Montreal, September 16, 2007 No 233

 

OPINION

 

Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.

 
 

CLAIMING THE CENTER: A REVIEW OF
BRINK LINDSEY'S THE AGE OF ABUNDANCE

 

by Bradley Doucet

          Following World War II, the American people crossed into an era of widespread abundance. Other parts of the developed world, of course, would soon follow suit, liberating large segments of humanity from the single-minded focus on material needs that had up until then preoccupied all but the very wealthiest. This very abundance, unprecedented in human history, led to an exploration of the scope of life's possibilities by those on the left of the political spectrum, which in turn led to a counterrevolution by those on the right.

 

          According to Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of The Age of Abundance, those two post-war movements cannot be summarized simply as progressive and reactionary. Rather, each side offered up only half-truths. In Lindsey's pithy formulation, "One side attacked capitalism while rejoicing in its fruits; the other side celebrated capitalism while denouncing its fruits as poisonous." (p. 7)

          Perhaps this is why, despite sometimes quite violent clashes between the two movements, neither side was able to claim a resounding victory. During the 60s and 70s, the left succeeded in expanding rights and opportunities for minorities and women, and sexual mores for all. Then during the 80s, the right, for its part, succeeded in rolling back some of the more punitive taxes and restrictive economic regulations previously imposed by the state.

The Libertarian Center


Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, HarperCollins, 2007.

          One might think that this stalemate of sorts is reflected in the current division of the country into 'red' and 'blue' states, but Lindsey sees something different in the superficially antagonistic contemporary political climate. "Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the raw and inflamed political divisions of the present day reflect not underlying social polarization, but instead the seething frustration of ideologues on both sides with the coalescing new cultural synthesis." (p. 8) Most people, according to Lindsey, are neither 'red' nor 'blue' but occupy some sort of 'purplish' middle ground a fact which frustrates both extremes.

          What does this 'new cultural synthesis' look like? Borrowing a neologism from David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise, Lindsey writes, "Today's culturally dominant 'bobo' worldview represents a synthesis of the two great ideological responses to mass affluence: the bohemian rebellion against convention and authority on the one hand, and the unapologetic defense of the old Protestant bourgeois virtues on the other." (p. 10) The majority of Americans today occupy a middle ground that is both bohemian and bourgeois in other words, socially liberal but economically conservative. "Under present circumstances, it probably makes most sense to refer to that center as libertarian, given that the new cultural synthesis is committed to wide scope for both economic and cultural competition." (p. 12)

          But that libertarian synthesis of the center remains implicit and mostly unrepresented in politics, while ideologues of the left and right hold court. Lindsey tells us he wrote this book because "America has much work to do if it is to make the most of the opportunities of mass affluence, but the task would be considerably more manageable if we had a better idea of where we are and how we got here. It is my hope that this book will prove of some value in describing the journey thus far through this unmarked terrain." (p. 12)

A Short History of Abundance

          Lindsey's first chapter takes us on a brief tour of America from its founding through to the end of World War II and the dawn of the Age of Abundance. Chapters Two through Seven focus on the early 50s and the beginning of mass abundance; late 50s endism as the calm before the storm; the Civil Rights Movement and the drug scene of the 60s; the women's movement and the sexual revolution of the 70s; the conservative realignment of the 80s; and the tolerant Generation X bobos of the 90s. Throughout, he takes note of many negatives (for example, the hardships of industrialisation, the complacent conformism of the 50s, and the self-destructive excesses of the drug culture of the 60s and 70s) while nonetheless appreciating the positive in such phenomena the sometimes necessary and sometimes blindly groping steps toward something better.

          And something better did result. In his eighth and final chapter, Lindsey concludes that Americans today live in a society that is not by design but by the inconclusive interplay of left and right freer both economically and culturally than it was sixty years ago at the start of the Age of Abundance. Freer and, of course, far wealthier too. He writes, "America in the early years of the twenty-first century can fairly make this stupendous claim: never before in human history, including any previous era of American history, has a way of life given so many people so many rich opportunities to live healthy, challenging, and fulfilling lives. Yet the claim invites this sharp rebuke: those opportunities are far too often wasted." (p. 324)

Making the Most of the Opportunity

          Lindsey is no mere cheerleader of contemporary America, indiscriminately praising the society in which he lives. Rather, he recognizes that it is often crass and vulgar in its obsession with serving the youth market; that ever-present advertising and political spin often display a contemptuous disregard for the truth; and that religious and New Age superstitions are ubiquitous. And sadly, these vices "impose their heaviest burden on the working and lower classes." (p. 329) While many are able to navigate the vulgarity and see through the spin and superstition, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder "are without the resources, material and cultural, required for taking full advantage of mass affluence while at the same time skirting the worst consequences of its temptations." (p. 330)
 

"Perhaps 'libertarian light' might be a better way to describe the explicit cultural synthesis that Lindsey hopes will arise."


