Posted: June 13, 2008
f liberalism were a stock, its price couldn't be lower. For decades "liberal" has been the most potent pejorative in politics. Not only conservative Republicans but also those of the center have pronounced the word with a sneer. Fox News wouldn't be Fox-y without liberals to attack. But it's really progressives and descendants of the New Dealers who have given liberalism a bad name. There is much in true liberalism, classical liberalism, to be valued, even by conservatives. This liberalism stands for free markets and free individuals and includes responsibilities along with rights. It is this liberalism that inspired Britain to repeal its Corn Laws and lead the world to freer trade. William Wilberforce gave his life to fighting and winning a liberal cause, halting the maritime slave trade. True liberalism, in Lincoln's words, is "the principle of ‘Liberty to all'—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and by consequence, enterprise and industry to all."
In a perceptive new history of postwar America, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, Brink Lindsey aims to recover that good liberalism. Lindsey is vice president for research at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. But he thinks that "liberal" is a better, broader word than "libertarian," the derivative stub of a philosophy to which so many have retreated. As he put it recently on his website, "I'm a libertarian because I'm a liberal." Ron Paul's presidential campaign has been successful by Libertarian Party standards, but it has also reminded us of the limits of modern libertarianism. Lindsey, whose ideas the New Republic magazine describes as "liberaltarianism," has much to offer the American political conversation.
* * *
Lindsey's thesis is that we got our postwar prosperity through our old-fashioned liberalism—the pre-Franklin Roosevelt variety, which was still about the individual. But Roosevelt succeeded in appropriating the term "liberal" to make it mean almost the opposite—not about the individual but the group. Roosevelt's New Deal systematically cultivated and connected to various interest groups—senior citizens, labor, farmers, and others—rewarding them financially and politically with largesse that flowed from Washington. With the victory of the New Deal, the liberal label came to be owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Left and center that voted Democratic. When New York intellectual Lionel Trilling's collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, appeared in 1950, the cognoscenti recognized it for what it was—a declaration of intellectual and political monopoly. Only non-conservatives were liberal, and only they had imagination. This September the book will be republished by NYRB [New York Review of Books] Classics, a sort of renewal of intellectual copyright.
Lindsey's gift is to remind us that though the word was lost, the spirit and the substance remained. In exquisite detail he portrays the desert liberalism that grew strong in the Southwest even as New York marginalized itself as a town of Social Democrats and pragmatists. The Sunbelt's emergence was the expression of a desire to create a land where the individual ruled and the New Deal merely hung tiny on the horizon. As Lindsey reminds us, Barry Goldwater, "Mr. Conservative," had a broad liberal streak. His most famous utterance, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," was language worthy of Wilberforce.
What we remember of Goldwater is that Lyndon Johnson trounced him for that utterance. Liberals of the Roosevelt kind were scathing: "When in all our history," queried historian Richard Hofstadter, "has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus ever gotten so far?" But as Lindsey reveals, one reason Hofstadter and others were so vicious may have been that their own collectivist liberalism saw a threat in the individualist liberalism of Goldwater. And the appeal of Mr. Conservative's liberalism was stronger than the collectivists were willing to concede. In 1960, Lindsey notes, Richard Nixon received campaign contributions from 40,000-50,000 individual donors. JFK's donors numbered half that. Goldwater, in 1964, got some 650,000 individual gifts. This at a time when no modern campaign-finance laws required that gifts be small. As direct-mail expert Richard Viguerie has pointed out, an "estimated four million men and women took an active part in the [Goldwater] campaign, contacting millions more."
At the same time, the business world was feeling its own liberal oats. William Shockley, the head of Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, California, had won a Nobel Prize. A dictatorial boss, he was expected to have a lock on engineering talent. But in 1957, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and colleagues escaped to form Fairchild Semiconductor. To mark its difference from Shockley, Fairchild created a liberal format—each of the eight founders owned an equal share of the company, and each received stock options. Noyce had the freedom to create the first silicon integrated circuit. Fairchild, of course, begat Intel, led by Andy Grove. Many authors have described this chain of events, but few have situated it politically as well as Lindsey.
