I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face…
—Lord Byron, from Darkness
Long ago, an English philosopher once characterized the natural state of the human condition as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”1 Perhaps Thomas Hobbes had it right. But considering the everyday lives of most modern Americans and Europeans, you wouldn’t know it. Until recently, that is. Over the course of our daily lives, most of us probably never give a second thought to how fortunate we Westerners — particularly Americans — truly are. How pampered and privileged we’ve grown accustomed to being treated. Most of us live and work in relative comfort. We cruise around in our SUVs, or other similarly extravagant vehicles, while listening to the latest songs on our I-pod playlist. We go to shopping malls (real or virtual) that cater to our every whim and fetish for things gaudy and gadgety. We chat (or text) away on our cell phones or clatter away on our laptops while sipping gourmet coffee. We see luxuries as mere conveniences and conveniences as absolute necessities. And we demand all sorts of expensive “rights” from our government leaders who seem more than happy to dole them out to us provided we keep electing them to office. We’ve become so used to this coddled — albeit humdrum — way of life that we feel cheated if it is ever somehow denied to us. We see it as no less than our birthright, our inheritance, our legacy. We feel we are entitled to it.
And yet, most of us don’t seem to have a very clear understanding as to how we even got here; or have even the vaguest idea how entirely new and fragile all this is. And for those of us that do, it is a trifling thought that signifies very little as we go about our daily routine. We don’t stop to think that what we call life today in modern Western civilization, never even existed only four or five generations ago. And we have nary a thought that one day it might all just go away. Instead, we go on living in our own world enveloped by a kind of bubble of affluence and entitlement which deludes us into believing that Hobbes’s stark observation of man’s true state of existence is just not so. Or if it is so, then it has little relation to today. In our comfortable time and place, the realities of that other, much bleaker human condition are kept neatly at bay, tucked far away in other times, in other places. In short, we take everything we have for granted.
But only five generations ago, everything was completely different. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, there were of course no I-pods or I-pads or laptop computers. There were no cell phones (the telephone itself was still a new invention.) There was no Internet. There were no televisions, no radios, no air conditioners, no refrigerators, no microwaves, no coffeemakers, not even a pop-up toaster. In fact, the widespread use of applied electricity, as made available to consumers, was in its infancy. The newly invented gas-powered automobile would have been a quirky indulgence. And even basic needs like central heating and running water would have been considered a comfort that only a relative few could afford. Indeed, a world with all of these amazing things in it would have seemed, to the seventeenth century mind of Thomas Hobbes, entirely fantastical. And yet still alive today, there are those few very old folks who can actually recall, from childhood, the harder but much simpler times before any of these incredible advancements in the human condition had come into being. Before the world was utterly transformed.
II. A Brief History of American Capitalism
But what was responsible for this astonishing transformation of the world? What was the overall driving force behind the affluence and technological advancements? Was it government? No, absolutely not. And it definitely was not a large, centralized government. In fact at that time government programs, to the extent they existed at all, were nothing like the costly entitlements of today. Indeed, outside of waging war, the government’s role at the beginning of the twentieth century was, by today’s standards, a very limited one. 2
So what was responsible? In a word, it was capitalism. American capitalism. As the nineteenth century drew to an historic close, the premonitory beginnings of the new twentieth century foretold the advent of an even more momentous age. The decrepit despots and ruling classes of old Europe were on their last legs. Soon, the First World War would snuff them out completely. And in the New World, the age of American liberty and American capitalism — of individual freedoms and free enterprise — was well underway. America had made it through a bitter civil war and survived. And a nation, “conceived in liberty,” had in fact not perished from the earth. 3 Indeed, it was flourishing. America as an idea — an idea of freedom — had taken hold. Liberty, individual liberty, and self-reliance were at work in all spheres, and had become the fulcrum and foundation of the American economy. And they became embedded in American culture and society. The young American nation’s industrial revolution was in full swing. Virtually over night, America went from an agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse. And the nations of old Europe looked our way with envy and a desire to emulate. And emulate they did, but they only got so far. Caught up in class struggles and internecine conflicts, and tied down by the vestiges of their own feudal past, capitalism in the American sense never quite took root in Europe. The façade of capitalism was erected but deference to the central authority of the state remained. It would take yet another World War and then a Cold War for European nations to finally try to put misguided ideologies behind them. Yet even today much of Europe still seems poised to slip back into the false calm of despotism.
