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Are We All Libertarians Now?

Are We All Libertarians Now?

10 Mins
March 24, 2011

November 2007 -- Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. (New York: Collins, 2007), 400 pages, $26.95.

Have the culture wars ended? Are ideologues who soldier on merely die-hards striving to inflame old hatreds? Do most Americans accept a philosophical compromise that concedes right and left both have their good points? And is the common ground that today’s Americans share justly called libertarianism?

In his new book, The Age of Abundance, Brink Lindsey answers yes to all those questions. According to Lindsey, the right’s nineteenth-century morality of bourgeois prudence, having toned down its authoritarianism and judgmentalism, now mingles cheerily with the left’s countercultural morality of self-realization, which has toned down its flakiness and anti-capitalism. And the result of this merger is, for lack of a better word, libertarianism.

Of course, Lindsey is vice president for research at the Cato Institute, the world’s leading think tank for libertarianism. And so his argument that American society has come to embrace a worldview closely akin to his personal vision demands skeptical scrutiny.


The fundamental premise of Lindsey’s analysis is that an economic chasm was crossed in 1945. From the origin of human beings two and a half million years ago until the end of World War II, the mass of mankind lived on the knife edge of want. “For all the preceding millennia,” he writes, “physical survival stood front and center as the overriding problem that most people had to confront, day in and day out, for all of their lives.” In the postwar era, however, the majority of people in America (and then in other developed nations) were freed from this plight.

That economic bifurcation was soon paralleled by an ethical one. The world of material scarcity had always demanded adherence to a tested morality of productivity and prudence, backed by harsh sanctions, both secular and sacred. In the world of material plenty, however, denizens no longer needed to concern themselves with productivity and prudence and that permitted a morality of personal self-fulfillment. “Choices among the bewildering products of the human imagination became the dominant concerns of life—and certainties about how to select among them grew ever wispier.”

Obviously, Lindsey’s claims are sweeping in their historical breadth. But he quickly narrows his case down to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, he tells us, turned Benjamin Franklin’s amiable spirit of enterprise into a Christian, self-denying pursuit of prosperity. This “American civil religion of bourgeois Protestantism proved a near-ideal vehicle for launching the great drive toward mass affluence.”

But if the code of productiveness became obsessive in the nineteenth century, at least the open frontier allowed every man who practiced the virtues of diligence and hard work “some decent share of America’s natural plenty.” Alas, that happy conjunction was disrupted by the industrial age, which brought about both economic miracles and urbanization. As millions of immigrants poured into America’s cities, the result was a misery that mocked the American creed of boot-strap prosperity.

Libertarianism is to be linked with the hedonistic, liberationist, self-realizational morality.

Citing Hobbes’s observation that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, Lindsey goes on to assert: “For ordinary Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century, the only noticeable improvement over that primordial state of affairs was that misery had found company.” This led to a growing social rebellion. And for that reason, the Progressive and New Deal Era “did boast one great virtue: its mishmash of collectivist and redistributionist improvisations sufficed to pacify the opponents of capitalism. An essential precondition of maintaining and expanding prosperity was thus satisfied.” Capitalism’s ability to deliver abundance was preserved, but the arrival of abundance was delayed—partly by government regulation and partly by the Great Depression and World War II.

As a consequence of their history, the first Americans to enter into the sea of abundance did not adjust their morality to their changed existential circumstances. Having survived the Depression and the war, postwar adults enjoyed their improved standard of living, but they kept their ingrained psychology of prudence in readiness. After all, who knew how long abundance would last? A Third World War seemed all too possible.


So, it was left to the children of the first affluent generation, the Baby Boomers, to enter fully into the domain of plenty and to interpret its ethical meaning. Raised by parents who had learned from Dr. Spock about the natural goodness of children and the value of emotional spontaneity, the Boomers left for college eager to embody in their own lives the Rousseauean fantasy of the noble savage. And that is just what they did. Sure of their goodness, “no limits seemed to hold anymore; no line was uncrossable.” Lindsey cites, as catalysts for the sixties’ revolt, the civil rights movement, which advocated force (although nonviolent force), and the psychedelic movement, which advocated mysticism. “Reason had surrendered the field to revelation and revolution,” he notes. Out of revelation and revolution grew the myriad experiments of the sixties, which may, for convenience, be lumped together as the Aquarian Revolt. It was, in Lindsey’s opinion, a revolt that contained both good and bad. On the one hand, it was made up of “those elements of American society most open to the new possibilities of mass affluence and most eager to explore them—in other words, the people at the forefront of the push for civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism, as well as sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” On the other hand, “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.”

At the cultural level, Aquarians made great inroads, altering attitudes toward sex and sexuality, the social role of women, the esteem (or contempt) due to business and government, and the value of unexploited nature. On the political level, however, their revolt was thwarted—by the election of, first, Ronald Reagan to the governorship of California in 1966, and, second, Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968. Aquarians did manage to reshape the Democratic Party in 1972, but they did not win a significant national constituency, either in that year or during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

So much is standard history. At this point, however, Lindsey introduces one his key arguments: Simultaneous with (but less noticed than) the Aquarian Revolt was a second revolt: evangelicalism. “The move from Industrial Age to the Information Age norms was accompanied not by one religious revival, but by a pair of diametrically opposed ones. Out of the antithesis of the Aquarian awakening and the evangelical revival came the synthesis that is emerging today.” The evangelical churches, by attracting many adherents of the old bourgeois morality, were able to swell their numbers and become a force within the Republican Party, which the Goldwater insurgents of 1964 had rendered a vehicle for conservatism. With Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, evangelicals achieved the power that their Aquarian counterparts never did. At the same time, however, evangelicals failed signally to turn back the moral/cultural revolution wrought by the Aquarians. And so began the culture wars.


Although Lindsey seems at times to be balancing his two “moral awakenings,” he actually evaluates them very differently. Of sixties’ leftists, he writes, “they grasped that in the new conditions, wider horizons for human existence were now possible—and that hoary constraints of law and custom were needlessly inhibiting the promise of the age. Such important truths, however, were stretched and distorted by runaway romanticism.” Of the evangelical movement, he says: “There is no point in mincing words: the stunning advance of evangelicalism marked a dismal intellectual regress in American religion.”

What Lindsey does praise in the right’s outlook is the habit of abstract and long-range thinking. After asking what made bourgeois culture so congenial to economic progress, he answers: “Two features stand out as critically important: a focus on the long term, and a capacity for abstract loyalties. The Protestant work ethic was, of course, famous for its steely commitment to deferred gratification. And while stern self-denial was often practiced to an extent that made little sense in our luxurious age, the firmly ingrained habit of rationally connecting means to ends over time—that is, of planning ahead and then sticking to one’s plan—was an absolutely essentially precondition for America’s takeoff.”

Now, from the vantage point of 2007, Lindsey looks back on a full generation of Kulturkampf and considers where things stand. In his view, the great majority of Americans have wisely merged what is best from each of the two moral revolutions produced by abundance. From the Aquarian Revolt, today’s synthesis most notably includes “liberal attitudes on race and the role of women in society.” Another element is the acceptance of homosexual marriage, now approaching the 50/50 level. Lindsey also mentions political correctness favorably: Admitting that it sometimes goes too far, he nonetheless believes it “must be considered as a genuine improvement,” in light of the attitudes it rejects. At the same time, Lindsey says, Americans have taken what is best from the old bourgeois dispensation, now advocated most forcefully by the evangelical movement: an understanding of the importance of marriage and family, an intolerance toward criminality, and an awareness of welfare’s corrupting influence.

And what is the result of thus conflating the Aquarian and evangelical worldviews? According to Lindsey, “What has emerged, then, in the broad center of American public opinion is a kind of implicit libertarian synthesis, one which reaffirms the core disciplines that underlie and sustain the modern lifestyle while making much greater allowance for variations within that lifestyle.” This synthesis was not planned or advocated by any group, certainly not by any libertarian think tanks. It simply developed “as the accidental synthesis of the left-right ideological conflict.

This new libertarian synthesis has not yet found its manifestation.

