My Path to Conservatism
with Lex Fridman
I spend a lot of time on my podcast and in my newsletter arguing for policies, values, and principles that could be called conservative. They’re not all conservative, but a good many of them are, and I’m not ashamed to identify them as such. There’s nothing wrong with thoughtful, rational conservatism, and indeed I think that right now we need principled conservatives to push back against those progressive policies that are—quite clearly, to my mind—nudging our country in a direction that could be disastrous for all of us, no matter your race, creed, or political persuasion.
In the following excerpt from my recent, wide-ranging conversation with the computer scientist and podcaster Lex Fridman, I present a case for three interlocking ideas that have guided my own intellectual path (back) to conservatism: neoliberal economics, nationalism, and opposition to affirmative action. All three, I’ve come to believe, are necessary in order to safeguard American prosperity and to ensure that it continues as competition from within (in the form of misguided economic and political ideas) and without (in the form of China’s rising global power). Some of these ideas have been with me for decades and some have emerged relatively recently, but all are integral to future American success.
I know there are a fair number of subscribers here who identify as conservative. I’m curious about your own paths. How did you come to see things as you now do? Even if you don’t identify as a conservative, I’d love to know about how you came to hold your current views about politics and policy. Let me know in the comments!
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LEX FRIDMAN: You've recently said that you're conservative-leaning. Maybe that's a day-to-day thing. Maybe you can push back. But so you have somebody like your friend, John McWhorter, who you could say is on your left, to the left of you. And then you have somebody like Thomas Sowell who maybe is to the right of you.
GLENN LOURY: Yeah, probably.
And yet there's a lot of overlap between the three of you. So to what degree does politics affect your view on race in America, and maybe to what degree does your view on race affect your politics? And that, for people who don't know, has shifted over time. You've been on quite a rollercoaster, as anybody who thinks about the world should be.
Well, let's begin with the fact that I was trained as an economist in a tradition of what many people would call neoliberalism. I was trained at MIT, which was not a right wing place by any means. But it was a place where you learned about markets and about the benefits of capitalism as a way of organizing society, the virtues of free enterprise. The fact that the pursuit of profit was not necessarily a bad thing but it well might be the road to prosperity and to economic growth. The idea that private property and individuals seeking to acquire and succeeding in acquiring wealth did create inequality, but it also created opportunity. And it also expanded our knowledge and our control over the physical environment in which we're embedded, et cetera.
So we were not Marxists at MIT, although we did read Marx. I mean, those of us who were intellectually curious, you read Marx. Marx was an important figure in the history of the West. And I think Marx should be read. Capital, three volumes, et cetera. Alienation of labor and whatnot, the implications of modernization, of the advent of industrial capitalism, et cetera. That kind of dynamic deserves to be studied and to come at it in a critical way informed by the intellectual inheritance of Marx and Marxism. I think that's a part of a full education in social philosophy and economic analysis that an open-minded person ought to acquaint themselves with.
But at the end of the day, I think that the free marketeers have the better of it. I think the story of the twentieth century, as far as economic development is concerned, reflects that. I think that the experiments where centralized control over economic decisions was the order of the day failed. I think that the fact of the twenty-first century rise of China as a force has a lot to do with the spread of, in effect, capitalist-oriented modes of economic exchange, freeing up prices, markets, property, and so forth. Although obviously it's a complicated political-economic system. I'm talking about China.
I think that the story of the twentieth century and the hope for the twenty-first century is that prosperity is enhanced through the free exchange of goods and the pursuit and acquisition of property by people in a more or less capitalist-oriented system. That's the view that I hold. I guess that makes me a conservative, I don't know.
I wanna say that's not to the exclusion of a social safety net. I'm not saying that old people, in an ideal social system, would be left to their own devices, regardless of whether or not they had saved for their retirement. I'm not saying that the ideal of extending decent access to healthcare to all people, regardless of whether or not they can afford it, decent access to education to people, regardless of whether or not they can afford it, is standing in the way of prosperity. I don't believe that. I think the mixed economies that we see in Northern Europe and in North America are a balancing of the virtues of free enterprise property and the pursuit of wealth, on the one hand, against the needs to have a decent society in which people who fall between the cracks nevertheless are bolstered through a sense of social solidarity that is accommodated by our common membership within a single nation-state.
Which is why I think nationalism is important, and it's why I think borders are important. Because without a coherent polity who can see themselves as in a common situation and agree through their politics to support each other, to some extent, you can't sustain a safety net. You cannot have a social safety net for a global population. You can only have a social safety net for a bounded population who have a sense of common membership in an ongoing political enterprise, which they pay their dues through their taxes in order to sustain it. There's a balancing that has to go on.
