Adam Gopnik Fails the Ideological Turing Test

Can people on one side of a political debate understand why others disagree with them? Sometimes it doesn’t seem so. Take Adam Gopnik’s article about “declinism” in the September 12 New Yorker. (Online for subscribers only, alas.) It’s an interesting review of new books about the decline of America and/or the West by Ian Morris, Niall Ferguson, and Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. In the course of it Gopnik explains that there is “another side” in American politics from the good and decent side of President Obama and such people as Friedman and Mandelbaum. And that side is “inexorably opposed to these apparently good things.”

The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised.

This is the sort of place where it’s a good idea for an author to stop and think: Is that really what advocates of smaller government think? They actually hate the very idea of fast trains and efficient air travel? They’d rather sweat in squalor than pay for better service?

He goes on:

We don’t have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible.

Sure, he’s claiming, we small-government folks would like our kids to learn to read. But not if it means giving up one solitary dime to the predatory state. Gopnik might have added that we crotchety libertarians would rather a hundred guilty men go free than a single innocent be jailed. Or that we’d rather see the people of Iraq suffer under Saddam Hussein rather than send a single American to die in the desert. Except that those are “ideological convictions” that New Yorker writers share. In those cases they understand that there are trade-offs, that benefits come with costs, that the end does not always justify the means.

And having identified those concepts, I wonder if Mr. Gopnik might try again to understand why some Americans oppose an array of government spending programs. Is it really that they “simply” fear good schools and fast trains? Or is it possible that they – we – have actual arguments? That we have actually enunciated those arguments in blog posts, op-eds, essays, and even books? And that few of us have said we’d rather sit in traffic than “give too much pleasure” to liberals?

Let me suggest to Mr. Gopnik a few reasons that some us oppose the various spending programs that concern him:

  1. We know that vastly increased government expenditures often don’t achieve their intentions, such as the 190 percent increase in both inflation-adjusted federal education spending and school infrastructure spending that hasn’t budged test scores.
  2. We know that many wonderful things, perhaps including truly fast trains, could be created at massive cost, but that you always have to weigh costs and benefits. Children say, “I want it.” Adults say, “How much does it cost, and what would I have to give up to have it?”
  3. We believe that people spend their own money more prudently than they spend other people’s money. So goods and services produced in the competitive marketplace are likely to be produced more efficiently and with more regard for real consumer demand than goods produced by government, and thus we should try to keep as many aspects of life as possible outside the control of government.
  4. We believe that you’ll get better schools, trains, and planes if they’re produced privately than if they’re created by government. And thus, since we want good schools and good transportation, we want them produced by competitive enterprise.
  5. We believe that the burden of taxes, spending, debt, and regulation is already reducing economic growth, and that our society would have more wealth for more people and better technology if it had a government smaller in size, scope, and power. Try plotting government spending vs. the increase in the speed of human mobility; I think you’d find an inverse relationship, with very little increase in the past generation of massive government spending.
  6. Yes, we have a philosophical preference for freedom. Not freedom at all costs, not anarchy, but liberty and limited government as the natural condition for human flourishing. We believe that liberal society is resilient; it can withstand many burdens and continue to flourish; but it is not infinitely resilient.  Those who claim to believe in liberal principles but advocate more and more confiscation of the wealth created by productive people, more and more restrictions on voluntary interaction, more and more exceptions to property rights and the rule of law, more and more transfer of power from society to state, are – perhaps unwittingly – engaged in the ultimately deadly undermining of civilization.

And you know, when I think about Mr. Gopnik’s point that my Scottish Protestant ancestors “hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome [because] they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised,” it occurs to me: Those churches are beautiful. So are the pyramids. But if President Obama or Paul Krugman or the AFL-CIO proposed to tax productive working people to build beautiful churches and pyramids, I would oppose it. Even if I wanted more beautiful churches, I would not be willing to force my fellow citizens to contribute to my satisfaction. And the same principle applies to faster trains between Washington and New York, which I absolutely do want. And which I believe the market would deliver, if we had a market in transportation and if faster trains are in fact a good use of our economy’s scarce resources.

Bryan Caplan recently challenged Paul Krugman and other intellectuals to an “ideological Turing test” – a test to see who could state an opposing view as clearly and persuasively as its proponents could. I think Gopnik would fail that test. Assuming that he has in this article stated as fairly as possible what he actually believes his opponents believe, then he seems far off the mark. Would he like to try again, to explain and then criticize the views laid out above or in books by Hayek, Nozick, Friedman, and Epstein?

In the meantime, I found much of his article interesting, and I agreed with many of his conclusions about the achievements of Western liberalism. But as he wrote, after taking issue with some of Niall Ferguson’s analyses of the French Enlightenment, Darwinianism, and the sixties, “when someone gets the sixties Beatles this wrong you have to wonder how well he really is doing with the sixth-century barbarians.” And when somebody gets the argument for limited government this wrong, you have to wonder whether he’s accurately described the books under review.