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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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