So that's the first thing that I would say about my politics. I'm a neoliberal economist. I believe in markets. I believe in prices. I believe in profit. Corporations are not an incarnation of evil. Corporations are a legal nexus through which production gets organized, in which you solicit the cooperation of workers, of people who provide capital, of people who provide raw materials and input, of customers and so on. And that functionality allows for the production of goods and their distribution and their earning of income and its distribution, which at the end of the day, is the foundation of our prosperity. Corporations are people, too. Mitt Romney got in trouble for saying that in 2012. But corporations are nothing but a legal fiction.
The corporation is not a person as such, but the nexus of contracts and relationships amongst the stakeholders who intersect in the context of the corporation is the way in which we organize the massively complex set of activities that are necessary in order to produce economic benefits, in order to feed people, in order to have everybody with a cell phone in their pocket, in order to be able to travel from one side of a continent to another on a device that with almost absolute certainty is gonna safely take off and land, in order to be able to build cities, et cetera.
But do the markets, the ideal of the market, collide with the ideal of all men are created equal? The identity, the struggle that we've been talking about, of what it means to sort of empower humans that make up this great country. Do they collide, and where do they collide?
Well, markets are gonna produce inequality. And all men being equal is a statement about the intrinsic worth of people, not about the situation that will come about when people interact with each other through markets. Because people are actually different, and because there are factors that are beyond anybody's control called luck and chance. You and I both invest. It looked a priori like your investment in my investment were equally likely to succeed. But as a matter of fact, ex post facto, your investment succeeds, my investment doesn't succeed. I don't have wealth and you have wealth. That is an inevitable consequence of an environment in which both of us are free to make our investment choices and where the consequences of investment depending part upon random circumstances over which no one has control.
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But you asked me about my politics, and I was just trying to lay down a foundation by saying I began as an economist in the tradition of liberalism—Adam Smith and so forth, John Maynard Keynes, for that matter, and so forth, Milton Friedman and so forth, Paul Samuelson, Bob Solow, James Tobin and so forth, Thomas Sowell, yes—that appreciates property, the virtues of free enterprise, the set of institutions that allow for security of contract, a rule of law, things of this kind. So that's one thing to say about my politics.
Another thing to say about my politics—and you're right, I've moved around—is that, you know, I began [on the] South Side of Chicago, a black kid, I was a liberal Democrat. I encountered the economics curriculum at MIT, and I became trained in economics in the tradition that I've just described. And I encountered also the Reagan revolution. This is the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are big debates about economic policy, and so on. And I found a lot to admire in the supply siders. The people were saying, you know, let's get the government out of the way, the people who worried about national debt—which is a lot more now than it was then—the people who worried that the welfare state could be too big, that the incentives of transfer programs could be counterproductive, that you had a war on poverty … and we did have a war on poverty, and poverty won. There's a lot of evidence that the war on poverty was lost by the people who were trying to “eradicate poverty in our time.”
That incentives really do matter, and that the state, which is driven by politics, is often unresponsive to the dictates of incentives. Whereas markets eliminate people who are inefficient and who are not cognizant of the consequences of incentives, because they can't cover their bottom line and they won't persist for very long if they can't cover their bottom line. They're forced to respond to the realities of differences and costs and benefits and so forth in a way that governments can cover because they have their hand in our pocket. They can cover their losses and they can make accounts balanced not withstanding their mistakes because they can take my property by fiat, by the power of the state. The tax collector comes. If I don't pay, he seizes my holdings. And they can carry on in that way.
They need the corrective influence of markets in order to be responsive to the realities of life. I mean, I may not like it that prices are telling me that something that I want to do is infeasible. I may not like it. But what the prices are telling me is that the costs of doing it exceed the benefits to be derived from doing it. And if I persist in doing it not withstanding that, I'm gonna run losses. And those losses will accumulate. And the net effect of that over an entire society is stagnation and ultimate attenuation of the economic benefits that might be available to people. Again, I think if you look at the developing world in the postcolonial period, the second half of the twentieth century, that's exactly what you see. Planning doesn't work. Centralized control over resource allocation doesn't work.
Okay. So I became more conservative in that respect. But I also, and this has to do with race, lost faith in the posture that what became of the civil rights movement. I mean, the civil rights movement, you quote King, 1963. The civil rights movement starts out as we want equal membership in the polity. But it becomes a systematized cover, I'm going to argue, for deficiencies that are discernible within black American society, which only we could correct. That's a very controversial statement. I make it with trepidation. I don't take any pleasure in saying it.
But here's what I'm talking about. So I'm talking about the family. So the family is a matter internal to the community about how men and women relate to each other and engage in social reproduction: childbearing the standing up of households, the context within which children are developed, are maturing, and so forth and so on. So the African American family is in trouble. I think I can demonstrate that by reference to high rates of marital dissolution, by high rates of birth to out-of-wedlock, and so forth. You can't even say that, the African American family is in trouble. Violence. Homicide is an order of magnitude more prevalent amongst African Americans than it is in the society as a whole. This is behavior. It's behavior of our people. I speak of black people. Of course, we're not the only people in society for whom violence is an issue. It's an order of magnitude more prevalent in our communities.
