I was looking through the archives of my blog, looking for a book reference I’d forgotten, when I found this old column from Fred on Everything which demands republishing.
Fred Reed looks at what has become of the American character.
Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance…
In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything. The cause is less anything particularly American than the technology that governs our lives. The United States just moves faster in the direction in which the civilized world moves.
Character springs from conditions. Consider a farmer in, say, North Carolina in 1850. He was free because there was little government, self-reliant because what he couldn’t do for himself didn’t get done, independent because, apart from a few tools, he made or grew all he needed, and an individualist because, there being little outside authority, he could do as he pleased.
All of that is gone, and will not return. Freedom has given way to an infinite array of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, requirements. Many make sense, may even be desirable in a complex world, don’t necessarily make for a bad life, but they cannot be called freedom. Various governments determine what our children learn, whether we can paint the shutters, who we must sell our houses to, who we can hire, what we can say if we want to keep our jobs, where we can park, and whether and how we can build an outbuilding.
People who live infinitely controlled lives become accustomed to such control. Obedience becomes natural…
Individualism has withered under the pressure of the mass media and a distaste for eccentricity. Self-reliance died long ago. We depend on others to repair our cars, grow our food, fix the refrigerator, and write our operating systems. The habit of reliance on others has reached the point that even the right of self-defense has come to be regarded as wrong-minded…
Most poignantly, we are become a nation of employees, fearful of losing our jobs. Prisoners of the retirement system, afraid of transgressing against the various governing bodies before whom we are helpless, unable to feed ourselves, we are at least comfortable. We are not masters of our lives.
Dense populations and the complexity of machines and institutions lead inevitably to regulation, which leads to acceptance of regulation and therefore of authority, which becomes part of the national character. This we see. In my lifetime the change has been great. In rural Virginia in the Sixties, you could walk down the road with your rifle to shoot beer cans, swim in the creeks without supervision and life guards and “flotation devices” approved by the Coast Guard, and generally be left alone. Now, no. Regimentation has grown like kudzu. We obey. The new generation knows nothing else..
At the moment we see a great increase in regulation in the guise of preventing terrorism. Other pretexts could have been found and, I suspect, would have been: fighting crime or the war on drugs or something. The result might have been a drift rather than a headlong rush toward control. But sooner or later, technology determines politics. The computer, not the Constitution, is primary.
I suspect that the concern about terrorism is just a particular manifestation of a growing obsession with safety. Not too long ago, Americans were a hardy breed—foolhardy at times, but the one comes with the other. Now we see attempts to eliminate all risk everywhere. Cities fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and remove diving boards. We require that bicyclists wear helmets, fear second-hand smoke and the violence that is dodge ball. Warnings abound against going outside without sun block. To anyone who grew up in the Sixties or before, the new fearfulness is incomprehensible.
The explanation I think is the feminization of society, which seems to be inseparable from modernity. The nature of masculinity is to prize freedom over security; of femininity, security over freedom. Add that the American character of today powerfully favors regulation by the group in preference to individual choice. Note that we do not require that cars be equipped with seat belts and then let individuals decide whether to use them; we enforce their use. The result is compulsory Mommyism, very much a part of today’s America.
Does technological civilization inevitably lead to totalitarianism? Certainly the general fear, in combination with technology, makes a sort of soft Stalinism easy. Just now we move toward national ID cards, smuggled in by linking records of drivers’ licenses. Passports, scanned and linked to data bases, provide a record of our travels. Security cameras proliferate. Some of them read the license plates of all passing cars. Email can be monitored, phones easily and undetectably tapped. Now the government is experimenting with X-ray scanners for airports that provide near-pornographic images of passengers. Whether these will be used for dictatorial ends remains to be seen. Historians may one day note that surveillance, when possible, is inevitable.
What then is the national character today? I think we are first an obedient people. We submit. We are comfortable with authority, and seem to be most comfortable when we are told what to do. We prize security, safety, and predictability. Increasingly we accept being treated like convicts at airports and elsewhere. We want to be taken care of. We can do few things for ourselves. We expect government to decide much that was once regarded as outside of government’s ambit. And we are to the marrow of our bones incapable of rising against the creeping tyranny.
Severian argues that a high tax regime isn’t just about the money.
Taxes have an effect, and it isnâ€™t an accidental side-effect, itâ€™s an ulterior but central purpose: To weaken and distort the messages that bind civilization together, that keep it functioning.
