Welcome to the age of social and political transformation. A former Senator is now president and is proposing sweeping legislation. Outside the realm of government (the real world, we may call it), the people are restless. They are swept up in the winds of change and are following a vision of high, uncompromising morals. It seems like the real world gets smaller and the realm of government grows larger with each new bill the Democrat-controlled Congress passes. The question is: Which decade is this?
The 2020’s jump to mind, but that is because we are living now. People in the ’60s would just as readily accept this description as illustrative of their time. The social revolution, massive government expansion, moral certainty that characterizes our zeitgeist has been tried before. What baffles me is that we now know that the grand experiments of sixty years ago were a failure, yet we are trying them again.
I cannot think of an area of life touched by the spirit of revolution that was served well by the changes of that decade. Even the things we might think of as very good such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were the progenitors of legal and moral absurdity.
I suppose there are more artful ways to tackle this topic, but I know of none more understandable than to simply take the issues one by one. So let us do a quick review of the broad changes of the 60’s in their three most significant aspects (governmental, social, and moral) and see how they aged.
The War on Poverty began with a billion dollars and a mandate to win an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” At least, that is how President Johnson referred to it in his State of the Union address in 1964. There would be no terms of surrender, no backing off until the war was fully won.
That was half a century ago. To date, the U.S. has spent more than $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs, and the needle has not budged. It seems as though throwing money at poverty does not remove human weakness or change the laws of praxeology. Humans respond to incentives, not the will of bureaucrats.
Milton Friedman pointed out years ago that government benefits trap low income consumers into making poor decisions. Because benefits go away once you reach a certain income level, recipients are incentivized to remain below that level so that they do not face a sudden net dip in household income.
This same problem has plagued all the so-called Great Society programs. They engender the social pathology rather than solving it. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had almost 40 million participants in 2020, which is a far cry from the roughly 3 million people enrolled in 1969. While the U.S. population grew by 60 percent, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits grew to 13 times the 1969 numbers.
Most tragically, housing programs incentivized single motherhood. Amity Shlaes reports in her most recent book that social workers would patrol low income housing facilities to ensure that no fathers were present. The single motherhood rate has grown rapidly according to the Brookings Institution. “In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers. By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites.”
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the social revolution was sexual. Revolutionaries took it for granted that sex itself and sexuality generally were things that should be shared far more openly than previously thought. The social strictures that prevented such sexual expression were stuffy at best and repressive at worst. We needed to relax our standards and let sexuality run free.
It also led to greater insistence on multiculturalism and fewer judgements about drugs and lifestyles in general. Focus on these traits led to less emphasis placed on individual choice. People are products of their environments rather than agents acting in environments.
Thomas Sowell puts the consequences of these ideas succinctly. “In the United States, homicide rates, rates of infection with venereal diseases and rates of teenage pregnancies were among the social pathologies whose steep declines over the preceding years were suddenly reversed in the 1960s, as all these pathologies soared to new and tragic heights” (Discrimination and Disparities, pg. 172).
Much like the government programs, the social revolution produced terrible results. We can see the exacerbation of this problem today as fewer people are having sex than ever before. Most teenagers report losing their virginity to someone they were “going steady” with, but the devaluation of long-term relationships and social bonds in the name of sexual freedom has actually produced less sex overall.
This seems like as good a time as any to point out that the conservative position has never been less sex or more sex. It has always been sex within marriage, that is, sexual expression with all of its emotional and physical consequences situated within a robust community and familial infrastructure that makes the consequences easier to bear. Social revolution has no time for such stability.
Finally, we come to the most fraught portion of this rebuttal. I do not want to confuse a reader by claiming that no moral progress was made in the 60’s. However, the manner in which we acted upon the progress that we did make has led to many absurdities.
Most prominently, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been viewed as a great boon to our moral heritage. Insofar as it reaffirms the great truths laid out in our founding documents about legal and moral equality, that is true. Insofar as it disrupts the right of free association in the name of righting injustice, that is false.
What makes this law subtly pernicious is that it allows the government to dictate the basis on which we can make associations. No doubt there are plenty of other ways in which governments do this anyway, e.g., marriage laws. Just as I would make the case that the government has no business telling individuals who they can and cannot marry, I believe that it has no business telling individuals who they can hire or fire or allow to frequent their store.
I fully agree that it is a moral truth that we should not discriminate on the basis of race. However, why should the government be the one to sanction and enforce that particular truth? I see few reasons to affirm that role and many to oppose it.
Paradigmatically, the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrates the dangers here. When we declare that the private views of individuals (so long as they do not cause physical harm to others) are not able to be expressed in their businesses, churches, social clubs, etc., we open the door to a very slippery slope.
It is disgusting to not allow a person in your life because they are black (or white, as seems to be the case now). That disgusting behavior, however, should not be illegal. If it is, then there is little that obstructs the government and courts from declaring that any view that favors or disfavors one group over another is discriminatory. In other words, the leap from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to declaring that one must bake cakes that run contra to one’s religious views is smaller than you might think.
In a wonderfully written essay in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s anthology American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, L. Brent Bozell affirms the classical liberal position that it is best to leave societal problems to society. It would have been far better for gradual social change than for a smash down from the top of government.
The same is true of landmark court cases, such as Brown vs Board of Education, which Thomas Sowell has discussed at length. “The flimsy and cavalier reasoning used by the Supreme Court, which based its decision on grounds that would hardly sustain a conviction for jay-walking, set a pattern of judicial activism that has put American law in disarray on all sorts of issues that extend far beyond racial cases.”
It is just this “flimsy and cavalier reasoning” that is besetting us on all sides. We have tried this all before, and many who have been actively harmed by these laws, court cases, and social revolutions still have the scars to prove it. We are being told that we must tap into the spirit of moral progress of the ’60s and reignite the flame that made progress possible back then. My only worry is that the flame we rear will burn us all to the ground.