Charles Hill identifies our time, the age of Decadence, as the period of time lying between the decline and the fall of a great civilization.
Toynbee [predicted] that the creative minority behind great civilizations will, as the civilization begins to decline, transform itself into a dominant minority that takes on the vulgar and promiscuous behaviors of society’s low-life. So in the post-Cold War period America’s “cultural elite”... adopted distinctly coarse attitudes and practices. A Vice Presidential case in point: When the wife of Senator and later Vice President Gore attacked the violence and misogyny of some rock and most rap lyrics, she was scolded by most of her social and political peers. Why were four-letter words, formerly seen by the upper-middle class as déclassé, now appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had “the hooker look” become a fashion trend among nice girls from the American suburbs? How had multiple body piercings and tattoos, which a few decades ago marked only sailors and motorcycle gang thugs, become trendy?
Toynbee would have shrugged and said simply that we are witnessing the self-proletarianization of the American dominant minority. Happens all the time. Yet there is reason to suspect that the primary cause of this vulgarization may rather be the adoption of a broad cultural style that enhances the elite’s power. In a polity that has been shedding its Founding Fathers-designed barriers against Athenian-style direct democracy, the power elite ever more requires the protective camouflage of proletarian class superiority. Flaunting coarse conduct and a combat boots dress code adds heft to the elite’s domination. So in place of the classically tripartite elements of the soul—reason, desire and spirit, according to the parable of Leontias in Plato’s Republic, or in earlier America, self-reliance, Christian-Roman virtues and patriotism—a new triad emerges: claims on government, vulgar behavior and a yearning for relief from world leadership.
This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue.Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.
The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior. This is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “moral man and immoral society” turned on its head, where hedonism takes cover beneath a superficial global moralism.
The virtue shift has been paralleled by a governmental shift. As gifted politicians have sensed the changing psychology and national character of the country, they have learned to constantly scan the political horizon to identify each special interest group, make the necessary promises and then move to satisfy each group’s claim on government largesse, or its demand for deeper government intervention to enforce adherence to each group’s behavioral choices. Throughout most of American history people were preoccupied with how to prevent government from becoming corrupt. In our time, governments have discovered how to corrupt the people. It then follows that the more corrupted the people become, the more numerous the laws must be, thus further aggrandizing government’s indispensability.
Robert Reich Kevin D. Williamson responds devastatingly to a recent editorial by Professor Robert Reich advocating increased limits on tax deductibility for private philanthropy.
Prayerful people bargaining with God over lottery numbers no doubt imagine that they would do some worthy things with that money, on top of buying a Ferrari. Progressives imagine all the wonderful things they could do with other people’s money, and no doubt some of them are well-intentioned. But envy poisons whatever good intentions they have, which is how men such as Professor Reich come to write resentful indictments of people who are, remember, giving away billions of dollars of their own money. He’d prefer their money be given away by him, or by bureaucracies under the tutelage of men such as himself. As the moral philosopher Hannibal Lecter put it: “He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Megan McArdle once observed that in our public discourse, “very rich” is defined as “just above the level a top-notch journalist in a two-earner couple could be expected to pull down.” There is no envy like the envy of a $250,000 man in a world of $250 million men, as Robert Duvall’s crusty newspaper editor explains to a financially frustrated employee in The Paper: “The people we cover — we move in their world, but it is their world. We don’t get the money — never have, never will.” But being in that world, they learn to covet, which helps explain why Professor Reich’s old boss, Bill Clinton, ended up with $50-odd million in the bank after a lifetime of public service.
Americans gave away $316 billion in 2012, and will give away as much or more this year, and Professor Reich composed 731 words to explain the problems related to that. He should have composed two words, especially relevant to this season:
Jonah Goldberg discusses how the base philosophy of American government has changed. We are now ruled by people, like Barack Obama, who believe that they know better than we do ourselves what’s good for us.
Several times now, the president has endeavored to explain that it’s not that big a deal millions of Americans are losing their health-insurance plans against their will. The people who had plans they liked didn’t understand that the plans they liked were no good — they were the actuarial equivalent of trans fats, don’t you know? The fact that the people who held them liked them, thought they were good, and wanted to keep them doesn’t count for much, because the government knows best.
The president can’t say it as plainly as he would like, because to do so would be to admit not only that he lied to the American people, but that he thinks the complainers are ignorant about their own needs and interests.
The president’s more intellectually honest defenders have said exactly that. “Vast swathes of policy are based on the correct presumption that people don’t know what’s best for them. Nothing new,” tweeted Josh Barro, politics editor for Business Insider.
