July 5, 2012 columns

The Upside of Freedom

Boaz explores the connection between cultural freedom and economic freedom.

Kurt Andersen has an odd Independence Day op-ed at the New York Times, deploring the spread of freedom in modern America. Now you might think that six days after the Supreme Court upheld a government takeover of health care is an odd time to worry about excessive freedom. Still, as I’ve written in the past, we do indeed see some libertarian trends in our modern world. Andersen begins:

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? [And, ahem, with the federal budget having risen only from $118 billion in 1965 to $3,795 billion in 2012.]

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.

Well, he has a point. There is a connection between greater freedom for women and gays and “rock ‘n’ roll” and greater freedom for entrepreneurs. And people have been complaining about moves in the direction of freedom since, well, since Kurt Andersen and I were young. And indeed earlier.

In 1973 the British journalist Samuel Brittan wrote a brilliant essay titled “Capitalism and the Permissive Society,” which is included in his book by that name and in The Libertarian Reader. He noted that in recent decades the advocates of personal freedom and of economic freedom have often found themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, with supporters of economic liberty lining up with Republicans or the British Conservative party and those who defend civil liberties and personal freedom becoming Democrats or Labour party supporters. In the 18th and 19th centuries no such distinction was made, and those who favored freedom — both personal and economic — were found in the liberal movement. The logical connection among various liberties remains, however, and in that essay Brittan argued that “competitive capitalism is the biggest single force acting on the side of what it is fashionable to call ‘permissiveness,’ but what was once known as personal liberty.” He pointed out that although capitalists and the young people of the Sixties regarded each other as the enemy, both the market economy and the “counterculture” were based on the idea of “doing your own thing.”

Since that time, a spirit that is at once libertarian and simply indifferent to government has developed in America. As Mark Lilla wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1998, few political analysts have come to terms with the fact that the Sixties and the Eighties happened in the same generation. Many of the same people were involved in the antiwar movement or the counterculture in the 1960s, the personal liberation and self-help movements of the 1970s, and the entrepreneurial upsurge of the 1980s. All those phenomena pointed toward the weakening of traditional authority structures and an increase in individualism and self-reliance.

Similarly, Brink Lindsey described a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book, The Age of Abundance.

Where Andersen goes wrong, of course, is in deploring these outcroppings of freedom in American life. When people take seriously the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he calls it “self-gratification” and “every man for himself.” He writes:

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.

Another way to put it is that we insist on our right to pursue happiness in our own ways, whether for each of us that means enjoying a career outside the home, marrying the person you love, reading what you want, smoking what you want, building a business, or keeping the money you earn.

Americans who actually appreciate the Declaration of Independence call it self-reliance, minding your own business, staying out of unnecessary wars, and raising everyone’s standard of living by pursuing your own profit. Andersen is sort of right: “For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors,” freedom is desired. And freedom works.