The New York Times marked Independence Day in its usual dismal fashion, with editor-novelist Kurt Andersen's op-ed, "The Downside of Liberty," claiming that the "libertarian coin" "minted around 1967" has made Americans shamelessly selfish. (It's the second-most emailed Times story as of noon Thursday.)
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. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.
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.
Andersen strangely skips racism in his paean to the good old days:
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. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré -- but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.
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.
Apparently freedom is good for young artistic lefties, but not ambitious, business-oriented righties.
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.