The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why toxic politics thrives in an age of plenty

John Maynard Keynes, right, and Lady Keynes relax beside a hotel swimming pool in Savannah, Ga., in 1946. (AP)

Progress, a wit once said, was fine for a while but it went on too long. America’s most pressing problem today — toxic politics — might derive from the fact that humanity has solved what hitherto had been its perennial, dominating problem.

In 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression and of a decade that would end with the beginning of the worst of wars, a great economist wrote an essay (“Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”) of ambivalent cheerfulness. John Maynard Keynes said the economic problem, “the struggle for subsistence,” was approaching solution. Another century of growth — by around now — would mean that “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares … to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

So, material plenty deprives humanity of what had been its unavoidable preoccupation. This would be a problem, Keynes wrote, that could plunge society into something akin to a “nervous breakdown.” Brink Lindsey says that Americans who think Keynes was mistaken should look around.

Lindsey, director of the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center, a center-right Washington think tank, notes that Keynes thought that the average workweek would shrink to 15 hours. And Lindsey wonders why anyone would welcome a world devoid of striving, ambition and “future-oriented purposiveness of any sort.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, indulging in progressive utopianism, insisted that “necessitous men are not free.” If so, freedom is the absence of necessity. But living beyond necessities is not enticing: Surmounting necessities is a source of life’s meaning and satisfaction.

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Aldous Huxley, in his novel “Brave New World,” published two years after Keynes’s essay, anticipated difficulty prodding the masses into purchasing the material bounties that mass production would provide. Well. Insufficient consumption — too much deferral of gratification; excessive concern about the long term — is not an American problem. Americans are consuming $1 trillion more annually in government goods and services than they are willing to pay for with taxes as opposed to borrowing — debts that others will pay.

Although Keynes was wrong about the future abundance of leisure, Lindsey thinks he was right about two things: the fecundity of capitalism, and the challenge of defining purposes beyond the goal of acquiring material necessities.

At the end of the 1950s, the number of Americans enrolled in colleges surpassed the number of farmers: Adults tethered to the vagaries of markets and the weather were outnumbered by privileged young people. More than six decades on, Lindsey is worried:

“Reported unhappiness is on the rise, and mental health problems are surging. Morbid obesity is becoming normal … IQ scores have begun falling. Marriage and childbearing and personal friendships and community involvement are all becoming less common. … We now have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but the social authority of that knowledge has fallen into embattled retreat while conspiracy theories and mass delusions fill the vacuum … Where once workplace solidarity and tight-knit social relationships were compensations for lower economic standing, now the new class divide leaves those outside the elite increasingly atomized and adrift. … In the industrial era, workers had it much tougher physically, but the status of the working class in social estimation was incomparably higher than today.”

Lindsey’s list of social ills does not include the one that is the most debilitating because it impedes addressing the others: the poisonous politics of rivalrous grievances. A politics of distributional conflict — who gets what from whom — is banal, but it is better than today’s politics of cultural contempt and score-settling: who gets even with whom. Today’s political conversation is dominated by tone-setting minority factions who would be improved by banality.

The politics of grasping is unlovely, but not as ugly as politics treated as a mode of cultural bullying and disparagement. As memories of subsistence struggles recede, people who are no longer necessitous are indeed free — free to use politics for unpleasant self-expression. Their default mentality is anger, which reminds them that they are alive.

“The effect of liberty to individuals,” said Edmund Burke, “is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.” The fundamental economic problem of attaining subsistence having been banished by plenty, many hyper-politicized Americans have filled the void in their lives with the grim fun of venting their animosities. This would not have surprised Peter De Vries, the wittiest American writer since Mark Twain: “Human nature is shabby stuff, as you may know from introspection.”