Blue State Blues: Michael Bloomberg Still Doesn't Get It

Blue State Blues: Michael Bloomberg Still Doesn't Get It

It was refreshing to see former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speak out for academic freedom–and for conservatives in particular–in his commencement address to Harvard Unversity on Thursday. Calling liberal political correctness “a modern-day form of McCarthyism,” Bloomberg added: “There was more disagreement among the old Soviet politburo.” 

Wow!–and yet Bloomberg does not understand that he is part of the problem.

Of course, Bloomberg deserves credit for telling the truth to a largely liberal audience–a Kennedy stronghold and President Barack Obama’s law school alma mater, no less. Harvard is hardly the worst offender among Ivy League schools when it comes to free speech, but in 2006 the faculty forced its president, Larry Summers, to step down partly because of his politically incorrect statements on women in science (among other topics).

It is not clear why Bloomberg chose to make his stand. Perhaps he is irritated by the leftism of his troubled New York successor, Bill de Blasio, seeing it as a repudiation of Bloomberg-era moderation. Perhaps Bloomberg was following in the slipstream of recent commencement remarks by former Princeton University president William Bowen, who criticized “immature” and “arrogant” Haverford graduates for forcing another speaker to withdraw.

Regardless, Bloomberg’s rebuke was timely, welcome–and right. Yet his speech was also peppered throughout with references to his own nanny-state policy preferences and liberal ideals–partly to establish his credibility with the audience, partly to note the fact that conservatives, too, can be intolerant. 

What Bloomberg seems not to realize is that restrictions on free speech and debate often accompany government intrusion in other areas.

Bloomberg seems to believe that we can allow the state to control our economic decisions or personal behavior–our choice of sodas, our decision to bottle-feed babies, our use of guns for self-defense–without losing control of our political, religious, and ideological expression. 

The great Austrian economist F.A. Hayek anticipated this precise fallacy of “economic dictatorship” seventy years ago in his classic The Road to Serfdom. Hayek warned:

The consolation our planners offer us is that this authoritarian direction will apply “only” to economic matters….Such assurances are usually accompanied by the suggestion that, by giving up freedom in what are, or ought to be, the less important aspects of our lives, we shall obtain greater freedom in the pursuit of higher values. On this ground people who abhor the idea of political dictatorship often clamor for a dictator in the economic field….

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower–in short, what men should believe and strive for…economic planning would involve direction of almost the whole of our life.

Where the nanny state grows, freedom of all kinds shrinks. And it is no accident that the more dependent our universities have become on the government, the less open they are to new ideas and questions. 

To call for gun control and to resist speech control in the same address requires a stretch of imagination, one that presumes a level of beneficence the state has rarely demonstrated–that one right could today survive the loss of the other.