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Conclusion Out of the 1970s emerged the dominant contemporary American values of formal equality and free-market economics. Few would disagree that the United States became a more inclusive society while also one more deeply skeptical about the benefits of activist government, just as none would deny the reality, on the world stage, of the crumbling of colonialism and the retreat and near-collapse of socialism. But what was the precise relationship between these two developments? How were the simultaneous flowerings of egalitarianism and free-market values related to each other? Both commitments had deep roots in the American past and had long helped shape the nation’s politics and culture. The shedding of formal systems of social hierarchy was a continuing process, one that did not begin in the 1970s but did accelerate dramatically during that decade. The rejection of collective enterprise reflected an enduring belief in limited government and entrepreneurial virtue, a view that soared in popularity and political traction during these years. Some of the overlap of these two commitments was coincidental, the result of historical circumstances in different spheres that happened to unfold in the same era. The struggle for social equality and inclusion did not arise directly from changes in attitudes about the public and private spheres. And the push for economic deregulation and privatization was not simply a reaction to increasing egalitarianism. But the two developments were related. Each principle tended to support the other, particularly in a culture as traditionally individualistic as that of the United States. A political economy rooted in free markets provided benefits for buyers and sellers alike, and the larger the market, the better. It made no economic CONCLUSION 313 sense to exclude potential customers or workers on the basis of a group identity such as race or sex. The dramatic evidence of globalization from the 1970s onward underlined this essential logic of contemporary capitalism: profitability meant expanding markets, selling goods and services to everyone everywhere. The creative destruction that accompanied capitalism pulled down old barriers between peoples, whether national, racial, or any other kind. The green of currency was the only color that mattered. Formal equality had less direct correlation to market values. The Soviet Union, after all, outlawed racial discrimination decades earlier than the United States, and American Communists were among the most vociferous early twentieth-century opponents of discrimination. Indeed, much of the rhetoric of the Cold War focused on the question of which side more truly believed in, and lived out, a commitment to treating all people equally. So egalitarianism could point in either direction regarding command versus market economies. In the case of the United States, the enduring values of protecting private property and pursuing socioeconomic mobility meshed relatively easily with the elimination of legal discrimination, resulting in a purified inclusive version of individualism. Ultimately, equality and markets were linked by a growing conviction among Americans and others that the end of legal discrimination assured that most remaining inequalities were natural and reasonable, the result of differences in ability and ambition. “A society free not only of racism but of sexism and of heterosexism is a neoliberal utopia,” writer Walter Benn Michaels observed, “where all the irrelevant grounds of inequality (your identity) have been eliminated and whatever inequalities are left are therefore legitimized.” The United States across the last several decades may have become “a much more unequal country” in economic terms, as prominent conservative columnist David Brooks noted, but it was an inequality that forty years of changing public values had helped to make acceptable in a culture that lays great claim to equal opportunity for its citizens . A considerable gap remained between the formal equality 314 CONCLUSION of citizens and the actual inequalities of opportunity visible in the lives of rich and poor children. Americans were indeed more equal, and less equal, than they used to be.1 Affirmative action provided one arena for a potentially direct conflict between the values of non-discrimination and freemarket competition. In the 1970s, Allan Bakke, a white former engineer, applied for admission to the University of California– Davis medical school and was twice rejected, despite having test scores significantly higher than those of several minority applicants who were admitted. Bakke appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose split decision in 1978 articulated the precise dilemma of the two principles involved. The Court threw out the medical school’s specific quota of sixteen places (out of one hundred) for nonwhite...


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MARC Record
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