Civilization is made up of very few of these messages: â€œIt is wrong to kill or hurt other peopleâ€; â€œIf someone has something you want, you need to acquire consent from them before you take it and that usually means paying for itâ€; â€œIf you help me get things done I want to get done, I will give you this money.â€ Liberals and democrats want taxes higher, higher, higher, all the time and they donâ€™t have a set amount in mind, nor do they want to pay for â€œpolice, fire departments and park benchesâ€; they just want the taxes to be high, so they can attack that 3rd message that keeps civilization working and functional. Ideally, for them, the tax rate would be 100% and weâ€™d all be fed & sheltered by living on the dole. Then, dependency on the state would also be 100%. Then theyâ€™d reach the â€œfun partâ€ â€” they tell the rest of us what to do, and we go do it. …
Yes, taxes are required to keep civilization working.
Higher taxes bring civilization to a stop. Theyâ€™re supposed to do this. They remove the ability, as well as the incentive, for children to grow into strong, complete, capable adults. Theyâ€™re supposed to do that, too. Minimal taxes are a lubricant. Higher taxes are a solvent.
Remember this next time you hear someone monologue away about the evils of a tax cut.
This is a true story. It happened exactly as described.
It was around noon on election day, November 6, 2012. I was sitting in McDonalds. A group of old retired men were enthusiastically talking about the election. …
A couple was waiting in line. They were a typical, mid-forties, white, middle class couple. They were listening to the old guys discussing the election and the state of the union in general.
One of the retired guys said something negative about “Obama-Care” and the middle-class white guy in line turned to him suddenly and said, “Oh yeah, well I’ll have you know that if it wasn’t for Obama’s healthcare plan, I wouldn’t have any health insurance right now.”
This silenced the old guys. He continued, appearing to speak to the room in general, “Obama made it possible for me to cut the cost of my insurance by over 80%, so I voted for him again.”
The entire room was silent. Nobody said a word. Before I knew what I was doing, I heard myself addressing him.
“You actually sound like you’re proud of that”, I said.
“You’re damn right I am,” he replied indignantly.
“In other words, you’re proud of the fact that instead of paying for your health insurance yourself, you and Obama have ganged up on ME and have forced me, at the point of a gun, to pay for part of your health insurance. You’re actually PROUD of the fact that you are mooching off of me and all those people working behind the counter in McDonald’s… that you’re part of a gang that is using the power of the government to FORCE us to pay for your healthcare. Instead of feeling ashamed… instead of bowing your head and cowering in front of all the people you are depending on to pay for your healthcare insurance… instead of meekly thanking them for the sacrifices they are being forced to make in order to benefit YOU… instead, you stand there claiming that you’re PROUD! What do you have to be PROUD of? Are you proud of the fact that you’re unable or unwilling to take care of yourself? Are you proud of the fact that you’re stealing part of their wages for your own personal greed? No… shame is what you should feel. Disgrace… embarassment… and gratitude… along with a strong dose of remorse… because YOU can’t or won’t take care of yourself and so you joined a mob of others who can’t or won’t take care of themselves… and together you’ve figured out how to force US to take care of you. Shame on you.”
Nobody said a word. The guy was stunned and his wife stood there mortified. The room was absolutely silent for a moment, then one of the retired guys started clapping… and within a few seconds, he was joined by another… then by someone across the restaurant… and pretty soon it sounded like the entire restaurant was applauding.
I had delivered my little sermon while still seated at my table. I remained seated and looked down at my meal… angry at myself for having lost my temper and butting in rather than minding my own damn business.
Within a minute or so, the room quieted down again and everyone went about their business, pretending nothing had happenned.
Then I heard the guy quietly say to the McDonald’s counter person, “Can I change my order… I’d like that, to-go please.”
Life in America gets more like living in an Ayn Rand novel every day.
â€œItâ€™s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.â€
Twenty years ago, Oâ€™Reilly said, Obama would have been â€œroundly defeated by an establishment candidateâ€ like Romney.
â€œThe white establishment is now the minority,â€ he added. â€œThe voters, many of them, feel this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff.â€
The primary issue is not race. Itâ€™s outlook. You have basically two types of people, when considered in the context of electoral politics. One wants to do, and wants to be left alone to do it. The other wants to get, not in the traditional American sense of pursuing happiness…but to have goodies to which one is entitled, and provided for by others.
