldwater’s guff about honoring “our founding fathers,” conservatives did it by dragging our founders through the mud.
Take the destruction of affordable public college education – a development for which Ronald Reagan was in the forefront, as the first governor of California to impose a tuition for students at state universities. WWTJD – What Would Thomas Jefferson Do? He expressly established the University of Virginia as a haven for bright students “Whose parents are too poor to given them further education,” who Jefferson proposed could be “carried at public expense through the colleges and university.” Now, at the University of Virginia, only 8 percent of the students come from the bottom half of Virginia families, and only 8 percent of the 2005 budget came from taxpayer funds. They should take down the statue of Jefferson. It’s not his university any more.
It’s not his nation any more, either. Jefferson argued that too much economic inequality violated “natural right,” and proposed “to exempt from all taxation [property] below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” You and I know that as a progressive income tax, but Barry Goldwater, who claimed to revere Jefferson, must have missed that part of his oeuvre. In Conscience of a Conservative, he put it in italics: government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man’s wealth, and no more.
Brooks shows conservatives drag the classical thinkers they claim to revere through the mud as well. I love Brook’s find that the first society with a progressive income tax was ancient Athens – “In its earlier tyrannical period, the Athenians had lived under an imposed flat tax” – and I love the way he uses it to demonstrate how an economically just society is for that reason the only truly free one: “Consequently, democratic Athens became the world’s first society to fully unleash its most talented citizens. Among the free male population at least, Athenians were free to pursue their talents, writing plays and philosophical texts, not merely making money, the great preoccupation of both underdeveloped societies and dramatically unequal societies like our own.” And he notes that “one of Athens’ greatest unleashed talents, the philosopher Aristotle, discerned a connection between a society dominated by the middle class and political stability and justice. The rich and poor…were prone to criminality…while the middle class obeyed the laws. He concluded that a just and well-run state must be controlled by a middle-class majority.”
Were conservatives better multiculturalists, they might be interested to learn that Confucius agreed. But they don’t even listen to their own conservative forebears – for instance, Andrew Mellon, who said “the fairness of taxing more lightly incomes from wages [than] from investments is beyond question.” It really is transcendent moral wisdom, echoing across the ages.
Instead, because investments are taxed so lightly, America has for all practical purposes adopted what only tyrannies had before – a flat tax: “Americans making $50,000 to $75,000 pay the same percentage of their incomes in taxes as the four hundred highest-income families in the country.”
It hasn’t given us Athens. It’s given us a world that better resembles Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature: “No Arts; no Letters,” as Brook quotes him – or more broadly, no chance for us to flourish to the best of our abilities.
Brook’s portrait of the generation that grew up with Reaganism and the choices they face graduating from college now is striking. They can’t afford to go into public service, even though a 2005 survey showed that public service was the most desired profession at top universities; Washington-area real estate is so expensive, he points out, that people are commuting from as far away as West Virginia. (not a problem, by the way, for Heritage Foundation interns; they have subsidized room and board at a $12 million Capitol Hill dormitory.) It is, in fact, a vicious cycle: “only a return to more egalitarian economic policies could free talented young people to fight for the social change so many of them believe in. But without such a change, a broad-based movement for reform is much harder to build.”
What with all that college debt, they can’t afford to go into much of anything except for the fields that immediately dangle the biggest the biggest paycheck in front of them. He writes about the recruiter for a law firm who boasts that his firm allows for its associates to have one outside hobby (his is reading); the banker forced to cancel her honeymoon in favor of an office project. If a mad scientist tried to devise a system to best stifle “room for the liberation of the energy and talent of the individual,” he couldn’t do a better job than this.
Brook, citing the social critic Brendan Koerner, calls college debt America’s new “ambition tax.” Inspired by Brook, I coined some other new taxes bequeathed to us by the demons a triumphant Goldwaterism has set lose. There is, for instance, the “idealism tax.” In 1980, a University of Chicago student paid a $5,100 tuition – and, if her heart called her to teach in a Chicago public school, earn two and a half times that: not impractical. Now the relevant numbers are $31,500 and $38,500. Brook’s stuff on teachers and even mayors priced out of the cities they serve is devastating.
There is, too, the “public school” tax. Brook cites one of the most shattering public policy insights of our age, the fact that there is no longer any reasonable distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” when those who can’t afford to live in the most expensive neighborhoods, whose high property taxes support the best “public” schools, can’t provide a decent education for their children. In California, Proposition 13 has turned “public” schools into de facto private ones, where ordinary amenities are paid for by tax-deductible local foundations. “Funding to Navato Public Schools from the state of California will never be what it should be for a stimulating, quality education. Support your local public school and students by donating today!” Thus does Goldwaterism bequeath us the makings of a hereditary aristocracy.
Most damning for conservatives who actually think they’ve accomplished something for freedom these twenty-six-plus years since Ronald Reagan’s inauguration is the “entrepreneur tax.” Put simply, in a society where to fail in business is to make economic survival impossible, fewer and fewer are willing to take the chance. Where are entrepreneurs better off? Dreaded Old Europe, according to the quite conservative Financial Times: “With its low [real estate] costs and generous welfare net, Berlin is an entrepreneurs’ heaven, where barriers to entry are low and failure rarely entails personal ruin.” Brook claims, counter intuitively, that America’s self-employment rate is lower than it has been in decades. What if you do give it a go? “[T]he holes in the American safety net, health care chief among them, make entrepreneurship and family life mutually exclusive.” That’s not freedom.
No, conservatives kill freedom. That’s my message this Independence Day. They kill the possibility of future of economic dynamism, the flourishing of the human spirit, the family, diversity, the arts. They didn’t mean to; grant them that. Barry Goldwater’s words about a good and decent future, free and peaceful, with room for the liberation of the energy and talent of the individual – all that by gutting government and killing taxes!! – suggest a genuine nobility of intention.
But so what. Now they’ve gone and done it: killed our New Deal social democracy. It’s left our young people nothing but traps. It leaves me wanting to quote Barry Goldwater’s nomination speech again, against Barry Goldwater: “We must, and we shall, return to proven ways – not because they are old, but because they are true.”