view | Why toxic politics thrive in an age of plenty

view | Why toxic politics thrive in an age of plenty


Progress, as a wit once said, was good for a while but it lasted far too long. The most pressing problem in America today—toxic politics—may result from the fact that humanity has solved what hitherto has been its perpetual, overriding problem.

In 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression and a decade ending with the beginning of the worst of wars, a great economist wrote an essay (“The Economic Prospects of Our Grandchildren”) of paradoxical delight. John Maynard Keynes said that the economic problem, the “struggle to live”, is nearing a solution. Another century of growth—by this time—will mean that “for the first time since his creation, man will face his real and enduring problem—how to use his freedom from the pressure of economic concerns…to live wisely, agreeably, and well.”

So, material abundance deprives humanity of what has been its inevitable concern. Keynes wrote that this would be a problem that could plunge society into something like a “nervous breakdown”. Brink Lindsay says Americans who think Keynes was wrong should look around.

Lindsey, director of the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank in Washington, noted that Keynes thought the average work week would shrink to 15 hours. And Lindsey wonders why anyone would welcome a world devoid of striving, ambition and “future-oriented goal of any kind”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, immersed in a progressive utopia, insisted that “necessary men are not free.” If so, then freedom is the absence of necessity. But living beyond necessities is not tempting: overcoming necessities is the source of life’s meaning and satisfaction.

Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World, published two years after Keynes’ essay, anticipated the difficulty of getting the masses to buy the material rewards that mass production would afford. we will. insufficient consumption – too much deferral of satiation; Excessive concern about the long term – not an American problem. Americans consume $1 trillion more annually in government goods and services than they are willing to pay in taxes rather than borrowing—a debt that others will pay.

Although Keynes was wrong about the future abundance of leisure, Lindsay believed he was right about two things: the fertility of capitalism, and the challenge of setting goals beyond that of acquiring material necessities.

At the end of the 1950s, Americans enrolling in colleges outnumbered farmers: adults tied to market fluctuations and weather outnumbered by privileged young men. More than six decades later, Lindsey worries:

“Reported cases of unhappiness are on the rise, and mental health problems are on the rise. Morbid obesity is becoming normal… IQ scores are beginning to decline. Marriage, childbearing, personal friendships, and community involvement are all less common… We now have all the world’s knowledge in within our reach, but the social power of that knowledge has fallen into an embattled decline as conspiracy theories and collective delusions fill the void… where once workplace solidarity and tight-knit social relations were compensation for low economic standing, now a new class divide leaves those outside the elite Increasingly loose and quiet… In the industrial age, workers were physically tougher, but the position of the working class was incomparably higher in social esteem than today.”

Lindsey’s list of social ills does not include those most debilitating because they impede the treatment of others: the toxic politics of competing grievances. The politics of distributive conflict – who gets what from – is trite, but it is better than today’s politics of cultural pejorative and settling scores: who gets even with whom. Today’s political conversation is dominated by the tone-setting minority factions that could be bettered by platitudes.

Holding the policy is unpopular, but not as egregious as treating the policy as a pattern of cultural bullying and disparagement. As memories of subsistence struggles recede, people who are no longer essential are truly free — free to use politics for unpleasant self-expression. Their default mentality is anger that reminds them that they are alive.

Edmund Burke said: “The effect of liberty on individuals is that they may do as they like. We must see what they will be pleased to do, before we risk being congratulated.” After the basic economic problem of subsistence had been banished by many, many hyper-politicized Americans filled the void in their lives with the grim pleasure of venting their animosities. This would not have surprised Peter de Vries, the most brilliant American writer since Mark Twain: “Human nature is a threadbare thing, as you learn from introspection.”

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