I don’t know why I bother—I can’t tell you that you should.
But as this piece was deemed worthy of publication in the New York Times on Independence Day, it carries some significance:
THIS spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?
There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed.
Because they thought the question was imbecilic, I hope (but doubt).
While I can accept that the 60s saw advancement in women’s rights and gay rights, what—civil rights movement notwithstanding—do the 60s have to do with Obama in 2008? The 60s also saw the rise of the muscle car—the Mustang, the Firebird. the Torino, the Camaro. Today we have the Prius and the Mini Cooper. Connection, anyone? Advancement?
And where has the 60s ethos “won” on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—all of which predate the 60s, and miraculously survive the era? “Free love” is fine if you can afford the antibiotics for the STDs and the protease inhibitors for the HIV. And aren’t we all better for the crack epidemic of the 80s, followed and joined by epidemics of amphetamines, glue, crystal meth, oxy, even bath salts?
But most of all, what is wrong with “old-school free-market ideas”? Talk about sexy! Talk about a high!
That’s what I might have said. But they didn’t ask me:
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”
What poppycock. The Declaration is not a Timothy-Leary-tune-in-turn-on-drop-out tract or a Joseph-Campbell-follow-your-bliss justification. Rather it is a grand vision of government, a defense of it as well as a critique of it. The very next line reads: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” What does that have to do with individualism, let alone selfishness?
The essay is already discredited, but while we’re on the subject of sloppy, misinformed thinking:
Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent.
That “say” is awfully telling, isn’t it? It means his father never actually opined on a “fair” marginal tax rate, only what the author revealingly feels is an inviolable floor. Is 57% (50/91) of an “unfair” number automatically “fair”? Someone should have told Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. (Comparing tax rates to genocide, BTL? Really?)
But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
In that letter from 1814, Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require “correctives which are supplied by education” and by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator.”
Show of hands—how many people want to be “corrected” by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator”? That’s what I thought.
But if I may offer my own analysis, this guy is missing the nose in front of his face. As a tale-ender of the baby-boom generation, I am repeatedly amazed and amused at the self-absorption of my older brothers and sisters. They think they invented sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, along with just about every other style, fad, and development of their day. Generations are like the tide: they wash away what came before. And as the Boomers were a veritable tsunami (without the infant mortality rates to lessen the impact), they swamped popular culture with their adolescent narcissism.
The author, Kurt Andersen, was born in 1954, perfectly situated, as a precocious 14-year-old (you know he was), to internalize and memorialize the radical events of 1968. Just look where he was when the question was initially proposed to him: Woodstock! QE-[bleeping]-D!
Did it even occur to him to defend “old-school free-market ideas”? Doesn’t sound like it. His generation (to which I barely, yet resentfully, cling) wasn’t taught so. We are manufactured Keynesians—manufactured because the available evidence supports the “old school” over our “reformed” education, and we can’t allow that. That’s why another Boomer, Barack Obama, is running the administration he is, and why we have the economy we do.
If we are a nation of individuals, as Andersen argues, we sure seem a bunch of stupid ones.