Against the Hippies: Or, In Defense of American Individualism

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Kurt Andersen’s piece in the New York Times today is in some respects a terrific column.  But if you can spot the vast logical leap.

Not the best political philosophers.

Andersen recalls a time when he was confronted with the 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?”  Coming as it did at the Woodstock Writers Festival, the question implies a certain amount of self-congratulation.  We progressives accomplished much of what we set out to accomplish when we were drug-addled hippies.  We’ve brought about greater recognition for the rights of women and gays, greater equality between the races, greater protection of the environment, and of course the great “win” of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (?).  Groovy.  But then there’s a fly in the ointment.  So why isn’t America one big commune by now?  Or why is greedy capitalism, at least, so triumphant?  The revolutionary aims of the sixties have prevailed in cultural matters.  Why not in economic matters?

Andersen’s answer was a total buzz-kill: “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.”

America’s founding documents defend our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — what Andersen calls “individualism in a nutshell.”  But the American propensity for individualism has been counterbalanced by moral, social and government constraints.  Even when individualism burst through the bonds in stretches of rampant self-gratification (the Roaring Twenties are cited), economic crises or moral opprobrium restored the order, so that “a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good” has prevailed in American history.  The same conformist pressures of “bourgeois social norms” that made beatniks rare made proudly money-mad “Ayn Randian millionaires” scarce as well.  Thus, “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.

There are several things right about this analysis.

  1. Those who leap eagerly into a culture of sexual and pharmacological permissiveness today generally do not do so (if anyone ever did) for reasons of social and political transformation.  They do so because they’re selfish and self-indulgent.  It’s not an evolution of human society, or a liberation of consciousness; it’s a moral digression and an enslavement to our baser impulses.
  2. For all the ways in which social norms and taboos are reviled and caricatured in popular media, they served (albeit imperfectly) an extremely important function.  Understanding that the human heart is inclined to sin and self-deceit, the Judeo-Christian ethic, when it permeates a society, produces forces to counteract our selfish inclinations and barriers to protect the young and the vulnerable.
  3. Finally, even those of us who do not wish to see the government as the means of redistribution can agree that we would like to see the ultra-wealthy engage in more voluntary redistribution of their own resources.  I believe that one thing worse than the radical wealth disparity in our country is a government regime that enforces equality of wealth or something close to it — not because I want to protect the wealthy but because I’ve concluded that kind of regime is destructive of entire economies and societies.  When the ultra-wealthy are unconstrained by an ethical code that elevates humility and service, that celebrates lavish materialism and crass excess, this is morally appalling and not worthy of admiration or envy.

So what’s wrong with Andersen’s argument?  The equation of individualism and selfishness.  These are not the same thing.  To be sure, selfishness stands in tension with the civic good (except in those cases where one can harness selfishness to serve the civic good).  Individualism, at least as Americans have traditionally understood is, does not.  Laws that defend “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are in the interest of the civic good.  When Andersen describes the equilibrium between individualism and the civic good, what does he image would happen if “the civic good” prevailed?  Individualism (which, remember, is defined in a nutshell as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) would be extinguished?  That would help the civic good?!?

There are some simple distinctions that could be very helpful for a liberal- but open-minded person like Andersen.  First, self-interest and selfishness are not the same.  It is self-interested to work 40 hours a week in order to afford a home; it is not necessarily selfish.  Second, it is not primarily selfishness or greed but some combination of self-interest and the desire to provide for one’s family that turns the wheels of the capitalistic engine.  And third, individualism and selfishness are not even remotely the same.

Individualism, in its ideal American variety, is formed in two parts: a powerful assertion of individual rights and liberties, and an equally powerful assertion of individual duties and responsibilities.  Based on a Judeo-Christian concept of the rational human self in relation to God, family, church, community and creation, American individualism emphasizes the individual’s moral conscience and faith over against conformity or compulsion, the individual’s industry and ingenuity, and the individual’s obligation to provide for himself and his loved ones and others around him in need.  That kind of individualism does not stand over against the civic good.

So the next time someone tells you, Americans are too individualistic, your response should be, No, Americans are too selfish, and some no longer understand what American individualism means.  The Germany of the Third Reich could have done with a bit more American individualism, and so could Mao’s China.  So, for that matter, could the hippies of Woodstock, whose deconstruction of proper individualism unleashed the natural tendencies to selfishness and materialism (a selfishness and materialism that ultimately triumphed over the sixties economic program) and who promoted a political philosophy that actually sublimated (oppressed) the individual to the detriment of the civic good.

