The University of Chicago campus. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
As a freelance political writer living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that encompasses the University of Chicago, it has frequently been my lot to be haunted by bright-eyed twentysomethings. They seek my professional counsel. Or are just eager to talk about politics. We have lunch; I take on all comers (presuming they’ll buy me lunch). One day in the middle of 2008, the fellow who approached me was named Alex Beinstein.
Alex Beinstein was, like many other a fidgety and overconfident undergraduate who’d sought my company in this way, considerably to the right of center—a libertarian, he told me. We talked; he taped an interview with me for his political talk show on the college radio station; he annoyed me with right-wing clichés; we went our separate ways.
Later, as these kids sometimes do, he got back in touch. But something had happened in the interim. That something, in fact, seems to be happening a lot: kids I knew who were conservatives when they lived in the ivory tower were now liberals. The real world has made them that way.
That’s not how the story is supposed to go. Remember the maxim apocryphally attributed to Churchill? “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” That was then, I suppose. This is now. What changed? The other day I sat down with Alex—I was buying lunch this time—to find out. He was no longer fidgety. He was confident, not overconfident—a grownup.
I mentioned the Churchill maxim. “Yeah, I’ve heard that. I don’t think you can flip it 100 percent for me. But I think you can flip it about 80 percent.”
He recalled coming to college vaguely liberal. But the people who were declaring themselves for causes looked like hypocrites to him. “So I felt myself being drawn more and more to the libertarian philosophy. Like: ‘At the end of the day we’re all selfish.’”
Was it, I asked, exacerbated by the notoriously libertarian-friendly confines of the University of Chicago?
“Definitely. It was easy for me to make a lot of libertarian friends. We had many, many dinners, sitting around, saying, ‘This is a scam, and that is a scam,’ and, ‘If you read what Milton Friedman helped to do in Chile.’ ”
And they would talk about something else. In my first post on this blog, I spoke of the right’s “curious fallacy, a crushing intellectual failure. They’ll act like only governments have the power to deprive citizens of freedom.” Libertarian kids at the University of Chicago think so, too: “It was all about ‘People have jobs, and that’s that, and anything that gets in the way between employer and employee is unhealthy for the system.’ ”
What happened next? He got a job.
He sold books at Borders in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It “did kind of a 180 on me. Just in terms of the rigidity of a corporate structure! You know: they tell you you have to take your lunch break at 1. But at 12:58 a customer starts speaking to you. And if you speak to them until 1:02 the bosses at Borders would start yelling at you to take your break at one, and then if you got an extra minute to 1:31 it throws off the whole schedule but if you volunteer to go two minutes early they fear they might be fined!”