There is a shift occurring in the United States, a tectonic shift that is imposing statism in a land predicated on limited government.
In the not very distant past, mediating structures served as a barrier against managerial despotism. But these structures have been under assault for decades and are showing signs of weakness and decay:
• The family has been undermined by divorce and illegitimacy.
• Schools have eroded rigor and standards.
• Churches resemble social institutions more than religious centers.
• Associations like Rotary and Lions are suffering from insufficient enrollment and a lack of interest.
The America Tocqueville described in the mid-19th century is largely gone, a testament to the past when national identity was being refined. The New Hampshire slogan “Live free or die” is great for license plates, but not for contemporary politics.
Some would argue that big government is a natural consequence of living in a bigger and more complex nation than was the case 100 years ago. Needless to say, this is obvious. But what is not so obvious is that incrementally the government has assumed the position of granting rights to citizens instead of having citizens grant rights to the government.
During this onset of the recession it was believed by members of both parties that extending government power was essential in dealing with the economic vicissitudes of the moment. In doing so, however, the politics of grievants has emerged. If the government uses its largesse to address social woe, how are rights determined and who allocates the benefits? A government insistent on hand-outs will be a government that encourages grievance.
Let me not overstate the case. Despite an inclination to support limited government as the nation’s founders did, my issue with the Obama administration, to cite one example, is that it is weak where it should be strong and strong where it should be weak.
For example, the president has put his prestige and influence behind a healthcare proposal that a majority of Americans oppose and that will shift healthcare willy-nilly to the public sector. By contrast, Iran has violated the non-proliferation agreement, has abused its citizens for contesting electoral manipulation, and has been the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Yet the president who should recognize and resist these challenges seems weak and unresponsive.
The road to serfdom is paved with rights and benefits. People want more of whatever someone else will pay for. The casualty in this assessment is personal responsibility and liberty.
We are not yet an authoritarian state and my hope is that America never will be one, but it is imperative that we guard against that eventuality, recognizing that the rights we invent come with a corresponding withering away of freedom.
Big government may not be a problem if it exercises power judiciously and in ways that promote American interests. Yet it is also true that government has a stake in perpetuating itself. It may not always be the problem, but it is rarely the solution and all the programs that the American people covet may in the end alter the America they once loved and admired.
Now let me comment on the other side of the coin. Despite a breakdown in personal responsibility, a dumbing down of the population, and defining cultural deviancy down, the U.S. with all its flaws and imperfections is, in my judgment, the exceptional nation.
A common misperception is that the U.S. is in decline. In fact, there is a “declinist” school of historical analysis comprised of Dean Koh, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Geoffrey Hodgson, Amy Gutman, Richard Sennett, Andrew Bacevich, Fareed Zakaria among others who believe in historical inevitability, a Marxist view that the forces of historical determinism are not on our side.
But, like Charles Krauthammer, I think declinism is a choice.
Americans are the most resourceful and resilient people on the globe. We don’t shrink from challenges. The biggest mistake any politician can make is to underestimate the people of this great land.
I realize things often look bleak and indeed are bleak, but it is important to realize the U.S. is the land of miracles. We turn detritus into energy; failure into success, and we do it routinely.
I’m reminded, at this moment, of verses from Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be An American.”
“I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.”
“And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today for there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the U.S.A.”
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial" (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and "America's Secular Challenge" (Encounter Books).
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