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About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/ reliapundit

    NYTIMES OP-ED CONFLATES INDIVIDUALISM WITH SELFISHNESS
    http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/2012/07/nytimes-op-ed-conflates-individualism.html

    ANDERSEN COMMITS A FALLACY HERE: “The Downside of Liberty”

    HE WRITES: “… sometimes we have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification…” AS IF THERE CAN BE TOO MUCH LIBERTY.

    HE IS WRONG.

    THE PROBLEM IS NOT INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY, BUT LIBERTY WITHOUT NATURAL LAW.

    LIBERTY WITHOUT NATURAL LAW DEVOLVES INTO LIBERTINAGE.

    WITHOUT NATURAL LAW, LIBERTY IS A SLIPPERY SLOPE THAT KNOWS NO END BUT THE ABYSS.

    HE WRITES:

    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…. “Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it… Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.

    BESIDES BEING WRONG, THIS GIVES RISE TO SEVERAL QUESTIONS:

    WHAT DID THEY BECOME UNSHACKLED FROM?
    MERE “SELF-RESTRAINT”?
    WHERE DOES SELF-RESTRAINT COME FROM?
    WHAT MIGHT DEFINE ITS BOUNDS?
    ARE THE LIMITS TO LIBERTY PERSONAL AND SUBJECTIVE?
    IF SO, THEN IS THERE ANY BASIS FOR CRITIQUING THEM?
    ARE THE BOUNDS MERELY MECHANICAL, AS IN THE OLD SAYING, “ONE MAN’S RIGHT TO SWING HIS ARM ENDS WHERE THE NET MAN’S NOSE BEGINS”?

    20TH CENTURY LEFTISTS SEEKING TO DESTROY WESTERN CIVILIZATION AND TO REPLACE IT WITH A TOTALITARIAN SOCIALISTIC STATE USED MORAL RELATIVISM TO TRY TO STRIP NATURAL LAW – AND G-D – OUT OF OUR CIVILIZATION IN ORDER TO CREATE A VACUUM THEY MIGHT FILL WITH MARXISM – AND THEY’VE SUCCEEDED WITH A LARGE PART OF OUR POPULATION.

    ANDERSEN’S ANALYSIS IS ESSENTIALLY RELATIVISTIC: HE EQUATES THE LEFT AND THE RIGHT AND CALLS BOTH EQUALLY SELFISH.

    HE IS WRONG. LEFTISTS ARE LIBERTINES, AND RIGHT-WINGERS ARE NOT.

    LEFTISTS WANTED TO DESTROY MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY (BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF CIVILIZATION) IN THE 1960′S AND REPLACE THEM WITH FREE LOVE AND COMMUNES.

    HAVING FAILED, THEY HAVE RECENTLY TURNED TO GAY MARRIAGE AND NOW MULTIPLE PARENTING.

    LEFTISTS ARE ESSENTIALLY MORALLY RELATIVIST PEOPLE WHO DO WHAT IS RIGHT IN THEIR OWN EYES AND HAVE TURNED AWAY FROM TRADITIONAL, 3000 YEAR OLD, RELIGIOUS VALUES THAT ARE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WEST.

    THEY ARE EITHER ATHEISTS WHO DON’T BELIEVE IN AN ETERNAL TRANSCENDENT G-D, OR PSEUDO-RELIGIOUS FOLKS WHO THINK THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO FASHION A G-D AND A RELIGION OUT OF WHATEVER VALUES THEY HOLD AT THE MOMENT – OR WHICH APPEAR IN EDITORIALS AT THE NYTIMES.

    NOT ONLY DOES THIS LEAD TO WANTONLY BAD BEHAVIOR, BUT TO INTERNATIONAL STALEMATE:

    WITHOUT A TRANSCENDENTALLY BASED MORAL CODE, THE ONLY BASIS FOR INTERNATIONAL INTERVENTION IS CONSENSUS.

    THIS IS WHY THEY OVERVALUE THE UN, AND WHY THE UN IS A USELESS ORGANIZATION THAT HAS PERMITTED SEVERAL GENOCIDAL WARS GO UN CONTESTED – IN RWANDA AND SYRIA FOR EXAMPLE – AND ALSO PERMITS HORRIBLE ISLAMO-MISOGYNY TO GO ON AND ON AND ON AND ON.

