A Conversion Story

David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the...

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Bari Weiss interviews David Mamet in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal Opinion about his liberal to conservative conversion.

I blogged about Mamet’s first story in the Village Voice here.  Mamet has now written a book on the subject, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture.

In the interview Mamet gives some more helpful details about his conversion.  He cites some books that helped:

He starts, naturally, with the most famous political convert in modern American history: Whittaker Chambers, whose 1952 book, “Witness,” documented his turn from Communism. “I read it. It was miraculous. Extraordinary hero-journey of this fellow that had to examine everything he believed in at the great, great cost—which is a cost I’m not subject to—of abandoning his life, his sustenance, his friends, his associations, and his past. And I said, ‘Oh my God. . . . Perhaps it might be incumbent upon me to see if I could get my thought and my actions into line too.”

There were other books. Most were given to him by his rabbi in L.A., Mordecai Finley. Mr. Mamet rattles off the works that affected him most: “White Guilt” by Shelby Steele, “Ethnic America” by Thomas Sowell, “The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War” by Wilfred Trotter, “The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Hayek, “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman, and “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.

I can identify with what motivated him to learn more:

 He couldn’t move on, so to speak, before he understood “what the nature of government is, just sufficient so that I as a citizen can actually vote without being a member of a herd.” Same for taxes: “I pay them, so I think I should be responsible for what actually happens to them.” As for the history of the country itself, he wanted to understand “the vision of the Founding Fathers. . . . How does holding to it keep people safe and prosperous?”

And he came to a lot of the same realizations as many of us who have made similar conversions:

Reading and reflecting got him to some basics. Real diversity is intellectual. Whatever its flaws, America is the greatest country in the history of the world. The free market always solves problems better than government. It’s the job of the state to be just, not to render social justice. And, most sobering, Mr. Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge,” there are no perfect solutions to inequality, only trade-offs.

“Only trade-offs”…I’d like to think Sowell inspired that.  That’s who inspired it for me.

As a liberal, I didn’t understand this.  I thought solutions should be as simple as waving a wand.  Just fix it!  It took experience and willingness to think and evaluate objectively for me to understand that waving wands have unintended consequences that blow back against the very good intentions of the wand waving.

To take one example, legislating a maximum price on gas (wand waving) to keep gas companies from gouging consumers.  This sounds good to folks who do not have a basic grasp of economics.

But it also has real blow back consequences.  Incentives matter.  Oil companies are under no obligation to produce oil.  If they can’t sell gas for a price high enough to cover their costs, they’ll stop producing and gas supply will shrink.  The result will be that folks will wait a long time for the limited supplies of gas and profits will be pushed to other margins.  Soon, folks will be bringing 12-packs of beer to the back door of the gas station to bribe the owners to ensure they get their share of gas.

Sure, there are longer term consequences as well.  With less gas supply, people may arrange their lives differently.  They may choose to live closer to work, drive smaller vehicles, take fewer vacations, group their errands, car pool and so on, but as Mamet and Sowell say, those are trade-off, not perfect solutions.  It doesn’t help to pretend the trade-offs don’t exist.

Even after explaining this to some folks,  they will attribute the blow backs to oil company greed.

It helps to personalize it.

I ask these folks to consider how they would respond if legislation were passed to limit the salary on their current job to half  their current wage because someone deemed workers for their job to be making too much money.

Would they continue to supply the same amount of labor at the lower wage as they did at the higher wage?  Chances are they will look for other alternatives.  It’s not because of greed.  It’s because incentives matter and there’s opportunity costs.

I look forward to reading Mamet’s book.