Unbound on Abundance

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Cato Unbound is hosting a lively discussion of Cato Scholar and reason Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey's book, The Age of Abundance. Julian Sanchez–also a reason contributing editor–isn't buying the link between a chicken in every pot and a libertarian awakening in every soul:

Even granting that there is something of a libertarian streak in America's public political culture, Lindsey's projection that this will persist and, indeed, expand in the future is tied to his account of how mass affluence promotes these attitudes. (At least some doubt should be cast on this by the gulf in attitudes between Americans and their European counterparts, which seems unlikely to be explained entirely, or even primarily, by our greater wealth.) Implicit in this assertion is the idea that, ceteris paribus, we will only become more libertarian as we get wealthier. Yet it is easy to come up with a variety of equally plausible counter-narratives.

In his book, Lindsey invokes Maslow's Pyramid, a hierarchy of human needs people seek to satisfy lexically: As our basic survival and security become better assured, we are increasingly driven by our desires for social belonging, self-esteem, creative expression, and self-actualization. Consider the environmental Kuznets Curve as one manifestation of this. Industrializing economies produce increasing amounts of pollution up to a point, but once a certain level of general wealth is achieved, people begin to value environmental quality above economic growth at some margin, and pollution decreases. Perhaps that's all to the good, but it's also a clear way in which greater wealth makes people more disposed to sacrifice the productive power of unfettered markets in the name of other values. It's rare to find a call for an expansion of government social programs that isn't prefaced by some equivalent of: "Surely the richest country in the world can afford…" Matt Yglesias cites a column in Reason by Nick Gillespie on the different kinds of "freedom" available in low-tax Kansas and regulation-happy Manhattan. Gillespie notes that he, and many others, seem to prefer the latter.

Whole thing, including crucifixion joke, here; Lindsey's reason cover story on "hippies and evangelicals" here.

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  1. Cross posted from a comment from me at julian’s Lounge:

    Julian seems dead on to me. I raise my eyebrows constantly when libertarians claim to be some sort of sleeping giant out there based on polling or Ron Paul having more money than John McCain or whathave you.

    The salient question for me is, How many people are motivated to political or even social action by their libertarian values? Uh … not many.

    This kind of, I don’t know, delusion? bothers me because I think it redirects libertarians into rabbit holes. We can be effective in the arena of policy because we share certain specific policy goals with people who aren’t libertarians. If you pretend that those people are libertarians, you wind up A) writing how shocked you are that they didn’t act like libertarians after all and B) acting like libertarians are going win elections and bring about a sweeping revolution.

  2. I just weighed in on Brink Lindsey’s initial essay, but focused on a secondary theme running through it – libertarian political impotence – example:

    “There are some obvious objections to the idea of a libertarian center. First, as I stated at the outset, there is no libertarian political movement to speak of. Accordingly, there is no organized libertarian-leaning constituency that could ally with either conservatives or liberals to alter the balance of power. Rather, at best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions.” – BL

    I took issue with his essentially pessimistic outlook for practical political libertarian influence, while invoking an optimistically rosy view of the size of what he calls the “liberarianish center”.

    Net..net – I link to Nick, Jacob, and many other practical libertarians who called for Divided Government last fall, can arguably claim to be a factor in making it happen, and now (as Jacob Sullum did here), point to the positive consequences of divided government since January.

    From my reaction post:

    Curing libertarian political impotence – a prescription for Electile Dysfunction:

    “This blog was one of many “libertarian leaning” voices to call for that divided government vote, including, Jacob Sullum, Jon Henke, Stephen Slivinski, Ron Bailey, Nick Gillespie, Doug Bandow, Warren Meyer, Alex Knapp, Bruce McQuain, Bruce Bartlett, Jane Galt and, of course, the godfather of Divided Government politics – William Niskanen. I could go on, there were plenty more. That drumbeat beget mainstream media attention, and it worked. Even better, our shiny new divided government is delivering on exactly the libertarian objectives that we hoped it would. Unlike Brink Lindsey I’m practically giddy with optimism. If it worked once, it can work twice. As clear as it was in 2006 that the only way to secure divided government was voting Democratic, it is just as clear that the only way to maintain divided government in 2009 is to elect a Republican president in 2008. So that is the plan. We just need libertarians to get back on the bandwagon and start beating the divided government drum again.

  3. I’d think it obvious that wealthier societies demand higher levels of government “service.”

    We also become less tolerant of “the poor” and demand that the government “fix it.”

    Wealthy, decadent people demand safety, more than freedom.

    Queue security cameras.

  4. I thinks Lindsey’s book is more interesting for it’s analysis of the effects of affluence then his conclusion that we’re trending libertarian. And he does a good job of explaining the increasing polarization and impotence of the existing parties.

    But what he sees as libertarian I think is more just apathy on the part of most Americans. Washington probably seems more remote than ever to them, and they view the possibility of government solutions to our problems more with cynicism than skepticism.

  5. I think Lindsay had the kernel of a good idea and went WAAAAAYYYY to far with it. The clearest victories for libertarians have been on social issues, which, I think, can be entirely accounted for by prosperity. As people and society in general gets richer, the social costs of “immoral” sex and drugs gets substantially less. For example, back in the day when every hand was needed on the farm or the family would starve, homosexuality, which deprived the family of more children to carry on the farm, was a serious threat to survival. Now, it’s not such an issue. Same with women’s independence. There is some evidence, which I’m too lazy to link to, that women in hunting and gathering societies had more rights than in agricultural ones. Farming is heavy work, which women can’t do that well, especially when pregnant. Farming societies need more people, so women have more babies and are, consequently, much weaker physcially and socially.

    Once the industrial revolution made starvation something that happens in remote equatorial regions, people cared less and less about other people’s sex lives. This is also one where an alliance with liberals proved productive and popular.

    Certain economic issues have potential in this regard. I strongly oppose agricultural subsidies, for lots of reasons including my liberal fondness for organic meat, fresh vegetables, wilderness preservation, and small farmers. When people still remembered the Depressions, farm price supports were unassailably popular. Now, with the rise of us snobby liberal foodies, willing to spend more for locally-grown goodies produced by farmers that don’t get a dime from USDA, ditching price supports is an easier sell.

  6. With regard to Maslow, you have to imagine the system itself operating at higher and higher levels. For example, who would have ever thought that eupsychian economics would actually replace capitalism!

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