KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is liberalism just a “series of bumper stickers?”
MARK GOLDBLATT: Just to be clear, what I’m talking about is contemporary American liberalism, not classical liberalism in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson — which, ironically, has more in common with contemporary American conservatism. Liberalism, as the term is now understood, is an ideology that pays lip service to both liberty and equality but when push comes to shove — and liberty and equality have a very pushy-shovey relationship — will almost always side with equality. The sentiment is noble, but the policies don’t work.
Even John Adams, an early big-government guy, realized as much. “Inequalities of mind and body,” he wrote, “are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of human nature that no art or policy can ever plane them down to level.” But liberals keep planing away and planing away with big government programs . . . if everyone just went to college . . . if everyone just owned a house . . . if everyone just had the same health insurance. . . . Except it’s never enough to get things level. More often than not, it just warps the process and creates dependency, and things wind up less level than before. That’s because human nature doesn’t bend — which is Adam’s original insight.
So if you’re a liberal, what do you do when logic and evidence and historical experience aren’t on your side? You retreat to unreason. That’s what my book is about — the liberal retreat to unreason. I’m arguing that contemporary American liberals have become a bumper-sticker tribe. They can’t defend their politics at a depth beyond catchphrases, anecdotes, and strong feelings. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between.
LOPEZ: But don’t liberals say that they’re interested in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes?
GOLDBLATT: The problem is that inequality of outcomes produces inequality of opportunity. Neither Steve Jobs nor Michael Jordan was born into spectacular privilege. Their fortunes are self-made, the product of innate talent and hard work. But they pass along the advantages they’ve accrued — social and educational contacts, business connections, and boatloads of money — to their kids. Inevitably, their kids grow up with greater opportunities than the vast majority of other kids. But if you don’t allow a Jobs or a Jordan to pass along their advantages, what’s their incentive to continue excelling? I’m sure Jobs could’ve retired to the Caribbean after the first iMac and lived very well off residuals. Ditto Jordan after the first championship. Certainly, they’re driven by ego. But the desire to provide greater and greater opportunities for their families is an even stronger incentive; it’s hard-wired into us. Would the rest of our lives be richer if redistributive taxes chased Jobs or Jordan into premature retirement? I don’t think so. Unequal outcomes lead to unequal opportunities . . . and the collective prospers because of it. Paris Hilton is a living embodiment of this great capitalist truth. She wouldn’t have her career if not for the hotel fortune accumulated by her great-grandfather, Conrad Hilton. Her pointless celebrity is the price we pay for his business acumen. It takes a measure of intellectual maturity to realize that that trade-off is worth it. But intellectual maturity is the very thing liberals so often lack.