Driven by the approach of both Father's Day (a boon to booksellers) and Election Day (a boon to sellers of political books), recent weeks have seen the arrival of a series of books by conservative authors. There's enough overlap among three of them — The Death of Liberalism by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.; The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat In The War Of Ideas by Jonah Goldberg, and The Road To Freedom: How To Win The Fight For Free Enterprise, by Arthur Brooks — that I will review them here together in one fell swoop.
The slimmest of the books is The Death of Liberalism (Thomas Nelson, 208 pages, $19.99) by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the longtime editor of the American Spectator, whose 2010 book After The Hangover: The Conservative' Road to Recovery was reviewed here two years ago.
There are some interesting facts within the pages of the new Tyrrell book. Among the most interesting was a series of charts displaying the results of Gallup, Harris, and CBS News polls on the ideological affiliation of American voters. Far more voters say they are conservative or moderate than liberal. Mr. Tyrrell describes this with his characteristically idiosyncratic flair: "I estimate that today there are more bird-watchers than Liberals in America, and possibly more nudists. If trends continue there will indubitably more nude bird-watchers."
I disagree with Mr. Tyrrell's negative assessment of President Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He writes, "Oh, come on! Now the Soviets were roused, and America was on a path much more perilous than that which Ike had envisioned. It led to some of the tensest moments of the Cold War and on to the war in Vietnam. It fixed America's stance in the world as defender of democracy. It led to the inevitability of war in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Oh, come on, indeed. The Soviets were "roused" well before Kennedy imposed the missile-crisis quarantine; they had installed operational nuclear missiles in Cuba, for heavens sake. That action took place not in reaction to anything Kennedy had done but out of an ideologically driven, evil desire for world domination. Nor is the death of liberalism the result of American fatigue at serving as the defender of democracy. If anything, all those Gallup, Harris, and CBS poll results showing Americans identifying as conservatives probably owe something to Americans recognizing conservatives as the ones that want to defend democracy, while many contemporary liberal politicians seem to prefer surrender. As for the war in Afghanistan, it strikes me as having had more to do with responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, than with Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but maybe I am missing something.
Mr. Tyrrell predicts that President Obama will not win re-election, or, that, if he does, he will spend his second term "hiding from Republican majorities in both houses of Congress." It's worth remembering that President Reagan, after the 1986 election, faced Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. That hardly meant the death of conservatism.
In what appears to be a strange coincidence, both Mr. Tyrrell and Jonah Goldberg, in The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat In The War Of Ideas (Sentinel, 320 pages, $27.95), devote their attention to Mohandas Gandhi. The conservative authors share a fascination with Gandhi's fascination with, well…
Here is Mr. Goldberg:
Paul Johnson notes that the first question he [Gandhi, not Johnson] asked of his female attendants every morning was, "Did you have a good bowel movement?"
Here is Mr. Tyrrell:
His first question in the morning to the comely young women who chastely shared his bed was, "Have you had a good bowel movement this morning, sister?"
Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Tyrrell both also fault Gandhi for his unhelpful advice to the Jews facing the Holocaust. Both cite Richard Grenier's 1983 book The Gandhi Nobody Knows.
Mr. Goldberg, like Mr. Tyrrell, is driven to distraction by the word "Kennedy." Here is Mr. Goldberg writing about Edward Kennedy and Chappaquiddick: "some basic facts, not in dispute, are in order. Kennedy and some male friends — all, like Kennedy, married — spent a weekend at the Kennedy compound at Martha's Vineyard with the 'boiler room girls': young, single women who liked to have a good time, so to speak."
Yet the Kennedy "compound" is at Hyannis Port, which is on Cape Cod, not on Martha's Vineyard, where the events of Chappaquiddick took place. Garry Wills recounts the story in his 1981 book The Kennedy Imprisonment. The women stayed at a motel. Kennedy friend Joseph Gargan rented a cottage on Chappaquiddick. Senator Kennedy himself stayed at the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown.
If Mr. Goldberg overlaps with Tyrrell on Gandhi and Chappaquiddick, he overlaps with his boss, Arthur Brooks, on Medicare. Mr. Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, of which Mr. Brooks is president. Mr. Brooks's new book is The Road To Freedom: How To Win The Fight For Free Enterprise (Basic Books, 224 pages, $25.99).
Here is Mr. Goldberg: "The average person on Medicare gets three times more out of it than they paid in." Here is Mr. Brooks: "To date, most Americans have withdrawn more from the Social Security and Medicare systems than they ever paid into them."
