How America's 'Age of Abundance' Has Paved the Road to the 'Pursuit of Happiness'Published: December 06, 2007 in Knowledge@Wharton
Forty years after the Summer of Love, the 1960s are still in style. The Rolling Stones are still looking for satisfaction in packed arenas. The Grateful Dead have their own ice cream flavor. Hair has returned to off-Broadway, hip huggers are back and young Americans are still into peace, love and pot. Our politics, our products and our popular culture all bear the unmistakable marks of the Age of Aquarius, and, as David Brooks observed in his bestselling Bobos in Paradise, we have managed to make -- or market -- our countercultural past into an integral part of our far more staid, strait-laced present.
But the story we tell ourselves about our ties to the 1960s -- and that we reflexively memorialize in everything from our tastes in clothing and music to our attitudes about love and war -- is only half the story of what happened then. It's also only a partial explanation of who we are now.
What we tend not to recall -- or even to know -- is that while flower children flocked to San Francisco during the spring and summer of 1967, a very different sort of symbolic gathering was taking place in Tulsa, Okla. In early April, just three days before Haight-Ashbury hippies held a press conference announcing the Summer of Love, 18,000 people converged on Tulsa for the formal dedication of Oral Roberts University. Attended by government officials, higher education leaders and the Reverend Billy Graham, the ceremony marked the success of modern evangelical Protestantism, giving it a legitimacy that set it apart from the counterculture's own mind-altering spiritual style.
Superficially opposed, the movements exemplified by these events actually had a great deal in common. Both were Great Awakenings formed in the long tradition of American millenarianism, both spoke to young Americans' quest for transcendence and both embraced a rigid idealism that prevented them from achieving the transformative success they craved. As such, countercultural mass consciousness-raising and a charismatic faith healer's move into higher education were two sides of a cultural coin: While the Bay Area worshipped flower power, the Dust Bowl was spreading the Word.
In the U.S., we tend to see ourselves as emerging from one or the other of these histories, depending on our lifestyles and beliefs. But, as Brink Lindsey argues in The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture (Collins), we are all descendants of both. Twenty-first century America is as closely tied to the religious revivalism of Bible Belt America as it is to the Aquarian enthusiasm that bloomed in the Haight; contemporary American culture, Lindsey contends, is a remarkably elastic, if largely unrecognized, synthesis of movements so polarized that they seem to connect only in the acrimonious zone of the culture wars. Moreover, Lindsey argues, we cannot understand ourselves until we grasp the fact that we come from both of these histories -- and that, crucially, they are the same history.
New Dimensions in Freedom
In order to explain this paradoxical premise, Lindsey embarks on an ambitious rewriting of recent American history. Principally concerned with the cultural shifts we have undergone since World War II, The Age of Abundance aims to show how the unprecedented prosperity that the United States has enjoyed since the 1940s has allowed Americans to become the first people in history to find out what freedom really is. His thesis is ultimately centered on the American economy, and involves an imaginative and inspirational account of how our country's thriving market has become an engine for a vibrant new culture of choice and opportunity.
In a swift summary of 20th century American cultural and social progress (rising income, reduced want, lengthening lives, better education, better health care, better standard of living, suburbia, youth culture, rock and roll, sexual revolution, civil rights, Stonewall, self-esteem, tolerance, technology) punctuated by dazzling anecdotal set pieces (Nixon arguing with Khrushchev about washing machines, Charles Manson winning praise from Students for a Democratic Society, Silicon Valley's countercultural roots), Lindsey tells us how, by the 1950s, American culture had moved from a "scarcity-based mentality of self-restraint" to an "abundance-based mentality of self-expression." That move, in turn, enabled Americans to uncover, explore and exploit entirely new dimensions of freedom.
Capitalism, Lindsey argues, made it possible for Americans to climb Abraham Maslow's motivational pyramid, a "hierarchy of needs" that begins with basic physiological requirements (food, sleep, air), passes through safety (security of body, family, property) and belonging (love, family, intimacy), rises to emotional needs based on esteem (self-respect, respect for others, the respect of others), and culminates in self-actualization (personal growth based on morality, creativity, awareness, trust, fairness, love and individualistic expression). In other words, as health improved and lives grew longer, as disposable income increased and daily life came to center on choice, Americans began to be able to devote themselves to the "pursuit of happiness" that was so central to the Founding Fathers' conception of independence.
Material security enabled us to turn our attention inward, Lindsey says, to focus on ambitions, desires, dreams and pleasures. Popular culture rose to the occasion, with new music, new entertainments, new fashions and new distractions. By the middle of the 20th century, there were Mad magazine and Leave it to Beaver, teen angst and drive-in movies, Dr. Spock and the Kinsey Reports. And, as Elvis gyrated and James Dean rebelled, some began to recoil in response to what they saw as a disturbing loss of moral tone. The modern conservative movement thus arose out of the same conditions that created the Age of Aquarius (William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale was published in 1951).