          How, then, to help the most disadvantaged acquire the necessary resources? Lindsey admits this is a terribly difficult question, but offers up, by my count, four broad prescriptions in his final chapter. First, stay the course on policies that favour economic growth, which provides strong incentives for greater investment in human capital. Second, improve the educational system through increased competition from charter, home, and privately run schools. Third, encourage immigrants to assimilate middle class American values and integrate into wider society.

          And finally, Lindsey advises that we need to make the implicit libertarian synthesis explicit. He writes that the persistence of ideological polarization in politics has made of the bobo synthesis "an unspoken and unloved compromise rather than a well-articulated and widely embraced consensus." (p. 334) This has kept American society from properly addressing the ills that plague it. Though concluding that Americans get polarised politics because, in the end, that's what they demand, he sees some hope in the Internet, which has the salutary effect of lowering the costs of being well-informed.

          Perhaps 'libertarian light' might be a better way to describe the explicit cultural synthesis that Lindsey hopes will arise. The broader public does, he admits, retain serious reservations about really free market competition especially with regards to big businesses and foreign firms and is still wedded to its bloated middle-class entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) and the misguided and un-winnable War on Drugs. Lindsey gives us a brief description of what would be feasible to expect of the explicit consensus:
 

          [I]t would be neither anticorporate nor overly chummy with the K street business lobby; it would maintain a commitment to noninflationary growth; it would support an ample safety net, but one focussed on helping (rather than rendering permanently dependent) poor people and people in temporary need, not sloshing money from one part of the middle class to the other (in particular, the elderly); it would oppose corporate welfare; it would endorse vigorous environmental protection while rejecting green Luddism and refusing to accept that the command-and-control regulatory status quo is the final word on the subject; it would shed the left's hostility to law enforcement and middle-class values while insisting that civil liberties and social tolerance are respected; and it would part company with all grand ideological pipe dreams in the realm of foreign affairs (including pacifism as well as neoconservative adventurism), insisting instead that American power is a positive force in the world but one that ought to be used cautiously. (p. 336-7)

          This would hardly satisfy full-fledged libertarians, of course, but it would represent several significant steps in the right direction.

          In Canada, the picture is admittedly a little different somewhat more liberal about soft drugs, somewhat less friendly to the free market, and decidedly less ambitious in foreign affairs but a similar libertarianish consensus might just exist here too. According to a global 2003 Pew survey (see pages 103-8 of the survey) referred to by Lindsey in a recent online round table regarding his book's theses, Canadians share some attitudes with Americans that Europeans do not. Most tellingly, "Strong majorities in the United States (65%) and Canada (63%) reject the idea that 'success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.'" In Europe, the numbers tell a different story, with only 48% of Brits, 44% of the French, and 31% of Italians and Germans disagreeing with the same statement. On the other hand, the same survey shows that Canadians (52%) are more enamoured than Americans (34%) of the government safety net (though still less so than Europeans at 57% to 71%) and less embracing of the free market (this time falling somewhat short of Europeans, though still, at 61%, fairly favourable).

          Of course, Lindsey focuses almost exclusively on our neighbours to the south, but his history of postwar America is both enjoyable and informative, includes a cautiously hopeful analysis of America's current political and cultural scene, and also features a call to arms for friends of freedom to take advantage of the opportunities he sees. In addition, as The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its July 8th review of the book, "Brink Lindsey's measured tone is a welcome respite from the screeching shout-fest that passes for intellectual discourse in some circles." The online round table alluded to above is also well worth reading, allowing Lindsey the opportunity to defend his claims against critiques from left, right, and (libertarian) center. He makes the most of the opportunity, and by providing us with reasonable hope and encouragement, he increases the odds that we will do the same.
 

 

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