Nevertheless, as the new American century moved forward, the power of American capitalism, and the wealth it created, was spreading worldwide anyway it could. And as the reach of America’s brand of capitalism extended elsewhere, it began to utterly and fundamentally alter the lives and living standards of Americans and Europeans. Indeed many Europeans, not willing to wait for prosperity to come to them were now emigrating to America’s shores in droves. Capitalism was lifting off the shade of night and raising America and the world into a bright new realm of limitless possibilities. Unfettered freedom in the markets, freedom in the exchange of thoughts and ideas, created and still today creates the nurturing environment — the incubator — for individual initiative and innovation and invention to take place. It was the “pursuit of happiness,” that our founders had so eloquently bequeathed to us, made actual and real. Individuals, not governments, reliant on no one, other than themselves, armed with freedom and a desire to succeed: that was the simple but beautiful idea — a dream almost — upon which the young American nation was founded and that Americans were actually living.
And, at least until recent times, it was an idea that was lived by Americans without undue interference or “assistance” by government. Quite the contrary, it was a formula that worked precisely because government was removed from it. As little government as possible; only that government which is absolutely necessary — these were the things our country’s founders warned us about over and over again. But somewhere during the past one-hundred years or so, between New Deals and Fair Deals, between Progressive Reforms and Great Societies, between Social Justice and the Nanny State, between Hope and Change, we allowed government to gum up the works. Big time. We are now a full-fledged entitlement economy, society, and culture which is something the founders of this country never wanted us to be. Individual self-reliance and initiative have gone by the wayside. They have been supplanted by a group mentality of entitlement. We look to government now, rather than ourselves, for “rights” and other “free” stuff, and we are embittered and angry if ever we are denied our due. Moreover, we are made to feel justified in these feelings. Indeed, over the years we have been encouraged and conditioned by weak leaders within governments and by a misguided media culture to see these things — this grand benefits package — as our heritage.
But as we choose to remain an entitlement society, we shall go the way of all entitlement societies: sooner or later, the bubble bursts. And when it does, that other, cruel Hobbesian world comes rushing in.
III. Greece: The Collapse of an Entitlement Society
In Greece, that bubble has burst. The momentous events in Greece over these past several weeks and months have been a rude awakening for the Western world. Greece, the epitome of a modern entitlement society, has finally come crashing down. For decades, Greek citizens have relied on government entitlements and subsidies: unaffordable state jobs, excessive state pensions, government healthcare and other high-priced government programs and, consequently, the country has amassed unsustainable debt. They’ve simply run out of money. Now, the government’s long overdue attempts to rein in spending through a variety of austerity measures — a requirement of their multi-billion dollar bailout by the European Union and the largely United States funded IMF — have forced the Greeks to give up the entitled way of life that they had grown accustomed to and accept another, harsher reality. As a consequence, Greece has erupted. The Greeks have resorted to looting and rioting and lawlessness, resulting in anarchy and death.
At present, the only thing keeping the Greek economy alive today is the massive infusion of loans from the IMF and the European Union. The Greek economy and society have simply come undone. And it is dark days indeed for the Greek people: nasty, brutish and short. They must now try to start over. To search for the pieces of their past lives through the dark of starless nights and the sulfurous pall of extinguished days. To rethink the future and to relearn, perhaps, what they had never really taught themselves in the first place.
