In antebellum America, the U.S. underwent what historians call “the market revolution.” This is a movement analogous to the “Great Transformation” Karl Polanyi sketched in England and Europe. (Interestingly, Polanyi himself excepts the American experience from the process he outlines given the availability of land for the taking in the U.S. relative to Europe.) The penetration of the market and market forces into the everyday lives of everyday people separates the period of the market revolution and afterward from the time before it. The rise of wage labor and production for markets, rather than production largely for one’s self and one’s family, created different rhythms and risks in life relative to agrarian life prior to the rise of that system.
Wages for American working men got a double whammy during the last fifty years. First, starting in the late 1960s, American women entered the paid workforce as never before. This added significantly to the supply of labor in the American workforce. Secondly, just as the American labor market had started to move beyond the economic shock of increased entry of women into the workforce, the uptick in globalization – easier mobility of capital and labor across national borders – effectively increased the supply of labor competing with U.S. workers a second time. Many of these workers were willing to work for wages significantly below wages for American workers. There are other causes as well, but these factors certainly contributed to stagnating wages for working men in the U.S. over the last 50 years.
But this is not simply a story of loss; there are tradeoffs.
Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s raw, uncensored, personal history of his Scots-Irish family who struggled in Ohio after leaving their Kentucky home. Vance grew up amid domestic strife and a never-ending cycle of new stepfathers, his family weighed down by dwindling economic prospects and drug dependency. A Marine veteran who graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law, Vance considers his upbringing from the vantage point of a San Francisco investment firm, separated by space but not by emotion or memory—or accent. Fraught relationships continue to pull him back to his small-town Ohio roots, and convince him that the pat solutions of the Left and the Right are inadequate to the problems of America’s forgotten and left behind.
John Stuart Mill is a pretty complicated figure in the history of liberty. The phenomenon of Donald Trump is a pretty complicated development in American politics currently. Both had demanding fathers, successful professional careers, and an impact on the world around them, in ways intended and unintended. It’s doubtful Mr. Trump seriously thought he’d get this far as a candidate, and I wonder if Mill could have envisioned how much his contributions to the history of ideas would have promoted the growing rift between utilitarianism and liberalism.
Economic inequality in the country is rapidly increasing. But our libertarians are right that inequality, by itself, hardly undermines the case for liberty.
A free country is a place where everyone is getting better off, although some, because of their hard work and natural gifts, more than others. Libertarians always point to the progress of technology as benefitting us all. Everyone is living longer, or at least everyone responsible enough to attend to what we can all know about avoiding the risk factors that imperil our health. In our march toward indefinite longevity and even the Singularity—the moment in time when machines are smarter than humans— it might be reasonable to hope that few will be left behind. And almost everyone benefits from the constant improvement and plummeting cost of the “screen”—from the smart phone to the tablet and laptop to the huge flat-screened TV.
One of the consequences of living in an information age is that we are made instantly, and constantly, aware of the disasters around the world, both natural and man-made, and of the enormous suffering that they cause. There are no more far-away lands of which to know nothing, to quote Neville Chamberlain, a man whom nobody would describe as wicked but yet who is the most despised of British Prime Ministers. We are all citizens of the world now.
Knowledge of suffering seems to place upon us an obligation of compassion that is greater than we can possibly bear. We respond in one of two ways: to claim a level of feeling that is greater than we actually can or do feel, in which case we become humbugs; or we harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh.