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|Posted June 11, 2007|
|Land of Plenty|
|What makes America different? The Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey has some ideas.|
Illustration by Wink
|THE AGE OF ABUNDANCE|
|How Prosperity Transformed|
|America's Politics and Culture.|
|By Brink Lindsey|
|394 pp. Collins/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.|
|By GEORGE F. WILL|
AFTER the privations of the Depression and war years, Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed the Employment Act of 1946, which made it federal policy to maintain the propensity to consume. The choice of the word propensity would have seemed droll, were any Congress capable of drollery. That mild noun hardly does justice to the primal urge, the almost metabolic necessity, for consumption that Americans felt as they came up, as it were, for their first breath of air since October 1929.
Youth, too, came knocking at the door of prosperity, eager and able to participate in the fun. On Dec. 15, 1954 , ABC Tele vision showed the first installment of the series Davy Crockett. There were only three initial installments, the last of which was broadcast on Feb. 23, 1955. By then there was a nationwide craze for coonskin caps. By 1956, the average teenagers weekly income/allowance was $10.55, equal to the disposable income of a family in the early 1940s.
Yet material well-being brought a new kind of uneasiness. In his address to the 1964 Republican National Convention , which nominated him for president, Barry Goldwater spoke of the many who look beyond material success for the inner meaning of their lives. Six months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his 1965 State of the Union address, spoke of a coming moment when freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit.
Putting scarcity behind us has been pleasant, but has it been good for us - meaning good for our souls?
Ever since mass affluence, a phenomenon without precedent in the human story, exploded upon postwar America, social and political theorists have wondered, and worried, about the moral and even the spiritual consequences of material conditions. Putting scarcity behind us has been pleasant, but has it been good for us meaning good for our souls?
Half a century before the postwar era began, the connection between one kind of abundance and national character was postulated by Frederick Jackson Turner , who argued that Americas democratic culture was shaped by the fact of the frontier, which promised land for all comers. In 1954 , the historian David M. Potter , in People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character, explored, among other subjects, how the ubiquity of advertising (also a preoccupation of John Kenneth Galbraiths Affluent Society, in 1958 ) conditions Americans consciousness. In 1976 , the sociologist Daniel Bell warned about what he called the cultural contradictions of capitalism, by which he meant the tendency (or so he thought) of the abundance that capitalism produces to subvert the attitudes and aptitudes necessary for capitalisms success thriftiness, industriousness, the ability and willingness to defer gratifications.
It took confidence for Brink Lindsey, of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, to venture onto this well-plowed ground with The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed Americas Politics and Culture. This constantly stimulating book vindicates that confidence. His thesis, stated ironically with Karl Marxs categories, is that in the second half of the 20th century, America left the realm of necessity and entered the realm of freedom. Americans live on the far side of a great fault line separating them from all prior human experience.
Americans, Lindsey writes, have become a different kind of people, transformed by capitalisms fecundity. Although often derided for its superficial banality, materialism has resulted in a flood tide of spiritual yearning.Various scolds and worrywarts have exclaimed, with Wordsworth, that getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. To such Jeremiahs, Lindsey provides an essentially cheerful, although not altogether so, counterpoint: affluence has made America a more libertarian, and hence a nicer, place.
First came material improvement. Until very recently, he notes, when people prayed for their daily bread, they often were praying for just that. Not so long ago, many ordinary lives of quiet desperation ended especially dismally: about 10 percent of burials in New York City in 1889 were in potters fields. In 1900, 1.75 million children between the ages of 10 and 15 almost one-fifth of all children in that age cohort were in the work force. Children provided one-fourth to one-third of the incomes for working-class families, which spent more than 90 percent of their household earnings on food, shelter and clothing. In 1900, Americans spent nearly twice as much on funerals as on medicine, and less than 2 percent of Americans took vacations.
Fast-forward to the end of the 1950s, when suddenly the number of Americans enrolled in colleges exceeded the number of American farmers. That decade, which has more than its fair share of cultured despisers, is remembered principally for (in Lindseys unenthralled description) climbing the company ladder and winning the rat race and keeping up with the Joneses. But these preoccupations, even obsessions, were, Lindsey says, freely chosen which meant that other choices were possible. The people who would eventually make other choices, and who by doing so would threaten the postwar social order, lay in the quiet night of suburbia, slumbering in the childrens bedrooms.
By 1960, in The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell had written that the workers, whose grievances were once the driving energy for social change, are more satisfied with the society than the intellectuals. By the end of that decade, those slumbering children had awakened and gone to college. There they worked out a stance toward life suited to the first generation that knew only a condition that no other generation had ever known the absence of scarcity.
Rather than serving as a balm, Lindsey writes, affluence acted as instigator and rabble-rouser as Americans, and especially the young, became increasingly impatient with any conventions that restrained selfrealization. A 1962 Gallup poll found that only 10 percent of mothers hoped their daughters would emulate the choices they had made in their lives. The mothers got their wish.
Their daughters and sons were raised in accordance with precepts from another product of 1946 , Benjamin Spocks parenting manual, which took a benign view of childrens instinctual lives. Soon, Lindsey says, these instincts produced a market for a new product rock n roll, the music of libidinal release. Who do you sound like? asked a secretary at a Memphis recording studio in August 1953, when a truck driver came in seeking a singing career. I dont sound like nobody, answered Elvis Presley.
The 1960s were 129 days old when, on May 9, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill, one enabler of the decades cultural ferments. More than two-thirds of women who turned 18 during the 50s, Lindsey reports, claimed to have slept with only one man by their 30th birthday. By contrast, only 2 percent of women who reached adulthood during the 70s would admit similar restraint. By then, Lindsey says, a great sorting-out had occurred: On the left gathered those who were most alive to the new possibilities created by mass affluence but who, at the same time, were hostile to the social institutions responsible for creating those possibilities. On the right, meanwhile, rallied those who staunchly supported the institutions that created prosperity but who shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing.
This political conflict quickly found religious expression. The antinomian excesses of the countercultural left provoked the dogmatic excesses of the religious right. Still, Lindsey believes that the new dimension of liberty emancipation from the preoccupation with subsistence has been a boon because material security has reduced stress. And that has reduced the appeal of inflexible moral norms, and unleashed a sustained and furious assault on other cultural constraints that might interfere with the pursuit of happi ness. This is why the supposedly grayflannel, buttoned-down, conformist 1950s were pregnant with the cultural commotions of the 1960s. And the 1960s culture the preoccupation with self- fulfillment and cultural acknowledgment has never ended.
Affluence, Lindsey writes, has provided a mad proliferation of choices and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose? Well.
Praise for Edmund Burke is a kind of tic on the part of some conservatives, arising more from reflex than reflection. However, Burke provided a discomforting postulate that is a perennial challenge to conservatives of a libertarian tendency, like Lindsey: The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.
At one point Lindsey says that contrary to those under the spell of the romantic delusion, not all limitations on choice are the enemies of freedom. Yet elsewhere he seems to say that the task of expanding freedom amounts to, and requires, nothing more than the expansion of the range of available choices. That leaves a question one of the biggest questions in political philosophy since Hobbes unaddressed:
Is liberty valuable because it promotes virtuous behavior? Or is liberty merely necessary because, given that there are deep disagreements about what virtuous behavior is, we must agree to leave one another a lot of social space to do as we please, or we shall not have social peace?
Lindsey tantalizes readers with some pithy judgments that call for more elaboration than he supplies, as when he denounces the na´ve equation of the virtuous and the uninhibited, a proposition that collapsed the distinction between individualism and infantilism. And he acutely sees that the Aquarian project had its own cultural contradictions: Without the immensely intricate division of labor developed and constantly elaborated by capitalism, there would have been no mass affluence; without mass affluence, there could have been no counterculture.
Lindsey is an economic thinker who, like John Maynard Keynes, has a flair for lapidary summations: Thus did the miracle in Bethlehem make way for the miracle on 34th Street. He means that there is a cultural connection between the manger and Macys. The connection is the one that Max Weber discerned in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Several centuries of what Weber called the bourgeoisies worldly asceticism self- denial for the purpose of accumulation produced abundance. And that made possible mass hedonism, a free-for-all of feverish and unquenchable desire, Lindsey says, as enough proved an ever- receding horizon.
He believes that the common commitment to chase that horizon became the glue that held an increasingly pluralistic society together. Piffle. Americas remarkable social cohesion is not reducible to that. We are a creedal nation, dedicated to a proposition, which is approximately this: All people are created equal and have a right to spacious freedom that produces unequal outcomes.
Lindsey rightly says that todays typical red-state conservative is considerably bluer on race relations, the role of women and sexual morality than his predecessor of a generation ago. And the typical bluestate liberal is considerably redder than his predecessor when it comes to the importance of markets to economic growth, the virtues of the two-parent family and the morality of American geopolitical power. In the bell curve of ideological allegiance, the large bulging center has settled, for now, on an implicit libertarian synthesis, one which reaffirms the core disciplines that underlie and sustain the modern lifestyle while making much greater allowances for variations within that lifestyle. If so, material abundance has been, on balance , good for us, and Lindseys measured cheerfulness is, like his scintillating book, reasonable.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, June 10, 2007.
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