Now, comparable calamities are foreseen in the other entitlement nations of Europe: particularly Spain, Italy, Portugal, Great Britain and Ireland. If one or more of these nations experience similar death throes then the dominos will surely begin to fall. Some experts suggest that any number of obscure triggers may set things off and send fundamentally profound tremors undulating through all of the industrialized world’s economies. 4
Obviously, this all has potentially dire implications for the United States. But the Greek example illustrates a larger point: the inevitable predicament that all entitlement societies, including the United States, eventually find themselves in. As the debt grows, it eventually swallows up the nation’s capacity for production. Like in Greece, ultimately the nation’s economy is devoured entirely by national debt and becomes no more. Essentially, entitlement economies feed upon and finally consume themselves until there is simply no economy left. So is present day Greece a glimpse into the future of America? Are we coming undone too?
IV. Are We Coming Undone?
Well to start with, we are a nation and government that bears little resemblance to the one that existed just four or five generations ago (to say nothing of the one that the founders envisioned). We were then a land of immigrants — mostly European immigrants— who fled our respective home countries to come live the promised dream of America. But the sad irony is that now we have more in common with Europe and European systems than ever before. A recent study by the Heritage Foundation finds that one in five American households now depend on the government for assistance with basic necessities (e.g., food, housing, etc.) And one in eight households now rely on the government for food-stamps. This is to say nothing of unemployment subsidies, education subsidies and the advent of subsidized healthcare. All this, the study finds, while the number of Americans who actually pay the taxes to ostensibly support this government largesse is shrinking. 5
And, all the while, the government continues to grow. Recent federal government stimulus programs, government bailouts of industries, and now government-run healthcare have been heaped onto an already growing mountain of national debt. The government has become an enormous and myriad conglomeration— a colossus — of bureaucratic programs, agencies, divisions and departments that siphon billions off the nation’s wealth just to pay for the interest on the debt alone. While Greece’s debt to GDP ratio is at an unsustainable 110% the United States is now not far behind, with a recent CBO report estimating U.S. debt will rise to a staggering 90% or more of GDP by next year! 6 Continuing down this path, “we can expect a default on government promises (Medicare, Social Security, Healthcare), higher interest rates on U.S. government bonds or even a flight by foreign investors like China to alternative investments, and a drop in the value of the dollar, raising energy and consumer costs and spreading inflation throughout the economy.” 7 All of this resulting in a dramatic decline in American living standards for generations to come. Eventually, the colossus topples and falls.So these are all very disturbing statistics. Numbers shocking enough to provoke any reasonable government official to take action and change course. Or at least one would think that. And yet today we have leaders in government who seem not the slightest bit concerned by any of this – on the contrary they are willing to go even further in this direction. Indeed, our President actually comes right out and says, and seems to truly believe, that government and more government is the only solution for America. And he is aided and abetted in this view by a complicit mainstream news media that borders on a ministry of propaganda.
But what’s more is that we, as a people, seem perfectly willing to accept this madness; and that is the real tragedy. Apart from a few vocal dissenters, today we, the people, look to government for solutions rather than ourselves. With our dependable entitlements and our reassuring affluence, with our mania for creature comforts, and in our sheer arrogance and complacency, we have moved well beyond mere apathy and into the mindset of dependency. We have lost our way and drifted far, far away from what we were one hundred years ago, and before, into something that we were never meant to be. We have allowed ourselves to be cajoled, nudged, and deceived by those in government who would have us depend on government rather than ourselves; so much so that we now feel entitled to our dependency. But dependency and liberty can never go together. So we’ve traded in one for the other. Now we’re left with platitudes from politicians, slogans of hope and change, images on the television, and our own vanities. We are left with the mere trappings of liberty. But not liberty itself.
So how long can America remain on this tragic, catastrophic course? How much longer can the unsustainable be sustained? How long before we realize that we have become Greece? Before we realize the inevitable, tragic collapse?
