The Three Axes and the 1960s

Paul Rahe writes,

Liberty requires a responsible citizenry, and the sexual revolution (very much like the drug culture, which was and is its Doppelgänger) promotes irresponsibility of every kind. It promotes dependence, and it fosters an ethos in which those who exercise the virtues fostered by the market are punished for doing so and in which those who live for present pleasure are rewarded.

This is the way conservatives tend to view the cultural legacy of the 1960s. Along the civilization-barbarism axis, they view it as a slide from civilization toward barbarism.

Of course, progressives see it entirely differently. Along the oppressor-oppressed axis, they view the cultural changes as favorable, because women were liberated (a conservative would put scare quotes around “liberated”).

Along the libertarian’s coercion-freedom axis, the picture is mixed. On net, did the cultural changes lead to more or less government coercion? It is hard to say. For example, in the area of Civil Rights, I would argue that getting rid of Jim Crow laws reduced government coercion. (Note that in the early 1960s, prominent libertarians tended to take the states’ rights position, which strikes me as misguided.) However, there is a sense in which today government is overly intrusive on matters of race. (You may be happy with that if your concern is with the oppressor-oppressed axis, and you believe that government is helping the oppressed.) I would prefer that government model treating people as individuals by refusing to classify people by race (You may be very unhappy with my suggestion if you think that the oppressor-oppressed model is significant).

What to think of the unwed mother? To a conservative, she represents a slide down the slope away from civilization. To a progressive, she represents the oppressed “single mom.” To a libertarian, she represents someone who has made a choice. I think that conservatives and libertarians would agree that the state should not be the substitute father. However, it is quite a stretch to suggest that undoing the cultural revolution ought to be on the libertarian agenda.

6 thoughts on “The Three Axes and the 1960s

  1. The US government used reasonably strict tests when they allowed Indochina refugees and Soviet jews and baptists into the country on the basis of their being oppressed or threatened to be oppressed in their home countries. I wonder if liberals are prepared to judge whether an individual is being oppressed or threatened to be oppressed based on strict individual criteria? For instance, are you being refused an entry into a state higher educational institution based on your race or religion? Can you practice your religion freely and openly? Etc.

  2. I think that conservatives and libertarians would agree that the state should not be the substitute father. However, it is quite a stretch to suggest that undoing the cultural revolution ought to be on the libertarian agenda.

    This is true only if the maintenance of the status quo (i.e. the outcome of the cultural revolution) doesn’t depend on the subsidy by the welfare state (and possibly other government interventions that lower the cost of non-traditional lifestyles). Surely it is reasonable at least to ask whether the removal of these subsidies would incentivize people to revert to more traditional lifestyles?

    If you believe that the answer to this question is yes, this would imply that libertarians are in fact necessarily cultural reactionaries, because this follows from the inevitable consequences of their principles put into action. This would be true even for libertarians who have no moral objections to the behaviors legitimized by the cultural revolution as such — undoing the cultural revolution would still be on their agenda, at least as an unavoidable side-effect.

    Moreover, as a matter of purely practical politics, libertarians would have no choice but to enter a confrontation with those who benefit from these subsidies to non-traditional lifestyles. (Which includes both those who practice such lifestyles and those who profit from rent-seeking in the course of their practical implementation.) Do you think that saying “I have no objection to your lifestyle, but I would eliminate the government subsidies that make it possible” would sound that much different from fundamental moral hostility? (And indeed, observe the reception that libertarianism gets in practice by these groups, even when espoused by people who scrupulously dissociate themselves from social conservatism.)

    The only way in which your “quite a stretch” comment could make sense is if the answer to the question is in fact no, and non-traditional lifestyles could still survive and thrive without government propping. But are you really so sure about this?

  3. Interesting topic. Rahe seems to suggest that in order to preserve his preferred form of liberty, we must curtail other types of liberties, presumably voluntarily but certainly there have been frequent legislative efforts. But even he seems to acknowledge that the revolution he detests was brought on in part by the general success of commerce at raising median wealth. But this does help me understand the conservative worldview.

  4. I’ve been thinking about the “3 axis” idea a lot.

    It makes a lot of sense to me – of course there may be more than 3. I not sure about the “progressive” axis, but the conservative “avoid the collapse of civilization” and libertarian “avoid coercian” axis seem fairly well based.

    BUT – I think we need to broaden our thinking about “coercion” – because in the real world, we are all compelled to do various things by various forces and agents. You must breath or you will die. You must eat or you will die. You must learn to speak the language of your community, or you will face many obstacles.

    You must compete in the market, OR compete for standing in the party, OR compete for special status – or you will have marginal status. (Socialism doesn’t remove the judgements of the market, it just replaces them with something else.)

    A society must encourage people to be stable raisers of children, or it will die out. (See The Shakers…) This is clearly a core line of impulse in the conservative axis.
    (So in some sense, “conservatives” wish to compel everyone to be a “good conservative” for the sake of civilization.)

    A society that makes too many rules will become ossified and die … etc.
    (So in a sense, libertarians wish to compel people to run their own lives freely for the good of themselves and for society.)

    But have the secondary forces compelling people been thought through? For example some libertarians argue that we shouldn’t have FDIC insurance on deposits – rather, people should pick their banks very carefully. This in effect reduces one set of compulsive forces but replaces them with the rule “you must devote time and energy to evaluation of banks!!!”.

    The problem with that, is that people are finite – both each of us (time I spend thinking about whether my bank is safe is time I don’t spend doing something else) and all of us (if we’re all spending all of our time evaluating banks, we might not have time to farm and thus go hungry.)

    I don’t know if the issue of “compelments” or “coercions” fits into the theory of “axis of motivation” or if it’s just a different idea. I can’t help but think that someone has thought it through and written it down, but I’ve not found it.

  5. The thought that has been on my mind as of late is how family plays into the 3 axes. For instance, are conservatives the most likely to buy life insurance for partners and/or children, as opposed to libertarians or progressives? If someone can point me to research in this area I’d be most grateful. Also I wonder what some of the differences between libertarians are along income lines – say the “hardscrabble” libertarian as opposed to the well off libertarian. Which may be more inclined to align with progressives when familial roles are not enough for survival?

  6. It’s an interesting idea.

    I suspect that you are correct that the libertarian axis is coercion v. freedom.

    Perhaps that conservative axis would be more correctly described as order v. disorder. The reason that I offer this up is that in certain instances, conservatives (and I’m one on many issues) become so frightened of potential chaos that they make short terms decisions that have long term barbarism enhancing consequences.

    As for the progressive, I think that their axis needs to be considered further. It appears to me that oppressor v. oppressed is part facade and part projection — primarily used for the consumption of their foot soldiers and enablers. The “vanguard” is all about power.