The more capitalism and wealth, the familiar argument goes, the better able we are to do without a safety net for the poor, elderly, sick and young. And that’s true so far as it goes. What it doesn’t get at is that the forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net, free from government control.
In any case, Sullivan continues, this isn't necessarily surprising:
We can forget this but the cultural contradictions of capitalism, brilliantly explained in Daniel Bell’s classic volume, are indeed contradictions. The turbulence of a growing wealth-creating free market disrupts traditional ways of life like no other. Even in a culture like ours used to relying from its very origins on entrepreneurial spirit, the dislocations are manifold. People have to move; their choices of partners for love and sex multiply; families disaggregate on their own virtual devices; grandparents are assigned to assisted living; second marriages are as familiar as first ones; and whole industries – and all the learned skills that went with them – can just disappear overnight (I think of my own profession as a journalist, but it is one of countless).
In part this is because we are well-attuned to political liberalization, which also plays a role in the phenomena Sullivan cites, such as the growing emphasis on personal choice in matters of the heart. Economic liberalization--the process by which a country adopts free-market principles, or loosens up the restrictions that had previously kept a semblance of predictability on things--isn't such a rich subject for personal essays in The Atlantic. It is, however, a major driver of the disorderly situation in which we find ourselves.
And it is, Sullivan argues, why most rich countries have developed a welfare state. Capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person's personal safety net. The widespread erosion of these individuated safety nets is what necessitates things like entitlement programs: if you can't count on your kids, at least you can count on Social Security.
I broadly agree with this. The situation was well dramatized by Saul Bellow (and is perhaps the only thing Bellow dramatized well) in the opening section of The Adventures of Augie March, wherein the title character describes growing up with a "grandmother" who's really a meddlesome boarder whose own sons don't want to deal with her.
One response, Sullivan continues, is the response we've seen from the American right: in the face of change, social conservatives double down on things like "family values" and "personal responsibility." The other is the one that Barack Obama is putting forward: the government should build a bigger safety net, one that includes universal access to health care, for example. Historically, the United States has tended to favor the former approach, at least relative to other rich, Western democracies--for a related discussion, see that government paper I'm always talking about, about the Nordic model of capitalism (PDF). Lately, however, the United States has seemed to tilt in the other direction; Obama, Sullivan argues, "is clearly winning the American argument." One reason for that, he says, is that "the sheer force of this global capitalism is coming to bear down on America more fiercely than ever before." In embracing capitalism, conservatives have effectively spurred the creation of an ever-expanding welfare state, which they theoretically oppose.
Let's set aside the question of whether Obama is winning the American argument for a moment to highlight something about American conservatives that Sullivan gestures at but is worth making explicit: this intuition about the role of the family as a bulwark against uncertainty does a lot, I think, to explain why so many of America's fiscal conservatives are also social conservatives. For some Republicans, the coalition is little more than a marriage of convenience: we'll do what I want on corporate tax rates, and what you want on abortion. But in talking to them, you find a lot of people who would argue that the socially conservative causes are inextricably related to the fiscal side: if you're going to have a capitalist system, you need to have strong families, and if millions of Americans are gaily putting their own preferences first--men marrying men, women delaying pregnancy while they scramble up the career ladder, schoolteachers scoffing at the miracle of creation--it's all hands on deck.
I don't agree with these intuitions, by the way; most Americans don't. In surveys, only about a third of Americans describe themselves as socially conservative. But you don't have to be a social conservative to be pro-family or in favor of limited government; exit polls after the election found that the limited-government people outnumbered the voters who want the government to do more. I still think the critical factor in 2012 was that a lot of Republicans spent most of the year rampaging against various groups of Americans like it was a full-time job. The broader argument about how big government should be--I would say that's ongoing.
Also, I hope Sullivan isn't too disheartened:
And in my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase.
No need to be too bleak, then. Although the challenges of our new political and economic order are no doubt serious, it doesn't follow that they're insuperable. (It would probably be easier to deal with everything, in fact, if we could all agree that many of our current challenges are the result of staggering change--political change, economic change, technological change, etc--rather than cultural decline or partisan gridlock or anomie or so on.) People have dealt with radical change before; we can do it again. "It seems to me this is not the moment for Randian purism," says Sullivan; maybe not; that's fine. I would say it's yet another moment for us to proceed with confidence in whatever course of action we collectively choose, even if it doesn't enjoy unanimous support--that confidence reinforced, as usual, by confidence in the knowledge that we can and will change course if we change our minds.