In a way, Greece is lucky that they are the first. They are lucky that there are still solvent institutions like the IMF and EU to come and bail them out. But what happens next? What happens to Spain, to Italy, to Portugal, to Great Britain, to Ireland? Who comes to bail them out? What happens to California? To New York? To Michigan? To Louisiana? To Florida? To Pennsylvania? To the whole of the United States? What happens when the economy completely shuts down? When currency becomes worthless paper? When investments, retirement accounts, savings accounts are completely wiped out? When there is no longer a monthly check from the government? When there is no food on the shelves? No electricity? No heat? No running water? When people have nothing left to lose; when we have finally come undone? Because sooner or later in an entitlement economy, society and culture, it all comes undone. And, frighteningly, these sorts of things always seem to happen sooner than anyone expects.
Darkness falls. And the night comes swiftly.
V. Conclusion: “We Are Americans”
It was a simple formula that the Founding Fathers gave us. Individual liberty combined with self-reliance in the pursuit of one’s own happiness. A simple and beautiful and common-sense formula; not some pricey entitlement and benefits package. We were given an elegant thing by very courageous, brilliant and generous men, and we threw it away; or rather so abused and neglected it that it is as good as thrown away.
However… However, individual liberty, self-reliance, free-enterprise, the free exchange of ideas and freedom of speech and expression — these essential ingredients that make up the rare alloy of capitalism — come from America and nowhere else. They come from our shores. They may have taken root elsewhere in the world, and thank Heaven for that, but they are American “inventions” if you will and they are what make us unique. America is the birthplace of these things and they are our true legacy, our real inheritance. Capitalism, the free-market way, is the unique American way. It is as American as apple pie or a Norman Rockwell painting. It is in our blood, so to speak. It is our culture. And for that reason, so long as we remain Americans, we can always naturally return to it.
And we will return to it. With the passing of this year’s Memorial Day into night and into day again, and with this week’s remembrance of D-Day and the consequential days that followed it, I am reminded that this country has seen dark days and darker nights before. This nation has faced formidable — seemingly insurmountable challenges — and has overcome them. And so I am reminded of this nation’s greatness, its uniqueness. I am reminded of its tenacity and inner strength. I am reminded of its love of freedom and individualism. And I am reminded of its people — our people. Our people are not the Greeks. We are not the Italians. Nor are we Spaniards or Portuguese. We are not English, nor Irish nor Scottish. We are not Germans nor are we French. We are not Russians. We are not Asians, neither are we Arabs. We are not Africans, we are not Australians, and we are not South Americans. We are neither Mexicans nor are we Canadians. We are, rather, all of these, and something much more.
We are Americans. E Pluribus Unum, is the Latin phrase. Out of many, one. And as Americans, we shall triumph over the undreamt of troubles that for us Fate has set in store. We shall change our course and right our faithful ship, as we have done so many times before. We shall come through this dour darkness to look yet once more into each other’s face, in the bright early light of a newly dawning day. 8
1: The full Thomas Hobbes quote:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” –Leviathan, Ch. 13.
2: Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States national debt as a percentage of GDP was only around 10%. United States currency was tied to the gold standard. There was no Federal Reserve Bank. And there was no Federal income tax — that would have to wait until 1913 with adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For a great website on the history of U.S. Government, taxation, spending and debt, click here: http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/index.php
3: The full Gettysburg Address:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” –Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.
4: Washington Post article:
6: Washington Times article:
7: Heritage Foundation article:
8: The poem:
We Are Americans
We are Americans.
E Pluribus Unum,
Is the Latin phrase.
Out of many, one.
And as Americans,
We shall triumph
Over the undreamt of
Troubles that for us
Fate has set in store.
We shall change our course
And right our faithful ship,
As we have done
So many times before.
We shall come through
This dour darkness
To look yet once more
Into each other’s face,
In the bright early light
Of a newly dawning day.
– by Elbert Soler
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