The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties; by Christopher Caldwell; New York: Simon & Schuster; 352 pp., $28.00
The social and legal order that emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s now dominates public life. While Christopher Caldwell seems to accept in his new book the view of that movement as at least initially a noble enterprise, he is remarkably willing, for a member of the establishment commentariat, to discuss its actual workings and implications.
The term “civil rights” once referred simply to everyday rights legally secured to citizens. These included the right under the law to acquire and dispose of property, to practice a profession, and so on. When government was limited and the law was mostly concerned with securing ordinary expectations, the scope of civil rights was also limited and played almost no role in public discussion.
In contrast, the new order’s basic principle is continuous compulsory transformation of social attitudes and relationships. This is fundamentally at odds with a free and self-governing society, and even at odds with the traditional, liberal distinction between public and private. As such, it is intrinsically totalitarian, though the author doesn’t use that term. It is certainly at odds with the American constitutional order as it existed before the 1960s.
Caldwell argues that the civil rights movement has thus ushered in a revolution in which a new constitution replaced America’s original one. He attributes the bitterness of current politics to the conflict between those attached to the old Constitution and the partisans of the new. The former are the deplorable bitter clingers—to use the language of our former president and the woman who almost succeeded him—while the latter include not only those who experienced the change as a liberation, but the entire American establishment, whose wealth and power it has bolstered.
Like Robert Nisbet, Caldwell emphasizes the role of war in the rise of the omnicompetent, all-administering state, of which today’s civil rights regime is an expression. By the early 1960s, recent history had convinced Americans they could do anything. World War II brought national unity and overwhelming power backed by organizational know-how in the service of great, if often rather crude, projects. These ranged from the construction of suburbia to the moon landing, and came to include social reconstruction not only in America but in Southeast Asia, as well.
These huge feats of engineering were successful, but are long gone. In contrast, the attempts at social reconstruction have survived both their own failure and the successes in war and peace that once made them seem possible.
Initially, the civil rights revolution was a minority cause, and very few people had any idea what they were signing on to when they agreed to support it. We wanted to go forward as one people. Blacks would have to be part of that, and the power of the federal government was put behind the effort to make it so.
But the effort turned out to require deeper and more comprehensive changes than expected. It became as much a quagmire as Vietnam, but without the possibility of withdrawal. The impossibility of conceding defeat in the struggle has put race at the center of the American story, leading to a permanent and ever-more-obsessive regime of affirmative action and political correctness.
Racial equality thus became our established religion. The principles of that demanding and intolerant faith have been extended from race to other traditional distinctions, and even to fundamental natural differences such as sex.
Attempts to erase such basic features of human life had many unexpected consequences. Among these were the endlessly-inflating public and private debt needed to buy social peace in an age of increasing entitlements. They also included the permanent mass immigration from everywhere demanded by the principle of nondiscrimination, which entrenched both social divisions and the anti-discrimination regime intended to deal with them.
Among a number of interesting points, Caldwell notes that the rise of the new religion of racial equality meant growing class rancor. The rank and file retained their attachment to established beliefs and habits, while the educated and affluent embraced the new vision of social justice that made inherited patterns presumptively illegitimate. The resulting changes in public attitudes made money, formal position, and certified expertise the sole legitimate principles of social order.
As a result, non-elite whites became not only losers but contemptible obstacles to further progress on the one true path, retaining no right to any sort of consideration. Nor were they allowed to pursue their interests as whites—though Caldwell suggests that prohibition is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Caldwell’s book, of course, has its limits. The author is an establishment conservative who publishes regularly in the likes of Slate and The New York Times. If he has unorthodox connections or commitments, they aren’t apparent. These qualities have helped him find mainstream publishers and reviewers for books that present fairly realistic accounts of issues usually discussed seriously only on the non-authorized right.
However, the author doesn’t have a considered perspective on man and society that would allow for a real understanding of the far-reaching developments he discusses. Of necessity, he treads lightly in some areas. He doesn’t explain, for example, why racial inequalities have turned out to be so very stubborn. He gestures vaguely toward the reality of group differences and the human need for specific attachments. But in doing so he notes the impossibility of discussing such matters honestly, and also gestures toward views conventional among elite journalists.
The most important question Caldwell neglects is justice. He suggests reasons why “deplorables” might complain about the way things have turned out for them, but doesn’t discuss whether their outrage might be justified. The question needs to be dealt with squarely. As the author notes, the irresistible power of the new constitution is based not only on the immensely powerful interests and legal mechanisms that support it, but also on the never-disputed claim of its proponents to overwhelming moral superiority.
He does note that, despite its appeal to equality, the new constitution is deeply non-egalitarian. It deprives white people of rights other citizens and even non-citizens have, and its leading advocates and enforcers are big corporations and billionaires. Caldwell often seems to attribute corporate support for social justice causes to the practical goal of fending off litigation through ostentatious programs to enhance “diversity,” but notes ways in which this has facilitated ever-increasing inequalities of wealth, power, and status.
Even so, Caldwell doesn’t deal with the essential question presented by the civil rights movement. Can distinctions based on sex, religion, and inherited community ever be just?
It seems they can. Social distinctions and hierarchies are inevitable—certainly in a complex and extensive society like our own. They correspond to principles of social organization, so if some are no longer accepted, others will necessarily come to the fore. The question of social justice is whether rationalized formal arrangements—and the distinctions of wealth, bureaucratic position, and formal qualification on which they rest—are uniquely just, or whether traditional distinctions and arrangements based on sex, kinship, religion, and inherited community should also be allowed to play a role.
The answer depends on the nature of man. Are men machines for which technologically rational arrangements like markets and value-neutral bureaucracies are uniquely suitable? Or are they more complex and subtle, so that traditional, more opaque arrangements like family, religion, and particular communities are necessary to deal with matters for which money and regulations are inadequate?
To phrase the question differently, is it obligatory as a matter of justice for us to view ourselves, apart from personal idiosyncrasies such as lifestyle choice, as simply consumers, careerists, and enforcers of political correctness in a global economic and administrative order? Or, is it permissible to take other connections, distinctions, and identities seriously?
To some of us, it seems glaringly obvious that money, regulation, and personal choice are not enough to enable people to live well together. But this is a question that won’t be settled to the satisfaction of the doubtful within the scope of one book, much less one book review. Caldwell, however, has stretched the possibilities of public discussion of the relevant issues beyond the limits one would have expected. Very likely, any ground so gained has been lost already in the current madness surrounding the death of George Floyd. But no one knows how things will end, and his achievement in this book deserves great praise.