I find it interesting that Lindsey credits David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd as a predecessor, because it recognized the emergence of a new character type based on the advent of postwar abundance. Yet he seems not to recognize just how close his own conclusions are to Riesman’s, merely because Riesman foresaw the culture of abundance resulting in conformity, while Lindsey sees the culture of abundance resulting in individualism. What Lindsey fails to recognize, I think, is that his libertarian individualism is very similar to Riesman’s conformism. The only difference is that the latter was expected to be based on strictly enforced agreement, while the former is based on a strictly enforced absence of disagreement—regarding that “greater allowance for variations of lifestyle” that Lindsey speaks about.

Politically, Lindsey says, this new libertarian synthesis has not yet found its manifestation, and that, he claims, is because “politics has become a lagging indicator of social change.” Nevertheless, he sketches out what a consensus-libertarian political movement might look like. “It would need to start with forthright affirmation of the libertarian cultural synthesis—and equally forthright rejection of the left and right’s illiberal baggage. A movement so grounded would probably not yield an explicitly libertarian politics, since it would need to include constituencies that incline toward more activist government. More likely, it would articulate an intellectual common ground shared by small-government conservatives, libertarians, and pro-market liberals.”


Whatever merits Lindsey’s historical and sociological theses may have, his conclusion is a very odd one. Say what you will about libertarianism, its meaning and implications have always been lucidly clear. It was a political philosophy that stood for the protection of individual rights and the freedom to take any actions that did not harm a non-consenting adult. No particular moral foundation was specified or even implied. Libertarianism was inherently a “big tent” political philosophy, and the degree of a person’s libertarianism was easily measured: to what degree did he demand that individual rights be defended, in matters both economic and personal? That question was put at the very center of the libertarian movement through such marketing devices as its “Nolan Chart” of the political spectrum and “The World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

Lindsey's conclusion is a very odd one.

Now, in The Age of Abundance, a leading libertarian theorist declares that this defining focus is to be changed. Libertarianism is to be linked with a particular moral outlook—specifically, the hedonistic, liberationist, self-realizational morality that was unleashed by the sixties and hammered into practical form by the experiences of later decades. Narrow, pinched, up-tight, anti-sixties moralists (like this author) are no longer true libertarians, while libertarian credentials are awarded to semi-statists on the basis of their support for hedonism. The term “libertarianism,” consequently, can no longer serve as the common meeting ground for all who support the philosophy of freedom. It has been replaced by Neo-Libertarianism.

Why has such a collapse of the big-tent, politics-only freedom movement come about? I can only speculate.

I think one must begin with the fact that, two generations after its beginning, libertarianism is still not selling well among the general public. For a movement that has, as its only professed concern, the condition of the political system, such a total failure at the level of mass persuasion must seem unbearable. And for a movement that admires the entrepreneur’s ability to shift resources in ways that meet existing and future demand, the obvious response is: If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.

But which better-selling ideas should libertarians adopt to become more palatable? The “fusionist” coalition, incorporating libertarian politics and market economics with the right’s bourgeois morality, was increasingly unpopular with younger libertarians, who had come of age in the sixties and later. Could libertarians perhaps join with the left? That alternative long seemed blocked by the left’s historic antipathy to laissez-faire capitalism, the one idea libertarians had strenuously proclaimed to be their touchstone. Finally, a solution was hit upon when libertarians began to follow the path trod by their nineteenth-century liberal predecessors: Adopt the language of “positive rights” and assert that self-fulfillment is more important than the merely “negative rights” of individual liberty.

So, that is what many libertarians are now doing, as I recently noted in my article “Libertarianism: Bourgeois or Bohemian?” (The New Individualist, June 2007). Younger libertarians, such as Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson, have turned to “positive rights” to proclaim that “multiplicity of choice” can be added to “freedom of choice” when determining the true liberty of a society. Commenting on Lindsey’s book at “Cato Unbound,” liberal critic Matthew Yglesias added another example: a February 2005 column by Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie in which he derided a survey of economic liberty in the United States and implied that he, for one, preferred the positive freedom of Manhattan to the negative freedom of Kansas. To this trend, we must now add Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance. In it, he remarks: “The new abundance, meanwhile, opened up a mad proliferation of choices—and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?”

I believe there is a good answer to that question, although its credibility may be doubted by younger libertarians, as it predates 1945 and the Age of Abundance. It comes from an ancient story about two brothers named Jacob and Esau, and it proclaims the folly of selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage.

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