* * *
Lindsey shines light on the entire postwar period, but when he gets to the 1960s and 1970s his analysis is brightest. Conservative history has focused on how many of these Aquarians led the country astray. And Lindsey thoroughly covers that failure, including San Francisco's Summer of Love in 1967. He cites a devastating contemporary description:
Pretty Little 16-year-old middle class chick comes to the Haight to see what it's all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3000 mikes and raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last. The politics & ethics of ecstasy. Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street.
The Summer of Love proved a summer of abuse, and worse. And meanwhile, black gangs partnered with agencies created with Great Society funds to trash the downtowns of cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis. "‘We shall overcome' gave way to ‘Burn, baby, burn,'" writes Lindsey. The Students for a Democratic Society held their last annual convention in June 1969. The radical era came to a formal end with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in Algerian exile and "with...Timothy Leary and Charles Manson side by side in a cage"-Section 4-A of Folsom State Prison. The average family never went that far into the dark, but it still had to deal with the consequences of books like The Courage to Divorce, published in 1974, counseling "no reason is sound enough to keep a crummy relationship together." In 1965, the total number of divorces was 480,000; within a decade it was a million.
As others have noted before Lindsey, strong counterforces were already at work to limit the damage. Even as the Summer of Love was taking shape in chemically-altered minds, a crowd of 18,000 came together in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to dedicate Oral Roberts University. Billy Graham gave the dedication address, titled "Why I Believe in Christian Education." Though San Francisco's moment was historic, today it can be argued that Tulsa's had just as lasting an effect on American culture.
Lindsey, no curmudgeon, recognizes a good side to the Aquarian awakening: "At the center of its wide-ranging and varied enthusiasms was the urge to widen the horizons of American life." Americans with widened horizons discovered, for example, sports: the number of tennis players tripled between 1970 and 1975; bicycle purchases rose.
* * *
In biology, scientists speak of "encephalization," the growth of relative brain size of a species as it evolves. The labor market, Lindsey suggests, likewise encephalized liberally in the postwar years as ours became a service economy. Liberalism gave Bill Gates license to drop out and Steve Jobs license to experiment. As Jim Warren, who founded the West Coast Computer Faire, would note, the personal computer "had its genetic coding in the 1960s," which was to say "antiestablishment, antiwar, pro-freedom, antidiscipline attitudes."
Lindsey's picture suggests it was no accident that the inventor of junk bonds was a product of Berkeley. Michael Milken moved from there to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and from Wharton to inventing his new source of capital to fuel Silicon Valley inventions. Milken's essential and very liberal insight was that greater risks for capital were worth it—that liberal forgiveness might help the country grow faster. It's true that Milken, like Leary and Manson, did time in prison, but his essential gift was no fraud. As of 2002, there were $650 billion in outstanding junk bonds. Milken's bonds powered the rise of both CNN and MCI. Such factors in turn gave the country Moore's Law—that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip doubles every 18 months. They also led to the high productivity growth that carried the nation through the 1990s and all the way into the current decade, when granny glasses and V.W. Beetles have reappeared as part of the 1960s nostalgia boom.
As Lindsey points out, these new enterprises stood in stark contrast to smoke-belching, union-bound companies like Bethlehem Steel. There Roosevelt's labor legacies yielded overpaid workers and overpaid bosses. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society helped to produce a working class insensitive to the opportunity of innovation. One of those to pick up on all this was Ronald Reagan. He was no Aquarian, and he fought for law and order. But Reagan also understood the importance of growth, innovation, and individual liberty. And, of course, he could be as tough as Goldwater—or for that matter, Coolidge—with the unions.
Lindsey's conclusion is that today "the broad center of American public opinion is a kind of implicit libertarian synthesis, one which reaffirms the core disciplines that underlie and sustain the modern lifestyle while making much greater allowances for variations within that lifestyle." How wide those variations should be is eminently debatable, even among classical liberals, but his open optimism stands in contrast to the darkness that, say, Judge Robert Bork conjures in Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996). In the 2008 election many conservatives know what they are against, but not necessarily what they are for. Lindsey provides the evidence for what many of us sense to be that mysterious next idea: liberalism, our liberalism. As he ably demonstrates, non-Democrats too are quite capable of Liberal Imagination.