Barro’s fairly liberal, but I’d be dishonest if I said that he was wrong from a conservative perspective. The difference, however, is that conservatives tend to see government as a necessary evil, and therefore see policymaking with some humility. Liberals tend to see government as a necessary good, and see ordering people to do things “for their own good” as a source of pride, even hubris.
From a conservative perspective, telling people how to run their lives when not absolutely necessary is an abuse of power. For liberals, telling people how to run their lives is one of the really fun perks of working for the government.
You can see the frustration on the president’s face. It’s almost like the ingrates who refuse to understand that his were necessary lies for their own good are spoiling all his fun.
Dan Greenfield identifies the philosophy of the would be gun controllers and explains on which side historically statists demanding a governmental monopoly of force are really on.
The gun issue is about solving individual evil through central planning in a shelter big enough for everyone. A Gun Free Zone where everyone is a target and tries to live under the illusion that they aren’t. A society where everyone is drawing peace signs on colored notepaper while waiting under their desks for the bomb to fall.
That brand of control isn’t authority, it’s authority in panic mode believing that if it imposes total zero tolerance control then there will be no more shootings. And every time the dumb paradigm is blown to bits with another shotgun, then the rush is on to reinforce it with more total zero control tolerance.
Zero tolerance for the Second Amendment makes sense. If you ban all guns, except for those in the hands of the 708,000 police officers, some of the 1.5 million members of the armed forces, the security guards at armored cars and banks, the bodyguards of celebrities who call for gun control, and any of the other people who need a gun to do their job, then you’re sure to stop all shootings.
So long as none of those millions of people, or their tens of millions of kids, spouses, parents, grandchildren, girlfriends, boyfriends, roommates and anyone else who has access to them and their living spaces, carries out one of those shootings.
But this isn’t really about stopping shootings; it’s about the belief that the problem isn’t evil, but agency, that if we make sure that everyone who has guns is following government orders, then control will be asserted and the problem will stop.
It’s the central planning solution to evil. ...
Gun control does not control guns, it gives the illusion of controlling people, and when it fails those in authority are able to say that they did everything that they could short of giving people the ability to defend themselves.
We live under the rule of organizers, community and otherwise, committed to bringing their perfect state into being through the absolute control over people, and the violent acts of lone madmen are a reminder that such control is fleeting and that attempting to control a problem often makes it worse by removing the natural human crowdsourced responses that would otherwise come into play.
People do kill people and the only way to stop that is by killing them first. To a utopian this is a moral paradox that invalidates everything that came before it, but to everyone else, it’s just life in a world where evil is a reality, not just a word. ...
[T]he Democratic Party is no longer the party of Thomas Jefferson. It’s the party of King George III. And it doesn’t like the idea of armed peasants, not because an occasional peasants goes on a shooting spree, but because like a certain dead mad king who liked to talk to trees, it believes that government power comes before individual liberty. Like that dead king, it believes that it means this for the benefit of the peasants who will be better off being told what to do.
The question is the old elemental one about government control and individual agency. And tragedies like the one that just happened take us back to the equally old question of whether individual liberty is a better defense against human evil than the entrenched organizations of government.
The key dynamic of statism requires some kind of government action in response to any problem making the news. It doesn’t really matter that gun control legislation will actually only disarm law-abiding, rational people who have no disposition at all to commit violent crimes. What matters is that government must be seen to be operating to solve the problem. Whether the problem is really solved or not is immaterial. Statist responses are symbolic expressions of power, designed to assure the masses that their rulers are in control. There is no necessity for causality to reach beyond the symbolism to the facts. As long as the pageant of identification of a PROBLEM is followed by a supposed SOLUTION and RESPONSE, government has proven its indispensibility, affirmed its authority, and justified its existence. The issues of ineffectuality and untoward consequences can easily be obfuscated away.
Lexington, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775, militia members resist government confiscation of assault weapons.
We are just in the throes of a great revolt against marriage, a passionate revolt against its ties and restrictions. ...
[E]verybody, pretty well, takes it for granted that as soon as we can find a possible way out of it, marriage will be abolished. The Soviet abolishes marriage: or did. If new ‘modern’ states spring up, they will certainly follow suit. They will try to find some social substitute for marriage, and abolish the hated bond of conjugality. State support of motherhood, state support of children, and independence of women. It is on the programme of every great scheme of reform. And it means, of course, the abolition of marriage. ...
[T]he first element of union is the Christian world is the marriage-tie. The marriage-tie, the marriage bond, take it which way you like, is the fundamental connecting link in Christian society. Break it, and you will have to go back to the overwhelming dominance of the State which existed before the Christian era. ...