Since the welfare/entitlement state began in earnest, back in the 1930s, the trend has been consistent and steady. Ignore the periods of exception or backing off the trend, such as when Eisenhower or Reagan were President. These periods were the exception, not the norm. They did not represent the steady direction the country was taking, even at those times.
Before Obama, presidential elections were usually decided by the state of the economy. This is because most people, before Obama, wanted a thriving economy above all else.
Things have changed.
The fact that Obamaâ€”an open redistributer or wealthâ€”won the first time was an indication that perhaps something had changed in American society. …
Obama won. Before 2012, this would not have been possible in America. At the end of the day, a majority would never have voted back into office a President presiding over such a lousy economy. Obama himself, back in 2009, predicted he would not be a two-term President if the economy didnâ€™t appreciably improve. The economy did not appreciably approve. Yet Obama won anyway. …
This is so not the America of 1776. There are still good and great people to be found in this society, and some of them will perhaps still manage to flourish, unless liberty perishes altogether and some kind of a dictatorship takes hold in coming decades. (It certainly can, on our current course, especially with continued debt, deficits and economic decline.)
One thing is for sure. Those of us who yearn to think, live self-responsibly and independently must share a society with a plurality of people who would rather force others to take care of them. Not every single person who voted for Obama is a mooching dependent of the welfare state, of course. The truth is much uglier than that. The majority of people live their lives in such fearâ€”even if theyâ€™re doing quite well for themselvesâ€”that they chose to support the least freedom loving President in our relatively young nationâ€™s history. Obama provides them with the illusion that theyâ€™re not alone, even though they are more alone with a hack like Obama, not less.
The Nation’s David Corn revealed at Mother Jones this “secret video, in which “Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters.” and in which (supposedly) “When he doesn’t know a camera’s rolling, the GOP candidate shows his disdain for half of America.”
The far left seems to think that the startling revelation that Republicans, including Mitt Romney, look down upon the democrat philosophy of entitlement and government dependency is a terribly effective attack meme. Sure, spongers and looters are going to be offended by being identified as what they are, but they weren’t really going to be voting for Mitt Romney anyway.
Hugh Kingsmill, “The Genealogy of Hitler”, section 1, The Poisoned Crown (1944):
Most of the avoidable suffering in life springs from our attempts to escape the unavoidable suffering inherent in the fragmentary nature of our present existence. We expect immortal satisfactions from mortal conditions, and lasting and perfect happiness in the midst of universal change. To encourage this expectation, to persuade mankind that the ideal is realizable in this world, after a few preliminary changes in external conditions, is the distinguishing mark of all charlatans, whether in thought or action.
Michael A. Walsh, in the New York Post, identifies the key issue in the current political crisis, something at stake even more important than economic prosperity: the choice for America of freedom versus dependency.
When did it become the primary function of the federal government to send millions of Americans checks?
For this, in essence, is what the debt-ceiling fight is all about — the inexorable and ultimately fatal growth of the welfare state. If you don’t believe it, just look at President Obama’s veiled threat to withhold Grandma’s Social Security benefits if Congress doesn’t let him borrow another $2 trillion or so to get himself safely past the 2012 election.
The feds now borrow 43 cents of every dollar they spend. Under Obama, outlays have soared to nearly a quarter of GDP (the historical average is just under 20 percent) — and once ObamaCare starts to fully kick in around 2014, it will only rise.
Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and debt interest consume — at the moment — nearly half of our $3.8 trillion budget. …
The debt-ceiling cage match is the culmination of the Democrats’ 75-year-long fight to establish a voting bloc of dependents under the false flags of “compassion” and “social justice.” It’s sapped our strength, created a welfare mentality and, if unchecked, will reduce us to a nation of aging, resentful beggars with eyes cast permanently toward Washington.
The preamble to the Constitution talks about promoting the general welfare, not the welfare state. For the welfare state is incompatible with the rest of the preamble, which concludes: “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” By definition, dependents are not free.
The Fiscal Times reports that the United States is experiencing a level of dependency on government unknown since the depth of the Great Depression.
For the first time since the Great Depression, households are receiving more income from the government than they are paying the government in taxes. The combination of more cash from various programs, called transfer payments, and lower taxes has been a double-barreled boost to consumersâ€™ buying power, while also blowing a hole in the deficit. The 1930s offer a cautionary tale: The only other time government income support exceeded taxes paid was from 1931 to 1936. That trend reversed in 1936, after a recovery was underway, and the economy fell back into a second leg of recession during 1937 and 1938.