In Lindsey's terms, "mass affluence" triggered a "mirror-image pair of cultural convulsions" in which movements we now associate with the left and the right were born. The left, Lindsey notes, embraced the personal freedoms created by wealth, but rejected the engine of wealth itself, capitalism. The result was its romantic preoccupation with collectivism and its emphasis on tolerance, rights and free expression. By contrast, Lindsey observes, the right embraced capitalism but rejected the manner in which a thriving market inevitably opens up new choices and broadens the range of acceptable behavior. Each movement was, and is, urgently felt and relentlessly advanced, Lindsey notes, but each is ultimately misguided in its failure to comprehend that mass affluence involves both a free market and a free society. As such, they offer "conflicting half-truths" about what America is and ought to be.
Possums, Pizzas and Bow Ties
Instead of taking sides in what is by now a rigid ideological standoff, Lindsey attempts to offer a more rounded and complete story about what America has become. Our polarized politics are a sign of a nation that has yet to understand its own immensely stable, ultimately centrist synthesis of left and right, he contends. The American middle has pragmatically combined parallel appreciations for the free market and the cultural abundance it supplies. At once fiscally conservative and socially liberal, mainstream America represents the real heart of a nation that has found a way to finance a free society organized around almost infinite variety -- one with health food and yoga, therapy and religion, civil unions and sex changes, Wal-Mart and Amazon, MySpace and microwaves, cell phones and laptops, blogs and iPods, home pregnancy kits and soft contact lenses, and societies for every hobby, profession and interest group imaginable, including the Possum Growers and Breeders Association, the Bow Tie Manufacturers Association and the Frozen Pizza Institute.
As the consumer-oriented cast of this list might suggest, the founding premise for Lindsey's exuberant rewriting of American history is that abundance is the prerequisite for freedom. "Liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition," Lindsey explains in apocalyptic language reminiscent of Karl Marx. And in this he is consciously and somewhat ironically reworking Marx's theories, acknowledging how very much the Victorian visionary got right in order to offer a modern libertarian analysis of what he got fundamentally wrong. According to Lindsey, "the realm of freedom came as a new stage of capitalist development"; far from yielding the tranquil utopia of Marx's fantasy, mass affluence unleashed a "clamorous desire" that has not only transformed American culture, but has reshaped our souls.
The vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, Lindsey is a free market advocate whose economic ideals color his understanding of American history. If The Age of Abundance is a bit thesis-driven -- libertarian think tanker writes a book proving that modern American culture is naturally and inevitably libertarian -- it is nonetheless compelling and provocative, a heady mix of detailed anecdote and sweeping analysis that offers us a chance to view our present and our recent past through new eyes.
There is a lingering suspicion in America that prosperity is somehow shameful -- that, like power, it corrupts us absolutely. But, Lindsey notes, that is a sign of just how luxuriously free our wealth has made us. People who can afford to despise the economic system that sustains them are very rich indeed, he observes; so are those who feel free not to tolerate the social choice and cultural expressiveness that comes with mass affluence. But one risk we can all safely take, Lindsey asserts, is to contemplate alternative accounts of who and what we are.
In this, Lindsey's analysis of American history is itself quintessentially American. It hearkens back to the first, hopeful premises of the Founding Fathers, who put life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on a level. It also optimistically reworks the dour admonitions of American thinkers who have contended that the only way to rise above "lives of quiet desperation" is to leave concerns about money and material well-being behind. In post-World War II America, Lindsey argues, material well-being has finally made us free enough to find our own, idiosyncratic paths to contentment. And -- if there are those of us who aren't able or willing to exploit that remarkable opportunity, as there most certainly are -- Lindsey offers an explanation straight out of Ben Franklin's book: All they need to do to get ahead is practice self-discipline.
The Age of Abundance is an artifact of our era, a theory of modern American culture that is also a piece of that culture. Its thoughtful ingenuity and detailed, documentary profusion speak eloquently to the moment of its creation -- which is, we should note, the same moment that brought forth the iPhone, Will Smith's Oscar-contending The Pursuit of Happyness, the Drudge Report and "American Idol". They are, in their own way, testimonials to liberty American-style, in all its quirky, inspired variety. Of course, this is also the moment of Michael Moore's Sicko, skyrocketing college costs, calamitous prophecies of environmental destruction and a crashing housing market -- all of which could be used by an enterprising historian to assemble a very different tale about contemporary American culture's hold on both prosperity and freedom.
But that's an argument for Lindsey's book, not against it. As Lindsey himself points out, how we think about who we are depends on the details we choose to consider, and historical "truths" can be fashioned through compelling stories assembled from facts. Lindsey's is one such story, and, in seeking to set a tone of hope, determination and informed appreciation for the sheer moral and material bounty that liberates latter-day America, it is a timely and necessary one.