Yes, It Got Better

Jul 12 2011 @ 1:40pm

by Alex Massie A reader takes issue with my suggestion that the last forty years have, on the whole, been pretty good ones:

I guess you are just too young to remember the really good times.  40 years ago, 1971: 3 years after LBJ said “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the country.”  4 years before the helicopter on the roof.  The first of the country’s now-long list of wasteful and losing wars.  9 years before the economic assault on the middle class began under Reagan,  and the ongoing “creative destruction” where the top ten percent has reaped the benefits of the creation and the bottom ninety percent has borne the burden of the destruction.  Nice goddam 40 years you’ve picked.
 
When I was growing up, there actually was a middle class and it was huge. The wealth was immense, and it was widely shared, at least by white people.  I won’t get into how Nixon’s southern strategy turned the progress of African-Americans into something to be feared and resented by GOP voters.  Politicians of both parties courted the center, and were civil to each other.  Nobody suggested that that the president was “not one of us” or questioned his patriotism and birthright.  Even all the turmoil over Vietnam was as nothing compared to the venom and spittle thrown around today.  Whatever the good times were in the last 40 years, they have borne bitter fruit.  The denizens of the Capitol building are no longer competent at governing.  The can’t do better than posture.  It’s disgusting. 
 
And being young in 1968 was better than it has been anytime since–well except for the draft for that stupid war.  That losing proposition killed 50,000 of us.

Clearly there’s something to this, even if I also think it dunked in too much sentiment. Recent economic difficulties have shown that, as Tyler Cowen often puts it, “We were not as rich as we thought we were.” Nevertheless and on balance these have been good years, ones marked by liberalisation and progress across most of the globe.  Much remains to be done but millions, even billions, of people in China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere have opportunities their parents and grandparents never, ever enjoyed. Economic liberty has been advancing for most of my lifetime and so, albeit unevenly, has political freedom.

The gains of freer trade and deregulation outweigh the costs. More people have the chance to lead a leaisurely life than at any previous point in human history. In important ways people have the chance to live lives free from politics in ways that, again, would shock past generations.

Women and minorities have greater opportunities to lead lives of their own choosing and that recognise their own abilities than ever before. As readers of Andrew’s blog appreciate, gays have never had it so good. None of these are negligible achievements.

And despite 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere the world is a radically more peaceful place than it used to be. So at the risk of seeming rather too Panglossian it really is the case that most of the planet has never had it so good.

But if the story of the past 40 years has been one of expanding liberty and opportunity in europe, asia, Latin America and even, sometimes, parts of africa and the middle east then one wonders if we may soon witness a reaction against this progress.

Social conservatism, for one, seems due a comeback and not just in the United States but in europe too. Already the free movement of people – one of the great successes of the EU – is threatened. Hostility to immigration is widespread and not confined to crowded countries. Here too we may, for now, have tested the limits of liberalism (I use the term in its British, not American meaning).

One consequence of the economic crisis and the crabbed nervousness apparent in many countries these days may be a retreat to  Globalisation has been a good thing but it may be in trouble now. Evidently these things are not set in stone. There are signs that the Drug War must end at some point; the victories for gay marriage are important too.

I may well be mistaken – one should never deny that possibility! – but confidence in liberalism seems like it may be a casualty of the Great Crash of 2008. In one sense this is a testament to the success of what might be termed (if you must) the Liberaltarian Era: many battles have been won and social and ecoomic liberalism has prevailed so often that it’s now fatigued and due to suffer some reverses.

That’s why I fret that the next decade or two may not be as happy as the 1980s and 1990s and, yes, even the 2000s were. Not all the gains of recent times will be lost, of course, but there may be fewer new worlds for liberalism to conquer. Perhaps this is just an ill-formed hunch but the world has been getting better, on the whole, for so long now that it may just be due a spell of getting worse.

Right? Maybe not. Let me know at alexmassieATgmail.com