I grew up in a pretty rough environment, and what the American dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn’t the American dream of the striver. It wasn’t the American dream, frankly, that I think animates much of this town. I didn’t care if I went to an Ivy League law school, I didn’t care if I wrote a best-selling book, I didn’t care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things that I hadn’t had as a kid: That was the sense in which the American dream mattered most to me.
That American dream is undoubtedly in decline. I want to talk a little bit about why I think that’s happening and what a conservative politics has to do in response, but I think a first step is to distinguish between a conservative politics and a libertarian politics. I don’t mean to criticize libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I’ve ever read about conservative thought. But in an important way I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.
Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don’t consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize: What I’m going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. For example, in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple and Facebook—where they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains—than neuroscientists who are trying to cure Alzheimer’s.
I know a lot of libertarians will say, “that is the consequence of free choices,” or “that is the consequence of people buying and selling labor on an open market and so long as there isn’t any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn’t be so concerned about it.” But what I’m arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.