Take a simple proposition: anything government messes with gets messed up worse. This was the basic insight of Philadelphia, briefly revived by Ronald Reagan. Pollster Scott Rasmussen finds that by a 2-1 margin, American voters agree that no matter how bad things are, Congress can always make them worse. Go around the globe and ask whether anyone believes that government works. You will hear yes only from folk who stand to gain from the state—contractors, pensioners, bureaucrats, and officeholders.
Think Katrina. The terrifying winds, deluges drumming down unceasingly, the ocean bursting dikes to drown a city—these are not the images that spring to mind. These are the sturm und drang common to all big blows. They do not shout, “Katrina!” What springs to mind with that cry are those 11,000 trailer-homes sitting uselessly in a field in Arkansas while thousands of people in New Orleans went without shelter. The ruling evocative image is not the ferocity of the storm; it is the bumbling incompetence of government.
When will it dawn on our intelligentsia that the world is properly apprehended by poetry, not didacticism? Ask e.e. cummings, what is spring? Spring is mudluscious and puddlewonderful. Ask Bill Shakespeare, what’s love? His answer: Sonnet 29—“Haply I think on thee, and then my state,/ Like to the lark at break of day arising/ From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” It is the evocative image seizing upon and possessing the imagination that—out of the whirling billions of images our neutrons are capable of receiving all at once, dizzyingly, like exploding galaxies—sifts the welter for us and catches reality, if only by the toe. (Sufficient victory!) Those trailer-homes defined the lessons of Katrina: the stupidity and inefficacy of government.
Just four years after that hurricane, we were slammed by a financial crisis that diagnostically—all apart from Wall Street greed and obscene executive salaries—was caused by government: by that spittle-spraying Barney Frank egging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into promiscuously churning out mortgages to people who could not afford them. That’s the illuminating face of the collapse: Barney Frank manipulating the public purse for ideological ends.
The White House and its rubber-stamp Congress rammed through a “stimulus” package costing zillions of dollars, vastly expanding government spending on pet projects but doing little to resuscitate the credit-famished private sector. Franklin Roosevelt tried much the same remedies during the 1930s, and they failed; they only worsened the Depression. That this is an historically unassailable judgment does not matter to the lobotomized knights errant of our liberal-arts education. Recent experience does not matter either: Japan’s economy continued in the doldrums and the ruling party fell. But the boys in power here are smarter than the lessons of the past.
Never mind that we are committing fiscal lunacy, condemning the nation either to bankruptcy or ever stiffening taxation draining energy from the economy in mortal doses. If present demographic trends continue, an ever diminishing productive sector will be called upon to support an ever expanding geriatric ward. But don’t do the math. Zeal is important; adherence to doctrinaire authoritarian nostrums is what counts. Government spending, government meddling, expanded and ever more invasive government is the sovereign remedy for all ills, jock itch and herpes included.
Our deaf-and-dumb left-wing activists are being yanked along by the snout of their blind faith in government. That brought us the futile War on Drugs, a federally directed effort that not only has failed to reduce consumption of toxic substances at home but now promotes civil war in Mexico; brought us the Department of Energy that in all its multi-hundreds of millions of dollars of spending has yet to produce a kinetic flaring of the imagination or by as little as one dollar per barrel prevent OPEC from extorting the world economy; brought us the Department of Education, which since Jimmy Carter has achieved a 30 percent drop-out rate among high-schoolers and sent test scores lower than Latvia’s. Let’s for pity’s sake not get into the Army Corps of Engineers. Nor into the department of highways and byways and related asphalt screw-ups whose chief business seems to be naming stretches of interstate after otherwise nameless grubs in Congress. I won’t mention Amtrak. Nor the Post Office. Government bails out General Motors using billions of dollars it does not have, cans its president, bilks its bondholders, ends up assuming possession of the company in partnership with the United Auto Workers, and now proposes to resurrect its fortunes by producing expensive little green dream machines that nobody wants to buy.
The logic is unassailable because it does not depend upon reason, which proceeds from wisdom, which is gained by reflection on past performance and intelligent deductions from the same. Our alchemists are innocent in their ignorance of the ills their social engineering can wreak. But not entirely. Bubbling under the surface is a malign serum—the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate. A free people must ever be alert to this devil. Power is intoxicating. I forbear from repeating Lord Acton’s axiom: thank me. But power mobilizing the resources of an entire people through the monopoly of the state can be irresistibly seductive. Some people seem to be born with the surety that they know better. They are Lucy, and to them we are all Charlie Brown. Contempt for the dumb unwashed masses, though unspoken, is integral to their psychology.
Who are these elite? Why, those who think uncommonly well of themselves and of whom the rest of us are advised (by them) to think even better. Listen to the glabrous philosophers on “Washington Week” with their superior drawls and insufferable airs of being in the know. These are our schoolmarms: social engineers of all descriptions from wacko climatologists to homeopathic health addicts, Hollywood savants as prolific in their political wisdom as they are in their marital infidelities, and, of course, denizens of the Beltway who seek to justify their parasitism on the body politic and perpetuate it.
