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The Fourth Great Awakening
A NOBLE PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST AND HISTORIAN SAYS WE’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF AMERICA’S MAJOR PERIODS OF REFORM
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
In the Second Great Awakening the notion of how to end slavery was originally that you had to change people’s hearts. They were going to do it by getting the churches to change their creed so that mere ownership of a slave was a sin and incompatible with continued membership. But they couldn’t get any of the main evangelical churches, even the Northern churches, to go that far, so they decided to go outside the churches, over the heads of the church leaders, as some of the antiabolitionists put it, and create a Christian party, called the Liberty party. That party didn’t do well; its first presidential candidate got only 3 percent of the vote in 1840, but it had some of the most brilliant political strategists this country ever created—Salmon Chase is my particular favorite—and within a decade and a half they had created the Republican party, which put Lincoln in the White House. This success provided the political foundation for implementing the subsequent reform agenda of the Third Great Awakening.
The leaders of the Third Great Awakening thought their predecessor reformers hadn’t fully understood how the rise of big business was changing things. In the old agrarian world, someone who went into small business as a journeyman could think that by the time he was 50 or so, he could be the master of his own shop. But nobody working on a furnace in the Carnegie Steel Company thought he was going to own Carnegie when he was 50, if he lived that long. That kind of opportunity was disappearing.
What the reformers were doing now was saying, “Look, we’re in a crisis. People are striking. They’re burning down buildings. They’re killing one another. We face the specter of a French type of revolution on American soil. How are we going to save the country?” They come up with the notion that you can no longer depend on market forces alone. You have to have the government intervene, because the power of big business has gotten so large. You’ve got to reduce the supply of labor, after which the price of labor will go up. You’ve got to cut off immigration, which is bringing too many workers in. You’ve got to get women and children out of the labor pool, to raise the wages of the labor force that remains.
They won out. In general, they produced a state that was more friendly to labor. Most economists today would concede that not all the innovations of the 1930s are useful, but it would be hard to argue that they were never useful.
Let’s go to the Fourth Great Awakening. That one began in the 1960s.
The ideological upswing began in the sixties. The political realignment it produced began in the 1980s.
And the ideological issue is people beginning to think of the state not as a solution but as part of the problem?
No. Religious conservatives aren’t against state intervention. They never have been. They’re for state intervention for their policies and against state intervention for policies they condemn. But they have made common cause with some economic conservatives who believe that the government plays mainly a negative role. That’s a coalition, not the same movement.
The foundation of my argument is that we’ve become so rich that the material goods that were decisive in 1900 are less and less relevant to politics now. Eighty percent of all consumption 120 years ago was food, clothing, and shelter. Nowadays, that’s down to 15 percent. So the liberal welfare state, which was concerned with alleviating material inequalities, is no longer wholly relevant to the issues that concern us most urgently. We are faced by a crisis of what I call spiritual inequality, and redressing that sort of inequality is the egalitarian agenda of the Fourth Great Awakening.
That’s the most heretical-sounding part of your book.
Not heretical among economists. We’ve been looking into ideas of human capital and knowledge capital for about 40 years. The old issues of distribution have largely been solved. The issues in the 1880's, the 1890's, in 1900, even into the 1920's, were whether you’d starve and whether you’d be living six people in a 12-by-12-foot room. These problems were very acute, and we solved them. If we Haydn’t, we’d be living about half as long as we are now, and those of us who did get old would be in much worse shape. We’Ave gone from lack of nutrient intake to too much nutrient intake, from having no time for leisure to being couch potatoes. So the issues of social and economic progress are still there, but they’re different.
Yet a great many people I know are struggling for enough income to get into the housing market or to secure health care at a level that would once have been part of their employers’ standard benefit package.
Well, if you look at housing, you all see we have more and better, not less. A place like New York City is not typical: If you value being able to go to the theater there, and the museums, then you’re going to be one of the people who boost housing costs. But, nationwide, the average new family has twice as much floor space as their parents did. Housing is not increasing its share of national income, but health care is, as is education.