Former Spy-editor-turned-novelist-and-serioso-public-radio-dj Kurt Andersen bemoaned "the downside of liberty" in yesterday's New York Times. In high baby boomer dudgeon (Wikipedia says he was born in 1954), Andersen manages to blame the emergence of casual Fridays and runaway public pensions on – what else! – libertarianism run amok:
"Do your own thing" is not so different than "every man for himself." If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed "Me" Decade, having expanded during the '80s and '90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the "Me" Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late '60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the '60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. 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.
If this is what passes for meaningful social analysis by our graybeards, we are about to enter a North Korea-style famine when it comes to sage wisdom. Note that Andersen dates the current trend line to 1967 (the boomer touchstone year of Sgt. Pepper's when we could at long last hear colors and smell sounds and yadda yadda!) and rummages through his junk-drawer of complaints (declines in necktie wearing, public-sector worker getting titanium-plated benefits, globalized trade, increasing gun rights) to paint a dire picture of a "Me Half-Century."
Please, majorities of Americans favor pot legalization and gay marriage – this is selfish or a problem how exactly? "Moving factories overseas" somehow contributed to the single-biggest economic boom in any of our lifetimes by facilitating job-producing trade that lead to levels of employment unthinkable in the 1970s. For all the Gotham-centric invocations of firearm fears, violent crimes are at recorded lows. And the problem with the financial crisis wasn't that commercial banks became "financial speculators" – it was that the folks in charge knew all along that their pals in Washington would bail them out. Gay Pride parades and my disinterest in wearing collared shirts had very little to do with that.
There's a world of difference between, say, actually deregulating airline ticket prices (everybody won on that one, as even Ralph Nader, who helped make it happen, would attest) and rigging taxpayer-financed retirements and private-sector bailouts. And as much as I always recoiled from Marlo Thomas' Free to Be… franchise, lifestyle liberation has very little to answer for other than some bad concept albums.
If Andersen can get past his phobia of libertarians, he would do well to read up on public-choice economics, which predicts perfectly precisely what happened in the fall of 2008 and provides a road map to a different, effective form of regulation (otherwise known as eating their losses). But don't you see, Andersen would retort, that capitalists are more free than ever "to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium"? Except for the record number of regulations passed during the George W. Bush years, he might be on to something.
And as Veronique de Rugy and I point out in the latest issue of Reason (not yet online), we're not all equally selfish.
That mantle actually belongs to the main beneficiaries of today's pervasive generational warfare, in which relatively wealthy seniors are pickpocketing relatively poor younger workers via a Social Security program that is already paying negative returns on worker contributions to people retiring in 2010. As for Medicare, the other great age-based entitlement, it's bankrupting the country largely because everybody gets more benefits than they put in. That's why it's the single-largest driver of federal spending and highly unlikely to survive long enough for any of us under 50 to share in the ill-gotten booty.
As a late boomer (I was born in 1963), I grew up in a world that was by high school already teeming with sanctimonious authority figures drawn from the counterculture. They couldn't seem to get through a simple conversation without bemoaning the fate of the world and being preachier than a George Harrison solo record. Andersen inhabits that role fully, chewing the scenery like a post-Godfather Al Pacino:
Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require "correctives which are supplied by education" and by "the moralist, the preacher, and legislator."
On this Independence Day, I'm doing my small preacherly bit.
Didn't God die in like 1966? Next time you put on the collar, padre, please at least take a couple of minutes to collect your thoughts, check the data, and swap out the fat-tip Sharpie for a fine-point pen.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, now out in paperback with a new foreword.