In political life today, you are considered compassionate if you demand that government impose your preferences on others.
But what's compassionate about that? Compassionate is "live and let live."
Brink Lindsey, author of the new book "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture", says that a growing number of Americans agree. They are increasingly tolerant of other people while still holding firm values of their own. Lindsey writes at the Cato Institute website: "Core commitments to family, work, and country remain strong, but they are tempered by broadminded tolerance of the country's diversity and a deep humility about telling others how they should live. ...
"Liberal attitudes on race and the role of women in society have now become subjects of overwhelming consensus. Consider interracial dating, once among the most ferociously enforced of taboos. According to a 2003 survey, 77 percent of Americans agreed with the proposition, 'I think it's all right for blacks and whites to date each other,' up from 48 percent in 1987. ... Some 9 in 10 Americans endorsed equal job opportunities for gays and lesbians as of 2003."
Lindsey, whose book is getting favorable attention in The New York Times, The Economist, Los Angeles Times, Times of London and National Review, is not the first to point this out, but he emphasizes that the "live and let live" ethic arose only when material security could be taken for granted. As people worried less about where their next meal would come from, they had time to contemplate and develop more enlightened attitudes.
"American capitalism is derided for its superficial banality, yet it has unleashed profound, convulsive social change," he writes. "Condemned as mindless materialism, it has burst loose a flood tide of spiritual yearning. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, environmentalism and feminism, the fitness and health-care boom and the opening of the gay closet, the withering of censorship and the rise of a 'creative class' of 'knowledge workers' -- all are the progeny of widespread prosperity."
Relative freedom and the astounding prosperity it yielded have created one of the most humane societies in history -- the opposite of what the opponents of economic freedom predicted.
We take that prosperity for granted, since most of us are victims of what's been called "pessimistic bias." Anything undesirable about our current circumstances is taken as evidence that times are getting worse. But times were much worse throughout history. Lindsey and other writers show that Americans (and many others in the world) are stunningly wealthy compared to even our recent ancestors.
This affluence isn't just for the "rich." As Lindsey told me recently, "Ordinary Americans, not just those at the top, enjoy a standard of living unmatched anywhere else on earth or at any other time."
But many Americans don't believe it.
No wonder so many of us think life is getting worse.
But that's nonsense. Average wages are up. Last month, America created 132,000 new jobs. In the last four years, America created 8.2 million jobs. Much of the world is desperate to immigrate to America.
America is rich, and because of that it is humane, with increasing numbers of people developing the tolerance that the intelligentsia says Americans should practice. Why doesn't this good news get the attention it deserves?
Could it be because Lindsey's story has the profit motive at the center? The great material abundance he writes about was not the result of altruism but the pursuit of profit and win-win voluntary exchange. For some people that's bad -- no matter how wonderful the consequences.
This is perverse to say the least. The personal pursuit of happiness is a good thing, particularly when it makes everyone better off, too.