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the social life of man made by Christianity is—marriage. Christianity brought marriage into the world: marriage as we know it. Christianity established the little economy of the family within the greater rule of the State. Christianity made marriage in some respects inviolate, not to be violated by the State. It is marriage, perhaps, which has given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the State, given him his foothold of independence on which to stand and resist the unjust State. Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects, and a few square yards of territory of their own: this, really, is marriage. It is a true freedom because it is a true fulfillment, for man, woman, and children.
Do we want to break marriage? If we do break it, it means we all fall to a far greater extent under the direct sway of the State. Do we want to fall under the direct sway of the State, any State? For my part, I don’t.
Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.
Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”
The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.
George Savage explains the “heads, we win; tails, you lose” character of liberal statism.
Nowadays in America, statists win even when they lose. More specifically, under our dominant cultural assumptions the failure of any left-liberal policy leads, inexorably, to its entrenchment and expansion.
For the Left, this is a feature not a bug.
The most striking example is public education, where a nationwide left-liberal apparatus directs a producer-centric system that delivers an objectively awful product at absurd cost. Our exquisite political sensitivities limit the mainstream debate to the input function: more resources, smaller class sizes, additional teachers’ aides. When education funding is increased, dues skimmed from union paychecks entrench leftist politicians responsible for the failing status quo. Win win.
As they say on late night television, “But wait, there’s more.” Sustaining an incompetent educational system yields a multiplier effect: the formation of poorly educated citizens ill-equipped to challenge misinformation and outright lies from their rulers. This is how, only thirty years after the Reagan Renaissance, Barack Obama could claim financial crisis and recession resulted from laissez faire government circa 2007. He was confident that a majority of voters would be ignorant of the facts. And he was correct.
He mentions Obamacare, but neglects to note that health care reform was advanced to solve the problem of out-of-control health services costs, and those extraordinary costs really came about as the result of cost transfer billing in response to Medicare price controls. Government intervention creates the problem, so you get an even greater government intervention in response to “the free market’s failure.”
Former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz, in the American Scholar, gives a travel anecdotal spin to the usual liberal statist claptrap.
We were living in a middle-class suburb of a small city: lots of single-family houses with neat gardens, all of them surrounded by walls. Here are some of the things you would see on the other side, the public side: overflowing dumpsters; unpaved streets lined with garbage; smoldering trash fires; little rows of shanties tucked into corners of the neighborhood for the local servant class, the kind of miserable hovels that stretch for miles in places like Mumbai; and a small, polluted lake that no one in their right mind would have swum in. We never drank from the tap, of course; even certain kinds of produce were said to be unsafe. The phone was temperamental, too, and so was the television cable. One thing we were thankful for, however: we could breathe without feeling like we were damaging our health, something that could not be said in any of the larger cities we visited and the reason we were living where we were.
Being rich in a poor country, I discovered that year, is like being rich and poor at the same time. We could eat in any restaurant we cared to, could have had a fleet of servants at our disposal had we so chosen, but we couldn’t buy our own electric grid, or water system, or air.
I’ve thought of all this during the debate we’ve been having this election season about the extent to which business owners are responsible for their success. On the one hand, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, trying to remind entrepreneurs that they didn’t build the highway system themselves, or put their employees through school. On the other, people who continue to insist that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Well, let them go to India and see what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t take public services for granted. We’ll see how far their bootstraps get them there.
Too many Americans, goes the common complaint, want other people to pay for them. Yet the same is true in generational terms. We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now—I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978—we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before.
Left-wingers like Deresiewicz look at the world through pink, political lenses, seeing everything around them as the creation of the coercive administrative state. They also consistently award the State credit for the achievements of Society, Culture, and the Individual.
It has somehow escaped Mr. Deresiewicz’s attention that both America and India only have electricity in the first place because Thomas Edison lived in an economically free country where he could profit from invention.
America doesn’t have more reliable electric service than India because of Government. Our power grid works more reliably than India’s because we possess cultural traditions promoting individual responsibility and India is only slowly overcoming very different cultural traditions of dependence, exploitation, collectivism, and corruption. Our power system is the creation of private companies operating in a competitive market system governed by the rule of law.
The reliability of our power system is assured by self interest and the profit motive. In India, the delivery of power is a consequence of political decree as is any economic return to its providers. In America, if you fail to deliver services, even in a natural monopoly context, competitors are available to step in, you are replaced and go out of business. In India, politicians simply decide which satrapy will exploit what and whom. Performance, like profit, is secondary and beside the point.
