Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Excerpt: "The Age of Abundance"

An excerpt from the new book


How Prosperity Transformed
America's Politics and Culture

by Brink Lindsey

Published by the Cato Institute

and reprinted here with permission

ISBN: 0060747668

List Price: $25.95

LFB Price Only $17.50

You Save 33%!

The Age of Abundance is the winner of the May 2007 Lysander Spooner Award for Advancing
the Literature of Liberty. For more information about the Lysander
Spooner Awards, CLICK HERE.

To go to our full review, or to go to purchase the book, CLICK HERE.

The excerpt, below, is the beginning of the Introduction of the book, The Age of Abundance. Enjoy!



How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture

by Brink Lindsey


In the years after World War II, America crossed a great historical threshold. In all prior civilizations and social orders, the vast bulk of humanity had been preoccupied with responding to basic material needs. Postwar America, however, was different. An extensive and highly complex division of labor unleashed immense productive powers far beyond anything in prior human experience. As a result, the age-old bonds of scarcity were broken. Concern with physical survival and security was now banished to the periphery of social life.

To employ, with all due irony, the terminology of Karl Marx, America left behind the "realm of necessity" and entered the "realm of freedom."

Marx, of course, had imagined that this great transformation would be achieved under communism. But the dream of a centrally planned Utopia turned out to be an unrealizable fantasy. Instead, the realm of freedom came as a new stage of capitalist development. And where America led, the rest of the world began to follow. The advanced societies of the English-speaking countries, western Europe, and Japan were closest behind. And in the recent decades of so-called globalization, many less-developed nations, including those of the former communist bloc, have entered or are fast approaching the golden circle of widespread prosperity. Yes, poverty is still a cruel scourge for billions of the world's inhabitants; in those less-fortunate regions of the globe, the path of capitalist development remains strewn with obstacles. Yet there are sound reasons to hope that the realm of freedom will continue to expand, and that one day in the not terribly distant future, the mass affluence that Americans have enjoyed for over a half century will extend around the world. As America's experience makes clear, such a state of affairs would by no means constitute a Utopia. It would, however, represent an immense expansion in the range of life's possibilities and the scope of its promise.

This ongoing revolution cries out for greater attention and understanding. The liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition, one that leaves no aspect of social existence unaffected. As a result, many age-old verities no longer apply: truths and rules that arose and obtained during the 10 millennia when subsistence agriculture was the main business of mankind have been rendered obsolete. We are in uncharted territory. Consequently, we are in need of new maps.

In the six decades since the end of World War II, Americans have been busy exploring the new environs of mass affluence. Those decades have witnessed both exhilarating discoveries and tragic errors, as well as a great deal of blind groping and simple muddling through. There is much to be learned from a careful examination of this accumulated experience—not only about the altered nature and course of American life, but also about the broad direction in which the rest of the world is moving. This book represents an attempt to organize America's experience with mass affluence into some kind of coherent narrative, from which at least some hints for future mapmakers might be gleaned.

"Let me tell you about the very rich," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "They are different from you and me." Indeed they are. Born and raised in the bosom of material plenty, they face an environment far removed from that which confronts the common lot. Living in that rarefied environment, they become adapted to it. And as a result, their motivations, aspirations, morals, and worldviews diverge markedly from those of people who struggle every day in the shadows of deprivation.

While Fitzgerald was referring to the tiny Jazz Age upper crust, his words apply as well to postwar America's affluent society. Living amidst unprecedented material abundance, Americans in the age of abundance have been operating in an environment utterly different from that inhabited by the overwhelming majority of their fellow human beings, past and present. Specifically, the central and abiding imperative of human existence since the dawn of the species—securing the food, shelter, and clothing needed for survival—could now be taken for granted by all but a dwindling minority. As a result, Americans have become a different kind of people.

The story of postwar America is thus the story of adaptation to new social realities. Adaptation, in particular, to mass affluence. At the heart of this process was a change in the basic orientation of the dominant culture: from a culture of overcoming scarcity to one of expanding and enjoying abundance. From a more rigid and repressed social system focused on achieving prosperity to a looser and more expressive one focused on taking wider advantage of prosperity's possibilities. American capitalism is derided for its superficial banality, yet it has unleashed profound, convulsive social change. Condemned as mindless materialism, it has burst loose a flood tide of spiritual yearning. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, environmentalism and feminism, the fitness and health-care boom and the opening of the gay closet, the withering of censorship and the rise of a "creative class" of "knowledge workers"—all are the progeny of widespread prosperity.

Gifted contemporaries caught glimpses of these changes as they were unfolding. At the dawn of the postwar boom, David Riesman, in his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, revealed how economic development was promoting a shift in American social psychology: away from the absolutist "inner-directed" sensibility of the country's Protestant bourgeois tradition, and toward a more relativistic, "other-directed" outlook. Although Riesman was concerned that the new ethos tended toward conformism, he was alert to more liberating possibilities. "The more advanced the technology, on the whole, the more possible it is for a considerable number of human beings to imagine being somebody else," he wrote. "In the first place, the technology spurs the division of labor, which, in turn, creates the possibility for a greater variety of experience and of social character. In the second place, the improvement in technology permits sufficient leisure to contemplate change—a kind of capital reserve in men's self-adaptation to nature—not on the part of a ruling few but on the part of many."

[Footnotes have been omitted.]


To go to our full review, or to go to purchase the book, CLICK HERE.


From The Age of Abundance by Brink Lindsey. Copyright © 2007 by Brink Lindsey. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher.


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