I'm talking about schooling and school failure. So we have affirmative action as a cover. It's a bandaid on differences in the development of intellectual performance, which is only partly a consequence of the natural intelligence of people and largely a consequence of how people spend their time, what they value, how they discipline themselves, what they do with their opportunities, how parents raise their children, what peer groups value, and things of this kind. The Asian students who are scoring off the charts on these exams are doing it not because they are intrinsically more intelligent [than] other people but because they work harder, because their parents are more insistent on focusing on their intellectual performance, because they're disciplined, and because of the way that they devote their time and their resources to equipping their children to function in the twenty-first century. This is what I believe. I think it's demonstrably the case, and it is a factor in racial disparity.
The way that the civil rights movement has evolved, under the wing of the Democratic Party, into an organized apologia for the failures of African Americans to seize the opportunities that exist for us now in the twenty-first century but did not exist in the first half of the twentieth century, the way in which the civil rights movement has become an avoidance mechanism for us not taking—we African Americans—responsibility is part of what make me a conservative. This is Glenn Loury, not everybody's gonna agree with it.
I am tired of the bellyaching. I'm tired of the, excuse me, white supremacy: It is in my mind a joke. I lament the fact that that kind of rhetoric is so seductively attractive to African Americans and so widely adopted by others, and as I am fond of saying, at the end of the day, nobody is coming to save us. I mean, higher education? MIT, Caltech, Stanford? Where the future is happening? That is about mastery over the achievements of human civilization, such as they manifest themselves in the twenty-first century. There's no substitute for actually acquiring mastery over the material. There's no substitute for that. To be patronized, to have the standards lowered? They wanna get rid of the test? They wanna tell African Americans, pat us on the head, that we're gonna have a separate program for you, we're gonna give you a side door that you can come into? That doesn't make us any smarter. It doesn't make us any more creative. And it doesn't make us any more fit for the actual competition that's unfolding before us.
Now, you want to be 10% of the population that's carried along for the next hundred years? You wanna be a ward of the state in the late twenty-first century? You go ahead. Because the Chinese are coming. You're not gonna hold them back. The world is being remade every decade by new ways of seeing and new ways of doing. If you don't get on board with the dynamic advancement of the civilization in which we are embedded, you're going to end up being dependent on other people to look kindly upon you. And this story that you've got, this bellyache, this excuse—”my ancestors were slaves”—is only going to work for so long. So that makes me, I suppose, a kind of conservative.
I hate affirmative action. I don't just disagree with it. I don't just think it's against the Fourteenth Amendment. I hate it. The hatred comes from an understanding that it is a bandaid, that it is a substitute for the actual development of the capacities of our people to compete. I'd much rather be in the position of having them try to keep me out because I'm so damn good—like they're doing with the Asians—than having them have to beg the Supreme Court to allow for a special dispensation on my behalf because they need diversity and inclusion and belonging. It's not just diversity. It's not just diversity and inclusion. It's diversity and inclusion and belonging. I'm whining because I feel like I don't belong. That's a position of weakness. It's pathetic. And it's only political correctness that keeps people who can see this—and believe me, a lot of people can see it—from saying so out loud.
So you want the black American community to represent strength.
Correct. And I want us to deal with what it is that we have to deal with in order to be able to project strength in an increasingly competitive world.
Many thank for the kind words.
Liberal to Conservative: I call it my Damascus Experience after the scales falling from Paul’s eyes when he reached Damascus, and he followed Jesus rather than persecuting Christians.
I grew up in public housing in New York City. My dad was in New York City cop. I went to the Stony Brook University and I graduated from Boston College Law School. Before the age off 23 I don't believe I ever met someone who was a Republican or who espoused free market principles. After law school I became a law professor and taught a course in federal regulation of industry. My starting assumption for the course was that industry was predatory, rapacious and brutal and needed the strong hand of federal government regulation in order to provide a decent work experience for labor.
I used the book Monopoly Makers by Mark Green, a protege of Ralph Nader and contrasted it with Milton Friedman's new book Free to Choose which was also a PBS series. My epiphany thus happened in 1980. As I compared the two frameworks, I realized that both Green and Friedman agreed that government power in the hands of regulators was often used to benefit the corporations that were the intended targets of the initial policy. Green recommended stronger regulation and better regulators. Milton Friedman famously said that he would believe in better regulation when you could show him a cat that could bark. Friedman believed that only exposure to the free market would discipline corporations to be fair to labor. By the end of course I had firmly become a Milton Friedman acolyte.
Ronald Reagan was elected president that year and I joined his administration as a market oriented energy analyst. I worked for 12 years to complete a revolution in natural gas regulation from a strongly state dominated system of price controls to a common carrier system for pipelines that would allow competition at both ends of the pipeline. Both the Ford and Carter administrations believed that we were running out of natural gas and passed laws that seem idiotic today. A group of us that advocated for natural gas competition could never have imagined that natural gas would blossom 40 years later into a tool of international politics and dominate the generation of electricity.