    MORALLY RELATIVISTIC MORALITY IS NOT MORALITY AT ALL.

    AND MORAL RELATIVISM IS WHY SOME PEOPLE TURN THEIR INNATE LIBERTY TO BAD ENDS.

    THE PROBLEM ISN’T UNBRIDLED LIBERTY OR EVEN SELFISHNESS, BUT LIBERTY AND SELF-HOOD UN-TETHERED FROM G-D AND G-D’S LAW, NATURAL LAW.

    WITHOUT THE GOD OF NATURE AND NATURAL LAW PEOPLE HAVE NO TRANSCENDENT AND ETERNAL COMPASS WITH WHICH TO HARNESS THEIR OWN DESIRES AND DREAMS AND INCLINATIONS.

    AND PEOPLE DO WHAT IS RIGHT IN THEIR OWN EYES, AND THIS IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF EVIL.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That’s a lot of shouting (please dial down the caps next time), but I’ll allow it this once! ;-)

      • http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/ reliapundit

        how do you feel about italics? is at lisping?

  • CatoRenasci

    Liberty is not the same thing as Libertine.

    Liberty is the absence of external restraint on behavior, not the absence of a moral sense that governs one’s behavior.

    If a liberal (classical sense) society becomes a libertine society because too few individuals are willing to govern their behavior, it will fall either to external enemies or to tyrants from within because there is no moral basis on which to resist.

  • bandit

    It’s just the same regurgitated rich kid bull. If you work hard to raise a family and provide for them you’re selfish. If you expect the world to hand you everything then you can be the mascot for their sanctimony.

    • JimGl

      Nicely put, but I would add ” and the excuse for their appropriating others earnings”

  • Charlie

    As one who started to college in the summer of ’67 and was a proud member of the Woodstock generation, I can say with assurance we were not all of one mindset. I always thought of those times, looking at what my cohort was trying to achieve, as a new expression of libertarianism (read the American version of Enlightenment liberalism, or what you point out as the good individualism) and living interdependently. There was definitely self-indulgence, but I rode that trend, no question, to becoming a better husband and father and creative contributor to enterprise (from long days spent thumbing through the Whole Earth Catalog and dreaming of what could be).

    Feeling very much a part of an individualist movement, I was bumped off-stride when called upon to interact with that minority of my generation who were red-diaper babies and/or adherents of Mao or Guevara. They had a wholly different agenda and, like Andersen, always seemed to expect us to fall in line with it. It made them happy when events like the bombings in Laos and Cambodia or the killings in Kent State seemingly did unite us in a show of force. Increasingly, the East Coast media painted the hardcore Reds as the face of our generation, and that, as much as anything, hastened the demise of the hippie movement.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great points, Charlie. My father was a member of the Woodstock generation, for one, who had very different views from those that prevailed and became identified with the movement.

  • http://blog.superflippy.net Susanna King

    This is the same thing I was saying in my blog piece yesterday, about how we began as a nation which believed in E Pluribus Unum, and have devolved into Every Man For Himself.
    You did a better job of summing it up than I did, though: “Selfishness won.”

  • Jack

    I would just like to note that the New Left and Hippies were not the same crowd, although there was often overlap. Many hippies were individualist. Perusing the original Whole Earth Catalog is instructive. It is almost devoid of politics, but contains a lot on independent living.

  • http://Pj Gus

    Woodstock was just a music show, just a concert, all the rest about the great movement,was all BS. I bought into some of it, to my ever lasting shame. Then I grew up.

  • Tedd

    What Charlie said. I was a bit too young to hit the hippie phase, but I saw it through my older siblings. One thing I remember very clearly was an entrepreneurial spirit — the sense that new ideas and new values were creating what we would call “business opportunities” today. The early Whole Earth Catalogs were filled with that kind of talk. The hippie movement was “anti-establishment,” but that only meant “anti-free-enterprise” for a small sub-set of hippies.

  • PGlenn

    Mr. Dalrymple, I agree that the “right things about [Andersen's] analysis” are quite insightful, especially after you clarified the key points. You’re kinder in response to his piece overall, than perhaps I would have been, but you dismantle it nonetheless. Whereas you expose the logical and definitional flaws in the piece, my first impression was that Andersen paints history and current events using two-dimensional, cartoonish strokes.

