I’ve just come across a strange little piece from Kurt Andersen, founding editor of the brilliantly funny and greatly missed Spy magazine and host of the NPR program “Studio 360.” Writing in the New York Times, Andersen makes the familiar and overwrought argument that the American experiment has gone horribly wrong in the past few decades. While the revolution in social values championed by the 1968 generation emerged triumphant — which he condenses to “women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll” — on the economic front “selfishness won.” This happened, he posits, because anything-goes libertarianism allowed for both unfettered personal and economic liberty. Liberals wanted just one, but got stuck with both.
After the requisite declaration that the Founders would surely have agreed with him, Andersen says that his right-wing parents would be horrified by today’s free market ideologues: “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.” Indeed, everything was better when those on the conservative end of the Republican Party believed an equitable split of earnings between individual and government amounted to fully half of one’s income. But I suspect Andersen fils is confused, and his dad wasn’t a Goldwater or Taft Republican, but a Rockefeller type — which at least sounds greedy and right wing.
He continues, misty-eyed about the good old days of punitive taxes and humble taxpayers: Back in the 1950s, “boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck” was considered “shameful,” Andersen says. With the notable exception of diamond-bedecked rappers and classless reality stars (and the latter exist only as villains for us to jeer at), boasting of one’s wealth is still considered uncouth. Just ask the those newly minted Facebook billionaires, who proudly refused to flaunt their wealth. And its unclear what Andersen means by luckless “unfortunates” — this is deliberately murky writing — but I’m going to guess the general 1950s perceptions of those of long-term welfare recipients (especially minorities) wasn’t particularly progressive.
Everything came unglued in the 1960s, Andersen maintains, when the hyper-individualist hippies supposedly allied with the hyper-individualist capitalists, creating an epidemic of American selfishness. “A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment,” he asserts, “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.” It’s rather extraordinary to claim that a popular front between Wall Street and Haight-Ashbury existed — even “tacitly” — and he offers no substantiating evidence, beyond vapid sloganeering (“ ‘Do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself’ ”).
To crib a line from Bill Buckley, that 1950s conservative who loathed both high taxes and The Beatles, Andersen is a pyromaniac in a field of straw men. His presumption that free market types are motivated by “greed” is a common one — and one that doesn’t acknowledge the many schisms, factions and gradations of the libertarian and conservative movements. Those who believe in the benefits of globalization, from Jagdish Bhagwati to Martin Wolf, and those who marvel at what market economies have accomplished in India, China and Vietnam, are reduced to, in Andersen’s lumpy phrase, “money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires.”
I doubt that Andersen has read much von Mises, Nock or Nozick (the only “libertarian” he name checks, of course, is Rand), but I imagine he’d be slightly annoyed if a critic of liberalism drew no distinctions between, say, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Democratic Party. So allow me to be equally reductionist and ask why, when he complains of companies “moving . . . factories overseas,” does Andersen wish a life of penury upon unemployed Chinese peasants? Does he only care about the poor in America? You see how this sort of reasoning works.
Most of us libertarian types aren’t “money mad” or “greedy,” but believe that the private sector performs most functions better than government can, that lower taxes benefit not just our personal bottom lines, but the overall health of the economy and that free trade has helped more poor people than foreign aid ever did or ever will.
But there is a simpler answer to the larger question Andersen asks (“Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts . . . but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?”): Free market solutions worked far better than the command-and-control ones. The radical economic theories of the soixante-huitards — a good number of French and German student activists were Maoists, after all — quickly imploded when put into practice, usually ending in an orgy of violence, while the Swedish social democratic model, for instance, has become far more market-oriented in the last 25 years, not less.
Andersen clearly hasn’t thought this free market/free love theory through, which he admits came to him as “an epiphany” while answering questions during a panel discussion. Typically, one would work from the evidence towards a unified theory, not the other way around. But Andersen does not seem familiar with the countless scholars who have previously grappled with this question, like the late historian Seymour Martin Lipset whose book “It Didn’t Happen Here” provides a terrific meditation on why socialist political parties foundered in the United States and were successful in Europe — all long before the 1960s.