People like Mr. Deresiewicz are, in reality, agitating for us to become more like India rather than vice versa. Their goal is to take decision-making power out of the hands of consumers generally, and give it instead to politicians. Instead of the free enterprise feedback system of profit and loss based on performance and competition, they want a system in which politicians, as in India, are simply allowed to select winners and losers.
If William Deresiewicz had his way, we would very shortly become a lot more like India.
Wesley J. Smith identifies the liberal dream: Utopia achieved by the power of the administrative state wielded by scientific experts.
Liberals, what do they really want? Not the communism or socialism of the right’s fever dreams. They know that didn’t work. Today’s liberal agenda is more akin to the corporatist vision of the 1920s and ’30s—an economy in which the state directs the activities of the private sector to achieve ideologically desired ends. But even that description doesn’t quite get to the nub of it. Liberals today seek to create a stable, and what they perceive to be a socially just, society via rule by experts—in which most of the activities of society are micromanaged by technocrats for the economic and social benefit of the whole. In other words, social democracy without the messiness of democracy, like the European Union’s rule-by-bureaucrats-in-Brussels. This is the “fundamental transformation” that President Obama seeks to implement in this country.
When you come right down to it, all this is so early last century. The liberal is the intellectual who learned essentially nothing from the last century. Barack Obama might just as well be William Jennings Bryan in blackface.
The democrats came up with an unfortunately memorable line in this video from last night’s convention.
Referring to “belonging to” the Government provokes in libertarians like myself a kneejerk reaction of antipathy to being classified as a serf. Of course, our democrat friends did not really mean to imply that we belong to the Government, in the sense that the Government owns us and we are its slaves.
No, they meant to describe us as belonging to the Government in the way one belongs to a club or to one’s parish church, as a nice, positive communitarian sort of thing.
The problem is that clubs and even churches are voluntary associations. If I get fed up with the BPOE, if I decided that I’m not getting enough of a benefit from my annual dues to the Shenandoah Fish & Game Club or the Yale Club of New York City, I can resign. I can quit attending St. George’s Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church any time I feel like, and join the Primitive Baptists or simply stay home and sleep in on Sunday as I please.
Belonging to the Government obviously does not work that way. Back in 1969, when I received a letter headed with Greetings, and signed by Richard Nixon, I did not really have the option to leave the club. If I didn’t show up for the meeting being held at 5:30 AM at the Draft Induction Center in Mahanoy City, they would have come looking for me. It’s the same way with club dues. Americans are not able to send the IRS a letter on April 15th informing them that we’ve decided to resign our membership this year and won’t be paying any dues.
Democrats seem to differ fundamentally from the rest of us in how they look at things. Myself, I find it impossible to feel very positively about any club that conscripts me into membership whether I like it or not, and which collects its dues at bayonet point. One might paraphrase the late Groucho Marx, and say: “I don’t particularly want to be a member of any club which forces me to join and which will not allow me to skip meetings or resign.”
Mitt Romney responded:
Barack Obama, in a statement to an audience in Roanoke, Virginia, gave one of the all-time classic statements of collectivist denial of individual achievement. He said: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
How long has it been since you heard somebody politely ask permission to do something (like light a cigarette) and heard the reply: “It’s a free country.” In my own experience, it’s been a long time.
Jerry has an excellent essay, reflecting on how far things have come, and just where America’s wound up.
This is not a nation where people are left alone anymore. This is a nation where they are hounded from the moment they are born until the moment they die by the arms of a regulatory state run by men and women weaned on Cleaver, Alinsky, Fourier, Marx, Wells and countless others. This is a nation where, accordingly, being left alone is the greatest of luxuries. ...
ObamaCare is one of the final declarations that there is no opting out. Even if you don’t drive, own a home, own a business, own a dog, or do one of the infinite things that bring you into mandatory contact with the apparatus of your local, semi-local, trans-local, national or global government, you are committed to a task from maturity to death. Your mission is to obtain health insurance, and, in a system in which you become the ward of the government as soon as you taste air, it is the price that you pay for being alive.
In a free country, you are not obligated to do things simply for the privilege of breathing oxygen north of the Rio Grande and south of Niagara Falls. But this isn’t a free country anymore; this is a country in which you get things for free. And there is a big difference between those two things.
We are a nation in which everyone is entitled to everything, except the right to opt out of all the entitlements and the cost of paying for them. We may not have the Bill of Rights anymore, but we have a hell of a bill to settle and, every year, the deficits keep making it bigger and bigger. Our forefathers passed on to us a Bill of Rights, and we shall pass on to our descendants a Bill. A tremendous Bill which can be unrolled from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam… and all the way across the ocean to China.