Both men rely for this data on this Urban Institute study. Both the study and the authors' summaries of it are flawed for several reasons. First, there was a phase-in period for these programs. People who had already retired when the programs were first created received benefits even though they had not paid in taxes. In fact, the taxes for Social Security and Medicare are much closer to equaling the benefits now than they were in 1960 or 1980, when much of the working life of the beneficiaries had taken place before the programs and the taxes to support them had even been created. Second, the highest wage in the Urban Institute study is $69,600. Since the Medicare tax now applies to all earned income, someone earning, say, a $1 million annual salary would have a very different pay-in to pay-out scenario. Third, the Urban Institute survey assumes a 2% real interest rate. If you think you could invest the Medicare or Social Security tax money on your own and earn better than a 2% real annual return, then you may reach a different conclusion. Fourth, the Urban Institute Medicare numbers in particular measure benefits in terms of payments at government-set reimbursement rates. That is one way of measuring, and it may capture the value to the provider of providing the service, but it doesn't necessarily accurately capture the value to the patient. The same $10,000 Medicare reimbursement might cover an unnecessary surgery that causes harmful complications and weeks of recovery time, or it may cover a procedure that gives a grandparent years of extra life — long enough to see a grandchild's wedding or college graduation, or the birth of a great-grandchild. How does one put a price tag on that?
Finally, there's something a bit odd about the free-market side of the debate arguing that Medicare and Social Security are too sweet deals. I remember back during the Social Security privatization debate in George W. Bush's second term, the Heritage Foundation had an online calculator in which you could compare the rates of return for Social Security versus what you might expect by investing the money in a private account, and the point was that Social Security was a worse deal, not a too generous deal. Likewise, I know a 64-year-old who chose to have a surgery while he was still covered by private insurance rather than waiting until he was covered by Medicare. I know another individual in his late 60s who chooses to stay on his employer-provided health insurance rather than Medicare. Rather than arguing that Social Security and Medicare are an unbelievably good deal, so generous that they should be taken away, free-market types would do better to focus on the argument that not just taxpayers, but seniors, too, could get an even better deal with market-based solutions.
Mr. Brooks' book is the most uneven of the three. The good parts are really terrific. When I saw Mr. Brooks speak in New York the other day, he used two of the anecdotes in his remarks. He writes that when you ask entrepreneurs about their success, they like to tell you about their sacrifices and hard times. Bernie Marcus, a founder of Home Depot, recalls sending his children out into the streets to hand out $1 bills to try to get people to come into his empty first store when it opened in 1979. "We literally couldn't give the dollar bills away," Mr. Marcus recalled. Charles Schwab, who founded the discount brokerage firm that bears his name, remembers taking out a second mortgage on his home to meet payroll.
If success comes from risk-taking and hard work, then redistribution doesn't seem fair, a point that Mr. Brooks, a former academic, brings home effectively with two hypotheticals. Ask "a Marxist college professor…how he would feel if his name were not put on any of the academic articles he published. Instead the articles would be published under the name of another academic who needed the recognition more than he did. After all, he would still have the satisfaction have having written the articles. Why shouldn't that be enough?" Or take a quarter of the points earned on tests and quizzes by the hard workers in the top half of an economics class and redistribute them to the students in the lower half of the class, who had not been studying as hard.
The Brooks book is flawed, however, by at least three errors. There's a reference to Friedrich Hayek as a "German-born economist." Hayek was born in Vienna in what was then Austria-Hungary. He was an Austrian economist. There's a claim that "there was no education for the poor in America until the first public school opened in Boston in 1817." Here Mr. Brooks is off by 182 years; Boston Latin School was founded in 1635. Finally, there is a strange account of the defeat of Soviet Communism. Mr. Brooks writes, "The collapse of the Soviet Union was not due to the arms race or ruinous economic planning, as many in the West believe. It was the outcome of a moral belief that swept through the population and eventually penetrated the Soviet leadership itself….For Gorbachev, this was not a pragmatic policy to maximize incomes and outputs; he called it his 'moral position.'" Mr. Brooks may have access to secret evidence that the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of a moral epiphany by Mikhail Gorbachev rather than the pressure applied by the Poles, the Pope, Reagan, Sakharov, and Sharansky, but if he does, he doesn't provide it in the book. It might be that a good way to hasten such a moral awakening in a Communist tyrant is to point NATO nuclear missiles at the tyrant's rusting economy. Funny how the moral awakening of the Soviet leadership didn't happen during the Carter administration but only after Reagan's military buildup.
To sum up: All three of these authors are bright, lucid guys and are among the thinkers and writers that advocates of liberty can learn from. None of these books is an instant classic, but there are plenty of worse ways to spend the time between now and Election Day than by making one's way through the pages of all three.