The new element in this mix is the messianism of Barack Obama, a deeply complex person who believes his sacred mission is to change this Republic irrevocably. As little as Mr. Obama is repelled by banana-republic despots, he is so addicted to centralized authority that he apparently has no understanding of the principle of subsidiarity and falls into the hubris of thinking that, as Pope Benedict puts it in Caritas in Veritate, “political reasoning [is] omnipotent.”
The old formula of the power-hungry was tax, spend, and elect. The improved formula is to stampede (a not unwilling) Congress into spending unimaginable sums—$10 trillion is the latest estimate—and elect the right sort forever. There is no going back.
I overheard a snippet of conversation at lunch. There had been a wedding reception at our little club the night before that lasted from 9 PM until 6 AM. (These are Spaniards.) Four hundred guests, feeding and drinking nine hours straight.
One reveler confessed to another, “Me emborraché anoche” (I got drunk last night.)
“Como?” (How?) asked his friend.
“Con paciencia” (With patience.)
It’s the impatience of the Obama regime that shows how besotted they are with power. There is a gnostic spirit in this revolution: transparent in the arrogance and urgency of Obama is a desire to raise up the City of Man into the City of God. The stimulus bill was pushed with apocalyptic fervor. No time to think, to consider, to debate, to reflect. Not even to read the 1,000+ pages. It had to be passed now or the country would fall into ruin. Three quarters of a trillion dollars! That single episode mocks the apologetics of democracy, whose structural safeguards of minority opinion are being steadily undercut. The “new federalism” preached at various times over the past two decades is the old power play by the Potomac, rendering lower levels of government impotent. Local will is an encumbrance.
The instances of pigheaded government bungling across the country are manifold. We now have 15 newly appointed czars—a novel ruling caste in our society: unelected—presiding over major sectors of our struggling economy, only one of whom boasts any executive savvy at all. The background of Obama’s high priests is entirely bureaucratic. But, as historian Michael Burleigh reminds us, past experience and the deductions to be drawn from it do not count in the mindset of the “laicized leftwing messiahs” at the helm, who are all—the president chief among them—politicians and bureaucrats.
If our medical system does not cover everyone in the United States, why, throw government at that, too, spend another $2 trillion the Treasury does not have, adopt the nationalized system that has been ruinous to the quality of medicine in Canada and England and Denmark and Sweden and everywhere else it has been tried, to the end that the sore afflicted in those countries who can afford to do so fly to the United States for treatment.
The implications of the Obama Revolution, which has come upon this Republic so suddenly, are scaring not only middle-class Americans but professional observers. In commenting on the Obama national healthcare plan, for example, urbane political analyst Mark Steyn writes, “More than any other factor, it dramatically advances the statist logic for remorseless encroachments on self-determination. It’s incompatible with a republic of self-governing citizens. The state cannot guarantee against every adversity and, if it attempts to, it can do so only at an enormous cost to liberty.” He concludes, “Big government becomes a kind of religion: the church as state.” St. Augustine popped that bubble 1,700 years ago, but who among our graduates from colleges of the liberal arts reads him? This second decade of the 21st century may be tabbed by historians as La Deuxième Republique Americaine, because the Republic founded in Philadelphia will be henceforth unrecognizable. Our founding perception of what is desirable in the role of government and our governing institutions—restraint—will have been changed irreversibly.
In 1878, on the occasion of the opening of Johns Hopkins University, Thomas Henry Huxley gave a remarkable address. He predicted that by our second centennial our country would “be occupied by two hundred millions of English-speaking people …” Respecting the numbers, he was close. He went on,
You and your descendants will have to ascertain whether this great mass will hold together under the forms of a republic, and the despotic reality of universal suffrage; whether states’ rights will hold out against centralized bureaucracy; and as population thickens in your great cities, and the pressure of want is felt, the gaunt spectre of pauperism will stalk you, and communism and socialism will claim to be heard.
Startling how much of this has happened to our country. Whether Barack Obama and his fellow believers kid themselves that they are only responding to economic distress and social crisis or knowingly, cynically scheme to establish bureaucratic control over every facet of existence in this country, radically restricting individual liberty, is beside the point. Whatever their motives—grant that they are well-meaning—they are, alas, playing the popular hand.
Herein the decisive political factor, which Mr. Huxley could not foresee: today’s American people want serfdom.
This our political commentators either have not caught up with or find too hot to voice. Whereas just three generations ago, during the Great Depression, it was accounted shameful to go on the dole, today’s American people, conditioned by the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society, swill with bovine contentedness from the slop bucket of government with never a twinge of conscience. Neither intellectually nor spiritually nor morally do the American people resemble the English-speaking and culturally English-centered populace that Huxley had in mind, nor do we resemble that now mystical generation that Tom Brokaw consecrated as “the greatest.”
We retain as a people a residual skepticism about what good, if any, government can do, but we have in the main become a mewling mass of spoiled adolescents, debauched in our personal and civic morals and stinking of materialism.
