Now can we say that Reagan was wrong?
Jedediah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom does for history what Allen Tate did for Faulkner: It gives history a close reading to come to conclusions about America’s tradition of individual freedom.
Part of that tradition is firmly ensconced in economics: I am free, because I can trade my expertise, skill, and knowledge (i.e., labor) in exchange for something or equal or greater value. The idea of free labor had its greatest articulation when Thomas Jefferson wrote that among (white, male, property-owning) Americans inalienable rights were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson dreamed of a country populated by small farms on which every man was a king. That changed with the Industrial Revolution when capital became consolidated and ownership of property became increasingly put in the hands of the wealthy and few. Even so, the idea of free labor continues: We still believe a person is responsible for failures even if those failures are for the most part out of his control.
People my age (mid-30s) have never known anything else, even though most presidents of the 20th century took for granted the notion that society and economies are too complex for one person to understand, control, and exploit. The idea had been around since Teddy Roosevelt, but it became doctrine when Herbert Hoover failed to contain the Great Depression. Individuals were helpless alone, but together, with the right leadership, they could do something to get out of the mess they were in.
That meant government. That meant a more active role by government to help those who would help themselves if they could. That always made sense to me. But this idea — not very inspiring, not very positive, not very constructive — lost traction badly when people soured on Civil Rights, lost faith in government during Vietnam, and put all their hopes in a good-looking, charismatic, rugged westerner named Ronald Reagan, who insisted Americans can do whatever they put their minds to.
Here’s a snip from my interview with Purdy (published in the Independent Weekly). An amazing guy, illuminating book.
“Everyone before [Reagan] said that people can’t be the authors of their own lives,” Purdy says. “The role of government was to create order out of disorder, so that if we can’t control these forces alone, we can together. Reagan rejected what was a consensus for most of the 20th century.”
Reagan was influenced by economic thinkers such as Milton Friedman and polemicists such as Ayn Rand, but he also believed in a mythical American type previously envisaged by Jefferson and Emerson—rugged, individualist, self-reliant. And though he replaced regulation with a sink-or-swim ideology, it was very inspiring. No president since has dared to say Americans can’t do anything.
“Reagan seized the moment,” Purdy says of the 1980s, a time when people were still feeling disaffected by Vietnam and soured by the Civil Rights Movement and economic stagflation. “He said we are all free to dictate our own lives. As long as the idea works, it’s powerful.”
But does it work anymore? And if it doesn’t, what ideas will emerge to replace Reagan’s politically influential dogma of individualistic freedom?
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