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Opinion

Before NPR scandal, a warning about 'elite' liberals: compassion turns to coercion

Long before the NPR scandal underscored liberal condescension toward conservatives, Lionel Trilling saw the hidden hope of power that lies in the heart of those who seek to improve society. President Obama has renewed this progressive impulse, limiting our freedom and prosperity.

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The most ominous example of coercion is the new health-care law's individual mandate, which forces us to "choose" an insurance policy. But the law limits our medical options in other ways, through price controls to contain costs. "We economists don't know much," Milton Friedman once said, "but we do know how to create a shortage. If you want to create a shortage of tomatoes, for example, just pass a law that retailers can't sell tomatoes for more than 2 cents per pound. Instantly you'll have a tomato shortage." What is true for tomatoes is true for health care.

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If you are poor, your freedom to "choose" the health care you want may be imaginary. But policies that limit choice do not enlarge the circle of real wealth. Policies that maximize choice, by contrast, lift all boats: They make the best use of the knowledge society as a whole possesses.

Forced social idealism

You know more about the circumstances of your situation than anyone. The principle that Washington should not second-guess your choices has enabled America to use the vast quantity of information its citizens possess more efficiently than any other nation. Efficiency is not the end of life but the beginning of prosperity.

Policies that would decree progress by government fiat curtail freedom in another way. Overall government spending in the United States, which accounted for less than 7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1903, was estimated in 2010 to account for 42 percent of GDP. As the proportion of the productive wealth of the nation controlled by the government increases, our ability to choose what to do with our own resources decreases.

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The "ultimate threat to human freedom," Trilling wrote in an account of George Orwell, might well come from a "massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture." Such idealism is dangerous because the idealists have disguised their deepest motives even from themselves. In his essay on Henry James's novel "The Princess Casamassima," Trilling described the willfulness of the progressive reformer "who takes license from his ideals for the unrestrained exercise of power." In today's ostensibly benign social policies, there is more than a whiff of the coercive "will" Trilling dreaded, the "will which masks itself in virtue."

Michael Knox Beran is a lawyer and contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. His latest book is "Pathology of the Elites."

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