Patrick Deneen has an outstanding post reflecting on the financial crisis, and as I mentioned earlier in the week Andrew Bacevich has an article adapted from The Limits of Power in the previous issue of TAC that discusses the relationship of the mentality of endless consumption and the pursuit of continued and expanded hegemony. Following on Prof. Bacevich’s article and working from the title of his book, the easiest way to summarize our predicament is the failure to understand our limits. We do not recognize that means are always limited and resources are finite. Rather than treating credit as a sometimes necessary mechanism, we treat it as a way of life, and our institutions are structured around the deferral of responsibility and the demand for instant gratification that credit represents. More than that, credit was once extended to borrowers who possessed some real property, and now it is extended to those who have none.
As the temporary ability to pay increases, restraint recedes and a culture of feeding and exciting appetites grows. As virtue is the moderation or even denial of appetites, moral integrity in society as a whole weakens as this culture gains ground. When limits to our consumption seem to fall away, the desire for acquisition and domination becomes stronger and it begins to be expressed in our relations with the rest of the world. We begin to define our interests to satisfy unbounded desire, and so the scope of what we believe is rightfully ours expands until it encircles most, if not all, of the globe, and we are then violently offended when our claims are challenged. Coupled with this desire is the fantasy that technology will gradually overcome or address every limitation, so that every barrier to growth will fall sooner or later. The expectation of progress makes us impatient when our excesses lead to collapses, and when those collapses happen responsibility is deferred again and pinned on useful scapegoats whose punishment will allow us to return to our previous unrestrained habits.