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.
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.”