The Age of Abundance

I’ve just finished reading The Age of Abundance, by Brink Lindsey (full disclosure: Brink is one of the people who oversees my work as an adjunct scholar at Cato). This social and economic history of the post-war period is an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The centerpiece of the book is an exploration of the consensus of the 1950s and the way that consensus was upended by the turmoils of the 1960s. I’m just young enough that the social convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s had just recently been added to the history books I read in school, and they got short shrift from my history teacher who had been teaching the same course since the 1950s. Likewise, when I started paying serious attention to politics in the late 1990s, the aftershocks of the 1960s were still being felt (I remember Bill Clinton’s pot smoking-being discussed by friends in high school, for example) but the issues still being debated from that era felt increasingly stale. I had heard plenty about the 60s, but most of what I’d heard had been random and fragmentary.

So it was fun to read a coherent, lively account of what happened during that turbulent decade. I don’t think I appreciated what a radical, violent, and exciting decade it was. And I learned a number of things I didn’t realize before. That the evangelical movement was born in the 1940s and was widespread by the 1960s, but had a strongly apolitical character until the late 1970s, for example.

I was also impressed by the way Brink uses recent social history to frame the contemporary political landscape. In his telling, the contemporary right and left are the intellectual descendants of the counterculture (which arose during the 1960s in response to the smug, liberal conformism of the 1950s) on the one hand and the Goldwater conservatives (which arose in response to the counterculture) on the other. He suggests that each side is trapped in an ideological confusion that is the mirror image of the other. The countercultural left hated capitalism, even as it embraced the liberating social changes—feminism, greater sexual openness, environmentalism, and greater free speech and tolerance—that could not have happened without the affluence capitalism produced. The movement that emerged from the Goldwater campaign, in contrast, staunchly defended capitalism while defended a traditionalist morality that capitalism was steadily undermining.

And this, of course, makes libertarianism the ideology of the responsible center: supporters of both capitalism and the liberal social changes it produces. And while few independent voters self-identify as libertarians (much less Libertarians), they’re libertarian insofar as they reject the left’s antipathy to capitalism and the right’s antipathy to social tolerance. There is, of course, an element of the pundit’s fallacy here, but I think there’s a lot of truth here too. Over the last four decades, public attitudes have shifted dramatically rightward on economic issues (even with a sweeping Democratic victory this fall, it’s hard to imagine a return to the 1970s’ levels of taxes, regulations, unionization, or monetary expansion) and leftward on social issues (feminism, gay rights, and sexual openness have all made great strides). I think it’s pretty clear that the left has been gradually winning on social issues while the right has mostly won on economic issues. While neither side has been all that libertarian, the net effect has been to push things in a libertarian direction.

I also think it would be helpful if more libertarians talked about things in these terms. Too many libertarians seem to define libertarianism as a very specific and restrictive political program: as a laundry list of government programs to be abolished, or equivalently as a very short list of government programs that won’t be abolished. By that measure, libertarianism is nowhere close to successful. But if we define libertarianism more broadly as a set of general ideas and attitudes—pro-market, pro-tolerance, skeptical of authority—the last few decades look a lot better from a libertarian perspective. Few major government programs have been abolished, but the role of market in the economy has expanded dramatically, and partly as a consequence people are freer than they’ve ever been to live their lives as they seem fit without interference from those in authority.

It was a great read and I recommend you pick up a copy. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss one of the book’s few weaknesses.