Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Politics, Government Dependency, and Western Exceptionalism
n his famed Farewell Address, George Washington exhorted Americans never to let their culture of liberty and self-reliance weaken. The Constitution, over whose framing he presided, was a remarkable achievement, he acknowledged; but in the end, it is just a parchment barrier against tyranny, a dead letter if the spirit that animates it gutters out. The real Constitution—the one that safeguards the written one against the schemes of omnipresent, power-hungry demagogues—lives in the hearts and minds of the citizens; and parents, teachers, and preachers must never forget their duty to nourish it and keep it vibrant. That is what makes Americans Americans.
Vain words. For decades, those who shape our culture, from grammar-school teachers to newspaper editors, from professors to presidents, have striven to inculcate precisely the opposite lesson. Their main points: this is not a free country but rather one that has oppressed along race, class, and gender lines from its birth to this very moment. There is nothing exceptional or admirable about it or the tradition of Western civilization it rests upon, but rather it is a force for worldwide exploitation and oppression. Individuals can’t be self-reliant because only government is powerful enough to protect them from the devouring power of corporations. Nor are individuals the engines of progress: Thomas Edison didn’t build that; Jonas Salk didn’t build that; Steve Jobs didn’t build that—it took a village. Nor did their efforts create wealth that wouldn’t exist but for them, for wealth creation is a natural occurrence, like Old Faithful, while only poverty is anomalous and requires an explanation. Government functionaries aren’t power-hungry, self-interested people like everyone else but rather benevolent experts, dedicated to turning the most up-to-date knowledge into programs for the public good. Government exists not to protect our God-given liberty but to make us equal through redistribution—to bring about equality of condition rather than to ensure equality of opportunity. Moreover, it can do the job that families used to do better than the traditional family ever could, from raising children to caring for Grandma, from womb to tomb. Merit is really a disguised by-product of privilege, from career success down to high scores on school tests, which result from expensive tutoring, high-priced private education, and costly test coaching.
Though George Washington was too clear-sighted about the perversity of human nature to cherish any sentimental fantasy about the perfectibility of man, he nevertheless shared the humanist and Enlightenment view that individuals, through reason, ingenuity, creativity, effort, and knowledge (from experience and study), could make themselves into good citizens who could better their own condition and contribute to the welfare of all. He believed, with most of the Founding Fathers, that nature had endowed man with freedom for just this purpose and that using this freedom for self-improvement and for the good of the community gave life its meaning. Today’s official culture is more a culture of dependency rather than of freedom. It sees individuals as something like gerbils in the government’s cage, depending on allotments of state-supplied kibble (bought with the tax dollars of the productive) while they copulate, reproduce, and die, occasionally running pointlessly on a wheel with no thought of a higher purpose.
Many people mouth the platitudes of this new culture, more European social-democratic than American in spirit. But only a portion of Americans really live by it. The great task of politics at this moment is to change the American mind back to a full-throated, rather than embarrassed, belief in enterprise, creativity, freedom of thought, and individualism and its concomitant stress on self-reliance, self-control, and self-improvement. Policies are important, to be sure; but ideas and beliefs ultimately drive politics, and they can’t be left to take care of themselves. They have to be articulated and battled for—a job too important to be left to the schoolteachers and professors. It is a job for citizens, and doing it is what citizenship means.