It is a fast-dwindling minority who can trace descent back to the Magna Carta. We were tall and lean, at least in our self-image; we are now squat and puffy, if not glutinously obese. We were Gary Cooper, now we are Jackie Gleason. In posters past, Uncle Sam was a tough, hard, Connecticut farmer, who barked “I WANT YOU!” and meant it. In posters future, he will be city-soft.
We were once free men who came of free stock, or from stock who longed to be free, who sacrificed and fought gladly for freedom. We are now descended in large numbers from people who never knew freedom, whose cultures have been immemorially autocratic. When this land was founded, we were artisans. We were peasants, farmers, freeholders. We built things, and we made things grow. We fed ourselves off our labor and off our own land. We now descend from the urban infestations of medieval cities past (in Europe) and present (in Asia and Latin America). Most of us now have never owned arable land, almost none of us have grown the crops or pastured the animals that feed us. In the mid-1960s, startling statistics were spun out claiming that half a million children in New York City had never seen a live chicken and did not know that milk came from cows.
The ancestors of today’s Americans bear no resemblance to the British yeomen Huxley was basing his prognostications on; many of the ancestors of this new American people lived off the scraps of the rich, the nobles, the monarch, the Industrial Revolution. The ancestors of a critical and growing mass of present-day Americans existed in dungheaps of humanity amid rotting vegetables. Ponder the human squalor of India. Go visit the poblaciones of Chile. Their like are everywhere in Asia and South America, and that’s where increasing numbers of our people are coming from.
I am not for closing our borders to refugees from want. I am solely pointing out that we are not of the same stock as of yore, with a heritage of doctrines of personal freedom tracing back nearly 900 years, with the desire to stand tall on our own feet, not revert to the status of serf dependent on the lord. Boiling in our blood no longer is the fierce desire for liberty nor a native resentment of the state.
This is evident in the royalism implicit in the Camelot of the Kennedy era for which our media pine so ridiculously, and also in the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton (almost) presidential succession of recent years. Liberty is difficult. We hanker for a king or a strong man or a ruling elite. We are an obsequious people now. It seems to elude us that a nation is great not because of its government but because of its people and that there is an inverse relationship in that maxim: the greater the government, the weaker the people. In just three-plus generations, we have become unrecognizable as the Americans addressed by Mr. Huxley.
I’ve been reading the recently republished Letters From Russia by Adolphe de Custine, an insignificant literary figure in the France of Louis Philippe until he visited St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other parts of Russia for four months and published his account, which became an instant success that ran through multiple editions. He describes the absolute despotism of a barbaric civilization, and from his comments we at last understand that the common thread running between the imperious czars of 19th-century Russia and Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev of the 20th century and now Vladimir Putin is the servile Russian character, which is so totally submissive to authority that there is a frightening absence of what we like to think of as soul.
The peasants of Russia at the time were serfs. They weren’t emancipated until 1861 under Czar Alexander II, “the Liberator.” They were of the land as though engendered by and born of its soil. They possessed no value, distinction, character, no identification other than as workers of that soil. When Russian princelings bought and sold land, they bought and sold what Nikolai Gogol entitled his novel—Dead Souls.
Upon hearing that they were going to be sold, peasants commonly, according to de Custine, sent a delegation to a landlord who was reputed to be benign. He might live at a distance from their part of the country; it didn’t matter. The delegation would beseech this boyar to buy their land, that is, them. He likely protested that he did not dispose of the funds. The delegation of peasants came prepared for such a response. They offered this potential master the funds, from their own pockets, required for the purchase of the land, for the purchase of themselves.
Let’s run that through once more: we have the peasants selling themselves into continued serfdom with their own money. One wonders why they didn’t simply buy themselves free. Were they too servile in character and horizons to think of that? Had their imaginations been rendered unable to rise beyond hoe and spade? Not exactly. The authoritarian structure of Russian society did not permit impudence from peasants.
I am struck by how similar is the case between those dehumanized peasants of 19th-century Russia and 21st-century American citizens. When we express our discontent in Tea Parties or at town halls, we are committing a social faux pas because we are being rebellious against the authority of our masters in the White House and Congress. We live under the sufferance and by the edict of Washington. We offer the government our hard-earned money to purchase our souls. (We say votes.) And when there is insufficient cash in the Treasury for whatever purpose, we offer our bondage as surety, paying interest on the debt or making good out of higher taxes, that is, out of our labor. We pay for our progressive subordination to the will of our rulers; we pay for our continuing enslavement, as did Russian serfs.
A definitive revolution is taking place as I write, here, in my stone cottage in Spain, gazing into the blue Cantabrian hills, ruminating, regretting, while you on the other side of the ocean sleep. Irreversible measures are being charted, draconian statutes are being passed, perpetual bureaucracies are being established, all dikes of restraint are being burst through and a flood of debt is being loosed that, like the waters of the Gulf that drowned the Big Easy, threatens to snuff out the lights of our city on its hill.
Reid Buckley is founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking. This essay is adapted from his pamphlet “Why Barack Obama et al. Cannot Think.”
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