HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 9, 2007
From Liberty Street

Neverland

John Turner


Whenever I get a chance to observe right-wing intellectuals describing the state of the world or prescribing what needs to be done to make it better, I find myself bathed in a cloud of unreality so thick and sticky it's hard to clear my throat. My most recent experience of that sort came when I watched a Book TV program recorded on May 30th of this year at the Cato Institute. In it, Brink Lindsey, who calls himself a libertarian, talked about his book, The Age of Abundance and then David Brooks, the New York Times columnist commented on what he said.

Mr. Lindsey advanced the theory that in America almost everything is peachy because here we have more consumer goods than any people has ever had in history. Even those we call poor have more consumer goods than affluent people used to have, and in Lindsey's view of things the possession of numerous consumer goods is, by far, the most important measure of human well-being. He admitted that we are experiencing the slight drawback of what he called a dysfunctional underclass, but that shouldn't interfere with our celebration of "how incredibly lucky we are." Rich people, he proclaimed, are happy people and by the only valid definition of richness we Americans are in the stratosphere.

After he had finished, Mr. Brooks got up and said he agreed with eighty percent of Lindsey's book. His reservations mostly had to do with the effects of culture, which Brooks finds more significant than Lindsey does. He proclaimed that for most people the cultural wars are over. Only small stripes on the extreme left and right care anything about those issues. We are in the process of moving away from individualism towards the values of the tribe, and in Mr. Brooks's view that's a good thing. But there are some problems. Social mobility here is now no greater than it is in Europe and we are not investing as much in human capital -- by which he appears to mean the ability to make money -- as we should. For example, thirty percent of high school students drop out before they graduate. What Mr. Books wants is a Hamiltonian state in which government shifts culture in the direction of human capital development. He admitted that changing culture is hard but said that government, by employing intelligent programs, can do it.

Both men made some interesting points, and pointed to other scholars whose work, they said, bolstered their own theses. But the most noticeable feature of their presentations was that neither seemed to have the slightest interest in America's being a part of a larger world. To the degree the rest of humankind figured in their talk it was simply for the sake of comparing how badly off others are compared to us.

Not a word was said about the principal problems confronting us now.

There was no mention of the natural environment and its continuous degrading by the processes of production they both extolled. Listening to them, one would have to assume there is no natural world that affects and supports human life.

Nobody said anything about the militarization of American political life, nor the vast expenditure necessary to keep it functioning. And there was not a breath about how American militarism influences the views held by the rest of the world about our nation. In truth, the sense you got from both Lindsey and Brooks was that the opinions of anyone outside our borders are completely insignificant.

Our runaway national debt didn't arise. The flood of consumer goods which are washing away all our problems appeared in their minds to have no cost. It was as though they're free. Certainly, nobody said they're being paid for by borrowing from people who aren't bathed in affluence quite as much as we are.

There was not a hint that the overall health of the American people declines each year compared to people in western Europe and even compared to some people considered to be still firmly embedded in the Third World. It seemed that sickness is not a human problem in the minds of these thinkers.

One was left with the implication that self-congratulation is the only valid American way to think. To mention difficulties is somehow a betrayal of the national culture. The only valid beliefs are that America leads the way, that America is universally admired, that everyone in the world would like to live in America if they could, and barring that, to transform their countries into close imitations of America, and above all, that Americans should love themselves unreservedly simply because they are Americans, and that everyone else should love them too.

Maybe. But, still, there is the little matter of truth. And one might find the right-wing vision more compelling if promoters of complete and total American superiority showed a bit more interest in it than they do.


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