Baby-boomer generation misunderstands freedom
ON WEDNESDAY, US Independence Day, in an op-ed piece, “The Downside of Liberty”, in the New York Times, the novelist Kurt Andersen recalled a question posed by an audience member when he addressed the Woodstock Writers Festival last spring: “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?”
It’s a baby-boomers’ question and Andersen, born in 1954, responded in what most baby-boomers would regard as a counter-revolutionary manner. “What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late 1960s isn’t contradictory or incongruous,” he observed. “It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians, as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.”
Laying into greed and hedonism with equal fervour, Andersen approvingly quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Self-love is no part of morality.”
He described the “tacit grand bargain” forged following the 1960s revolution “between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed”, leading to the outright unleashing of American individualism.
“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, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.”
The right, he noted, blames the 1960s for anything-goes sexuality, multiculturalism etc, whereas the left regards the 1960s as delivering freedoms now unambiguously defined as progress. “But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967.”
Though Andersen’s sketch is broadly accurate, his short-circuiting into moralising about greed and selfishness risks a misdiagnosis. The problem is less straightforward but more fundamental.
At the heart of both the capitalist system and the libertarianism which nowadays underlies most conventional notions of social progress lies a misunderstanding of human freedom. With the capitalist the misunderstanding is self-interestedly deliberate; with the 1960s revolutionary it is hypocritical.
Far from countercultural, the listed objectives of the 1960s “idealists” are the dark matter of the modern consumer society, fuelling notions of “rights” and “equality” which in turn propel the economic system onward to wherever it thinks it’s going.
The 1960s placed at the centre of western culture the idea that the shortest path to satisfaction was along a straight line between instinctual desire and its intuited target. Freedom was the enjoyment of what came naturally and the handbook suggested that this came without consequences once you shook off the guilt imposed by grey-bearded naysayers from whose grasp society and its instruments had been snatched.