    Along those lines, I’m impressed by the logic and sophistication of your moral analysis and (implicit) political/social theory, but I’m skeptical about the idea that we can “rate” different eras of history as having been characterized by especially high levels of selfishness, etc. I’m not saying that selfishness is necessarily constant, but that we’d never be able unravel it as a variable and make such comparisons. I wonder if your lesson might apply to nearly every generation of Americans after the Founding: that we are not too individualistic, rather we are too selfish, and some no longer understand what American individualism means (many turn-of-the-century Progressives did not understand this, either).

    To be honest, I intuitively agree with you that some of the ideas, attitudes, trends, etc. that spread in the 1960s contributed to increased selfishness and that now we’re probably living in age of rampant selfishness; yet we don’t really know that in a social scientific sense. And yet the next step for the likes of Andersen, upon finding this “obvious truth,” is to go about trying to fix it with social policy as if it were a verifiable, social scientific problem. Thus, by conceding this point to Andersen, we tend to give his other (implicit) premises more weight. Unfair, but that’s usually the game.

    Of course, your analysis points to why Andersen would be wrong to make such a jump. We cannot solve the social problem of selfishness via “social policy”; only He can solve the selfishness which lurks within all individual hearts. More often than not, our attempts to solve things like selfishness as a social problem will not only generally cause more harm than good, it will often paradoxically encourage more selfishness. In our hyper-complicated world, we cannot even measure selfishness as a social variable, let alone devise policies that will be reduce its levels.

    I’m not saying that there is no value to “social policy” per se and I’m certainly not suggesting a Randian outlook or a very minimalist state, either. However, the path toward civic good, unselfishness, devotion to community is often as much cluttered by social policy as it is cleared. As you suggest, when we all take our own moral and spiritual journeys of faith and conscience, we are often much better guided by (properly understood) individualistic precepts that counterbalance our baser tendencies – such as the “powerful assertion of individual duties and responsibilities,” “bourgeois social norms,” etc.

    Part of the reason that individualistic precepts are often so much more conducive to social happiness and moral wellbeing, however, as compared to social policy, is that they do not place high cognitive demands on the individuals who are participating in the democratic/civic project. In fact, they evolved out of Judeo-Christian cultures that recognized that human beings are both Chidren of God – thus, we know, capable of amazing scientific and technological achievements – and yet profoundly ignorant in other ways.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

    One mis-perception we have in this society is that greed is limited to only those who are already “better off” and/or seek to engage in private, for-profit enterprise … as if greed requires a corporate charter or stock portfolio as a prerequisite.

    The way I see it, greed can drive an academic to toe the Party Line, when he/she knows it is seriously wrong, in order to attain tenure.

    Greed can drive a scientist to shade his/her data to fit the agenda of those giving out the next grant.

    Greed can drive an activist to bend the truth to sensationalize their agenda and increase donations.

    Greed can drive the political consultant to apply his/her skills to supporting a candidate whose agenda is destructive to liberty, since he/she gets paid just for winning. And one would have to be blind to not see the greed … not only monetary, but for power and influence … among the customers of these consultants, on both Left and Right.

    If greed is demanding the honest earnings of another for your own use, when you can honestly earn what you need yourself, then even many of our “needy”, are greedy … but that is anathema to those who believe responsibility is purely a function of pocket depth, whose Bibles only contain two verses: “where much is given, much is required” and “we, the enlightened, will set the requirements”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good points, Ritchie.

  • David

    A short essay by F. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False”, finds individualism in the Adam Smith tradition to have been a “product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual mind which induces an attitude of humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals create things greater than they know”. In other words, individuals pursuing what they perceive to be their rational self interest through voluntary exchanges in a free market will often be drawn together in cooperation, producing social benefits they didn’t previously anticipate (the Invisible Hand). In contrast, the Continental school exemplified by Rousseau, according to Hayek produces an individualism that is “the product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it” which is the calling card of the acolytes of the bureaucratic, administrative state. Vietnam, Medicare, US Dept. of Ed, etc.

    • Charlie

      Wise of you to bring Hayek to bear on this discussion, David. I would only add that I never felt the Rousseau school leads to individualism so much as to mandarinism. It usually takes the form of a would-be elite believing that *they* have powers of individual reason that justify a higher station for themselves. Add in a socialist’s disdain for profit, and you have a great example in our current Progressive bureaucratic bloc in Washington, DC, and in Blue State capitals and urban centers.

