Jul

13

 I recently read "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture", by Brink Lindsey, a vice president at the Cato Institute.

Lindsey's thesis is that the mass affluence that began in the United States at the end of World War II was a watershed event with far-reaching implications (the book is U.S.-centric, but Canada and Western Europe quickly followed the U.S. into mass affluence). With basic material needs largely met, many Americans shifted attention to pursuing higher-level needs in Maslow's hierarchy. The generation born after the war, the Baby Boomers, never knew the bad old days of scarcity and had radically different priorities from their parents.

As this era of abundance unfolded, practices and institutions that stood in the way of self-fulfillment came under "sustained and furious assault". The civil rights movement fought racism. Women fought discrimination in hiring and promotion. Sexual taboos were overturned. Alternative lifestyles proliferated.

People's reactions to these sweeping societal changes increasingly determined their political allegiances. "On the left were arrayed those elements of American society most open to the new possibilities of mass affluence and most eager to explore them … At the same time, however, many on the left harbored a deep antagonism toward the institutions of capitalism and middle-class life that had created all those glittering new possibilities. On the right, meanwhile, were the stalwart defenders of capitalism and middle-class mores. But included in their number were the people most repelled by and hostile to the social and cultural ferment that capitalism and middle-class mores were producing."

Lindsey believes the most important story is that the majority of Americans who are not passionate political partisans have been gradually forging a "libertarian synthesis" that allows for individualized pursuits of self-fulfillment while supporting capitalism, rule of law, and intact families—a balance of personal freedom and personal responsibility. "Most Americans … embrace the traditional, Middle American values of patriotism, law and order, the work ethic, and commitment to family life. At the same time, however, they hold attitudes on race and sex that are dramatically more liberal than those that held sway a generation or two ago." Lindsey argues that this synthesis, as yet unrecognized by the major U.S. political parties, is the basis of the social order of the 21st century.

The book has a copyright date of 2007, but appears to have been written before the 2006 congressional elections. I found myself wondering how well the apparent sharp left turn in American politics since then fits Lindsey's hypothesis. As the Collab noted the other day, there is an anti-market cacophony in the air these days. It feels like the mirror image of the late 1970s, when Keynesian economics was so thoroughly discredited that President Carter felt compelled to support deregulation and appoint Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. Now, "your own men", as Mr. Zachar would say, such as Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson are advocating increased regulation.

Michael Bonderer adds:

Relatedly, check out the good piece in Time magazine by Nathan Thornburgh on the Libertarians' freedom agenda and how it's transforming America's political landscape and the potential for the "Naderization" of McCain in a few states.


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