Book: The Age of Abundance by Brink Lindsey

I wish it were a little more readable

Brink Lindsey
The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture
Collins, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-06-0747664
ISBN-10: 0-06-0747668
342 pages (main text)

Brink Lindsey is the vice president for research at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-minded think-tank in Washington, and his recent book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture lives up to its title.

I really hate to do this, but I'm going to tell you, pretty much, what Mr Lindsey has to say in the book and then tell you that you probably don't want to buy it and read it for yourself. It pains me to do that because there's a lot of very good sense in the book. The problem is that the long middle of the book just isn't very interesting to read.

Mr Lindsey begins by pointing out that, somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century, capitalism and the ever-finer division of labor in the American economy made that economy so productive that pretty much no one in America lacked the material requirements for survival. (Of course the same thing happened in other places at about the same time and has happened in other places since, but Mr Lindsey's subject is America.) That no one needed to be concerned about the basic material needs for survival was unprecedented in human history. And the change from eking out survival to enjoying affluence has had profound cultural effects.

One of the more peculiar and also significant cultural effects is that the mainstreams of the political left and right in America are intellectually inconsistent. The right values the economic mechanism by which Americans have come to enjoy mass affluence but mistrusts the cultural experimentation that it has enabled. The left values the cultural products of affluence but mistrusts their source.

There is quite a lot of good sense in that if you ask me. It may well have been said before, but if it has, I haven't seen it.

Mr Lindsey goes on to point out that the way that American social and economic life has progressed recently is actually pretty libertarian. This modus vivendi as Mr Lindsey calls it is a mostly-unintended messy compromise and there's no guarantee that it will continue, but so far it has. Capitalism is regulated more every day, but it remains free enough that it continues to provide American society with unprecedented prosperity. And, despite the excesses of political correctness, recognizing rights for ethnic and social minorities is surely a good thing.

Of course there are a good many more details in the book. The problem is that it doesn't need most of them. A longish article or a short book would really be sufficient to make that argument persuasively. But 342 pages is overkill.

Mr Lindsey sketches the argument set out above somewhat more thoroughly than I have in the book's introduction. There follows an entire social and economic history of America from around the end of the nineteenth century to today. While Mr Lindsey's history supports his argument, there's much that's peripheral and it's a bit repetitive. And though there were details and insights that were new to me in it, a much briefer history that was more closely focussed on supporting his argument would have served Mr Lindsey's purpose better. At it stands, the book's middle is slow going and the prose is sometimes inelegant.

If you'd like to see Mr Lindsey's argument elaborated, by all means read the book. But I wouldn't suggest that you expect to find it much fun to read.

Posted: Fri - November 7, 2008 at 12:58 PM   Main   Category: