In 2007, the libertarian Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey (who supported Barack Obama in 2008) wrote an essay on the “libertarian synthesis.” It is by now a familiar hail to the end of work, enabling lifestyle liberation that Marx predicted at the end of the Industrial Revolution.
Excerpts from Lindsey:
Once the quest for personal fulfillment and self-realization becomes a dominant motivation, all cultural constraints that might pose obstacles to that quest come under sustained and furious assault.
[Ronald] Inglehart concurs in the judgment that mass affluence is behind the sweeping cultural changes of recent decades. “This shift in worldview and motivations,” he writes, “springs from the fact that there is a fundamental difference between growing up with an awareness that survival is precarious, and growing up with the feeling that one’s survival can be taken for granted.” Once material accumulation is no longer a matter of life and death, its diminished urgency naturally allows other priorities to assert themselves. “This change of direction,” Inglehart concludes, “reflects the principle of diminishing marginal utility.” Meanwhile, material security reduces stress, and thus the appeal of inflexible moral norms. “Individuals under high stress have a need for rigid, predictable rules,” Inglehart observes. “They need to be sure what is going to happen because they are in danger—their margin for error is slender and they need maximum predictability. Postmodernists embody the opposite outlook: raised under conditions of relative security, they can tolerate more ambiguity; they are less likely to need the security of absolute rigid rules that religious sanctions provide.”
Upper-class power brokers riding the crest of the ’90s market wave, assuming the free market won’t further benefit them, disseminate this cultural consensus through the media. These prosperous conditions aren’t uniform across the country, much less around the world. Reordering the system now to run on the momentum of the past solidifies everyone’s place in the socioeconomic spectrum, with little chance of changing their fortune. That may work for a few, but what about everyone else?
Out of the antitheses of the Aquarian awakening and the evangelical revival came the synthesis that is emerging today. At the heart of that synthesis is a new version of middle-class morality—more sober, to be sure, than the wild and crazy days of “if it feels good, do it,” but far removed from old-style bourgeois starchiness or even the genial conformism of the early postwar years. Core commitments to family, work, and country remain strong, but they are tempered by broadminded tolerance of the country’s diversity and a deep humility about telling others how they should live. “Above all moderate in their outlook on the world,” summarized sociologist Alan Wolfe in One Nation, After All, “they believe in the importance of living a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists.”
The narrowness of Lindsey’s critique betrays itself. Across the heartland, commitments to family and work are anything but strong. The percentage of children born of out wedlock is 40 percent. For children born to women under 30, illegitimacy is over 50 percent. On the work front, in 2012 there were 86 million full-time private-sector workers compared to 147 million government beneficiaries. The year before, the federal government spent $2.5 trillion on dependence programs, or 16.7 percent of GDP. These trends in frequency of broken families and government dependency began long before 2007, but they’ve gotten worse since then.
Because “moralism” is “bourgeois” and uncool, the corruption at the heart of this tearing of the social fabric passes unheeded by the elites. They view the problem as a material one, fixed by generous but unobtrusive socialism that divvies up the pie without endangering their own portions. Calling for a progressive income tax is their equivalent of ministry to the poor. It’s a relatively small price to pay for self-determination on all matters personal and ethical.
The ethos is self-defeating. If the 2008 crash proved anything, it was that a quasi-socialist housing market can’t protect your wealth. The age of prosperity will not withstand undermining by sloth and decadence. If the pie isn’t growing by the regenerative powers of the free market, it’s shrinking.
Of primacy is teaching and holding up examples of discipline and virtue. Virtue keeps us from becoming sloths in good times, ticks in bad.