Civilization and self-restraint
1. Premarital sex and homosexual sex were culturally taboo, banned by law, and, for various reasons, quite difficult to engage in. Birth control was only just becoming generally available, especially non-intrusive birth control. Divorce was much less common than it is today and much harder to obtain. Language and depictions of the human body in movies and published art, to say nothing of television, were both severely restricted. Black Americans were in the process of achieving genuine legal equality, which they had secured in part by arguing, in word and deed, that they desired only to live lives comparable to those of white Americans. School prayer had recently been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the influence of religion in American life was probably at an all-time low. Women, though increasingly well educated, were generally confined (there were always a few determined exceptions) to various kinds of low-paying work, and had essentially no recourse against sexual harassment.
2. The election of 1964 had just registered an overwhelming verdict in favor of the role of the federal government enshrined by the New Deal and increased still further in postwar America. Lyndon Johnson had won 44 states and over 60% of the vote over Barry Goldwater, sweeping huge Democratic majorities into office. True, in a fateful sign of things to come, the 91% marginal tax rates that dated from the 1930s had just been substantially cut, but income and corporate taxes were still at historically very high levels, while the payroll tax (and social security benefits) remained very low. But Johnson was about to use the election victory to complete the civil rights revolution by passing the Voting Rights Act, and to pas Medicare over Republican cries of socialized medicine and the end of American freedom. The country had run budget deficits in most years since the war but they were very low by present-day standards. Public education was probably never better, overall, or cheaper, than it was in the mid-1960s, especially at top state universities. Good private universities cost about 1/3 what they do now, even allowing for inflation. Meanwhile, the government still maintained a large, conscript-fed peacetime Army--one that was about to be radically expanded to fight the Vietnam War.
3. The unemployment rate was 4.5% and inflation for the last year was about 1%. The stock market tended to advance and decline along with the rest of the economy. It was tightly regulated--margin was limited to 50%. The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial and investment banking. The antitrust laws were still vigorously enforced. Financial careers were not glamorous and were not the most profitable. The United States was still fundamentally a country of engineers, rather than of lawyers and MBAs.
Let us now compare each of these situations to what we face today.
1. Sexual mores are, of course, much looser in practice all over the country, while far more controversial. Abortion and homosexuality are now both legal, although neither is genuinely accepted by a significant minority of Americans. Religion has vastly increased its political role in American life, largely thanks to sexually charged issues of abortion and homosexuality. Women have achieved at least equality in many sectors of the work force. Black Americans occupy leading positions in many areas of American life. People are much freer to express their feelings and to assess the effects of their upbringing upon their emotional life. Then as now, millions rely upon drugs to get through life, although they use less nicotine, somewhat less alcohol (particularly on the coasts), far more cocaine, and far more new legal drugs that had not yet been invented. Freedom of expression in mainstream entertainment is far great than it was, although it is already on a down slope again (adults in movies and on TV are now customarily shown having sex with their underwear on.) Rates of divorce have skyrocketed, although they are stabilizing, and the illegitimacy rates which were beginning to cause concern among minority populations in the mid-1960s now characterize the whole population. At a personal level, America is a much freer nation than it was then, and on the whole I certainly believe that that is a good thing.
2. The role of federal and state governments in American life remains very large but is also far more controversial. Governments are spending far more on health care and on benefits for the elderly, both paid for by regressive taxes that barely existed forty years ago. They are spending much less on infrastructure and education (especially since states and localities are crippled by a recession that was quite unimaginable in 1965), and much, much more on prisons. (Many states, including the largest, California, now spend far more on prisons than on higher education.) The federal government is running a huge deficit. Taxes on the higest brackets are less than half what they were in 1965, while the payroll tax is more than twice as high. Income inequality is of course much greater. The percentage of private sector workers in unions has fallen by more than 50%. The education provided by universities today is--believe me--far inferior to what my contemporaries and I encountered in the mid-1960s, even though it costs much, much more.
3. The United States has largely de-industrialized and runs a huge long-term trade deficit. The financial sector occupies far more of our resources and dominates the economy, largely because regulations have been stripped away over the last 30 years. The religion of the market--which was at least as uninspiring in 1965 as religion in general--has become so generally accepted that businessmen and financiers no longer seem to feel the slightest responsibility even to consider the broader implications of any decisions they make--such as the successive decisions by Goldman Sachs about which we learned last week, to both help the Greek government hide its debt, and then, more recently, to start selling bets on a possible Greek government default. Despite the worst financial collapse since 1929 we have been unable to pass any meaningful reforms.
The changes reflected in paragraph one have been, in my opinion, beneficial; the changes in paragraphs 2 and 3 have been catastrophic. The question that I have been intermittently asking myself for years is whether it would have been possible to have adopted new personal mores without at the same time destroying the political and economic achievements of earlier generations. It is a question that could be the subject of many long books, ones which I do not at the moment intend to write myself, and which involves very profound questions of human nature which we generally prefer to avoid. At bottom the question boils down to the extent of the connection between self-restraint and civilization.
I don't think any reasonable person can deny that there is some such relationship. Obedience to law is not natural, but must be learned. (The United States military is now engaged in honor-based societies like Iraq and Afghanistan where established legal procedures have never supplanted vendettas and extreme family discipline as a means of settling disputes.) Modern economies emerged along with new rules of commercial behavior, and gradually, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, society became convinced that economic behavior had to be tightly regulated to prevent abuses of economic power. And political liberty, of course, was achieved only in the course of struggles lasting centuries. Another important aspect of the development of modern life was the restriction of religion to the private sphere.
Today many of us recognize many of the restraints of earlier times as unnecessary or even cruel. Society, we have found, can function more than adequately in a much freer sexual climate. Although many Americans still resist this conclusion, homosexuality obviously is not a threat to the foundations of our civilization. We have also discovered that the industrialized world can not only survive, but prosper, without large standing armies. The power of parents over their offspring has gradually ebbed over the last few centuries, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.
Yet the other restraints which civilization had built up more recently, including restraints upon economic activity and political power, seem to me to be at least as necessary as they ever were--and they have been overthrown at least as thoroughly. Few of our politicians seem to recognize any obligation beyond doing what they find necessary to rally their "base" and secure re-election. So far President Obama's attempts to get the whole nation to focus on very real problems have not been very effective. The nation, both nationally and locally, has become ungovernable. Our higher educational system has become so anarchic as to make itself largely irrelevant to society's real needs.
Now that I have formally broached this topic, I'm sure I'll be returning to it frequently in months and years ahead. Looking around the world, I do think that it is possible to combine greater personal freedom with civic and economic discipline. That in large measure is what the Western Europeans have managed to do, at least so far. Why the United States, which did so much to create the modern interventionist state, has gone so violently in the other direction in the last 40 years is a complex question, but the European example suggests that it need not have done so. In any case, for the moment we must face the facts: we have loosened all these restraints drastically, and the general relaxation has probably been part of a single process. We need more civic and economic discipline, and it is not yet clear where it will come from. It is indeed ironic, in fact, that conservative Republicans, who are so anxious to restore some of the old restrictions upon personal behavior, have so totally embraced the loosening of economic restraints and the weakening of political institutions. The Democratic Party could do a lot worse than to explicitly endorse an opposite combination of freedom in the private sphere, and more cooperation and regulation in the public and economic ones.