All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1996

The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s

Ehrenhalt's Book Is Like an Opened Time Capsule

Dr. Walters is professor of economics in the Sellinger School of Business and Management at Loyola College in Maryland.

Can individuals have too much freedom? Can markets serve up too many choices for consumers? Do we need more “authority” in the America of the ’90s?

In The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt answers these questions affirmatively; he blames our ’60s-era rejection of authority and enshrinement of personal choice as the most important of life’s values for the lost sense of community that today makes our cities nightmarish and our suburbs sterile. Those who cherish liberty might be tempted to ignore such views, or dismiss them as the tired rantings of a reflexive statist or deluded nostalgic—the kind of person who, had he been born in Rome rather than Chicago would be pining for the good old days when Mussolini made the trains run on time.

But those who ignore The Lost City will miss an entertaining and stimulating book. Ehrenhalt may not be much of a political economist or philosopher, but he is a topflight journalist. His vision of the ’50s never veers into fuzzy sentimentalism; it is clear-eyed, objective, and wide-ranging. Whether he is describing ’50s life in a blue-collar enclave in southwest Chicago, in a bustling South Side ghetto, or in a leafy commuter suburb, Ehrenhalt has a talent for making you feel part of the time and place. His book is like an opened time capsule; after examining its holdings a while, you will be convinced—as Ehrenhalt is—that we have lost something precious since that capsule was sealed.

It is only when Ehrenhalt gets down to the task of diagnosing how our culture mutated—how “Ozzie and Harriet” devolved into “Married. . .With Children”—that he stumbles. His errors arise from widely shared presumptions and impulses, however, so it behooves those who respect markets and value freedom to take them seriously.

Consider, for example, Ehrenhalt’s verdict that “The difference between the 1950s and the 1990s is to a large extent the difference between a society in which market forces challenged traditional values and a society in which they have triumphed over them.” We hear echoes of this notion every day in the popular media’s assertions that murderers kill because movies taught them to, that teens get pregnant because corporations use sex to sell their wares—even that the traditional values of loyalty and thrift have died because free-agent athletes change uniforms too readily.

But let’s get real: the marketplace is culture’s servant, not its master. The goods purchased in free markets do not determine their buyers’ tastes, they reflect them. If the marketplace serves our cultural predispositions too well, blame not markets but ourselves.

The Lost City would have been incomparably better had Ehrenhalt not shied from identifying the true sources of America’s cultural decay. In fact, he comes close. He notes the awesome cultural influence of the dissatisfied: “[T]he cultural images that come down to us as history are written . . . by the dissenters—by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next.” He just underrates the power of these malcontents’ ideas; he fails to see that our repudiation of ’50s mores and institutions has not been a triumph of the market but a mere intellectual mutiny. The at-home mothers Ehrenhalt credits with keeping ’50s neighborhoods “glued together” and with seeing that the young avoided sin did not hustle off to office jobs because markets seduced them. Rather, they were seduced by Betty Friedan and others who taught them that women at home were oppressed—that Harriet Nelson was a myth or a sellout.

In truth, the last few decades have been a huge lab experiment, the dissenters of the ’50s and ’60s deciding what next to put into the test tube. A little gender feminism here, some radical egalitarianism there, then some environmental deism. On and on we go, heaping intellectual fashion on academic conceit on untested social theory. Stir with the heavy hand of the State and get: the lost culture. For details, see Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed.

What should occupy us is this: Why does the marketplace of ideas not work as well as the one for autos or beer? Why is Susan Faludi better known than Hayek? Why is Ralph Nader a hero? Why is Paul Ehrlich not bankrupt? Considering such questions and studying the special attributes of the intellectual marketplace might be a necessary condition for the reconstruction of a civil society—or, at the least, might keep us from losing it once it is restored.