  • J.P.

    So the only morality to counter the socialism of the hippies is “Judeo-Christian” ethics?
    Thank you for summing up the reason why what passes for “conservatism” nowadays won’t and can’t beat the socialist morality, Mr. Dalrymple.
    The solution to our ethical, political and economic problems is NOT to be found between two philosophies founded on the notion that I am my brother’s keeper. That isn’t very “individualistic” nor “exceptional”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Nowhere did I imply that *only* the Judeo-Christian ethic can counter socialism. Yet, historically here in the United States, that was the ethic.

      • http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/ reliapundit

        Hippies were drawn to Hinduism and Buddhism and rejected Judeo-Christian ethics in part because this was the postmodern plan of attack.

        Postmodernists taught the West was the source of all sexual repression and all ecological disasters and pollution and most of history’s genocide and Third World poverty. ALL ARE FALSE. But the New left and the Hippies bought in to it – and the OWS crowd believes it to this day.

        The Enlightenment, democracy, the scientific method, human rights – all the things that make modern life great and good and fun and prosperous and healthy and long-lived – all derive from the West. And Natural Law was the bedrock upon which all this was built. God endowed each of us with a soul and Reason and we could use that reason to discover the design and laws of God’s Universe. And to devise a fair and just system of organizing human society.

        When the New left and the Hippies – under the tutelage of the postmodernists – rejected Natural Law, they rejected the West and all the values and institutions that sprung from it.

        Like marriage. They once rejected it and embraced communes; now, they seek to apply is to homosexual couples and soon, no doubt, polyamory. These seemingly opposite tacks are in fact two sides of the same coin: each in its own way seeks to demolish the traditional 3000 year old Western institution based on Natural Law.

        Gay marriage is not an expansion of liberty – and American values; it’s an expansion of libertinage and anti-West postmodern values.

    • http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/ reliapundit

      Natural law ain’t Hindu or Buddhist or Zoroastrian or Confucian. Sorry that truth makes you uncomfortable.

      Without Natural Law liberty devolves into libertinage for everyone can do what is right in their own eyes and there is no basis for society to constrain it except ruthless majoritarianism or tyranny..

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    I don’t get why so many hate hippies. But OK. I’m fine with that. I suggest everyone do what I did after I got tired of hippie. Join an outlaw MC gang. That will be SO much better for society.

    You want a perfect world? Pass laws and enforce them with guns. That will insure perfection or death. Of course there might be a little problem when the enforcers run out of hippies.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    As a one time hippie I can tell you for a fact that the biggest driver of the phenomenon was the pogrom on the hippies. Go back and watch Easy Rider again if you want to get the Zeitgeist of the era. Or Bob Segar’s song that starts something like “on a cold and lonesome highway east of Omaha”. Ah. “Turn The Page”

    Why would the hippies feel bad about stealing from a society that had declared war on them?

    My dear Theodore – look to your own heart to find the cause of your troubles.

    • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

      That should be Timothy not Theodore. My apologies.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I forgive you. Because I’m so hateful, or something.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      To respond to your several posts: I don’t hate the hippies. Not at all. The “hippies” bit is a little tongue in cheek; I’m really speaking of something broader than that. But I find hippies too amusing, adorable and cuddly-wuddly to hate them. I’m not the kind of person who’s inclined to hatred anyway. I place the blame for quite a few things on failures within the modern church, and it hardly means I hate the modern church.

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

    Or to put it so simply that even you might understand. Hate is a deadly sin.

    • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/ M. Simon

      The more you hate the more the thieves multiply. YOU are not the innocent you pretend to be. Wrapping yourself in Jesus will not save you from your hate.

    • http://astuteblogger.blogspot.com/ reliapundit

      hating evil is a good thing especially if the evil doers are murderous.

  • Joe

    I would probably have been a hippie if we could have kept our nose out of Vietnam and I’d had the time. Some of my friends were pretty much hippies, well as much as you could be a hippie and still live in Kentucky. Most of them grew out of it and the ones that didn’t have never bothered anyone that I know of. Well they can be a bit aggravating with all that food cooperative shopping and really crappy music selection.

    Hippies, like whiskey, get a lot of blame for things they didn’t do. The really nasty individuals from that era mostly disguised themselves as hippies but only used the real hippies to cover their tracks.


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