“If you seek our monument, look in the hole”
I devoured Mark Steyn’s After America: Get Ready for Armageddon within a few days of its release. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit of a declinist, so I tend to nod right along with Steyn’s narrative. An impressive autodidact though he is, Steyn is not an economist, so no doubt the facts and figures he offers to move his argument along will meet with some criticism. (On the other hand, that’s true of just about any facts and figures no matter how great the appeal to authority.) What I find most compelling, however, is his focus on the decline of the American spirit as the result of Americans’ ill-considered experiment in big government. Here’s a key passage on that point:
That’s what “fiscal conservatives” often miss: this isn’t a green-eyeshade issue. Increasing dependency, disincentivizing self-reliance, absolving the citizenry from responsibility for their actions: the multitrillion-dollar debt catastrophe is not the problem but merely the symptom. It’s not just about balancing the books, but about balancing the most basic impulses of society. These are structural and, ultimately, moral questions.
Steyn offers the metaphor of the hole still left almost 10 years later at the site of the 9/11 attacks. The decline of the get-it-done mentality that used to be a trademark of Americanism has been buried under a mountain of multi-jurisdictional red tape, litigiousness, and creeping apathy and self-loathing. As Steyn puts it,
a great power can survive a lot of things, but not “a mediocrity of spirit.” A wealthy nation living on the accumulated cultural capital of a glorious past can dodge its rendezvous with fate, but only for so long. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” reads the inscription on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral: If you seek my monument, look around. After two-thirds of the City of London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, Wren designed and rebuilt the capital’s tallest building (St. Paul’s), another fifty churches, and a new skyline for a devastated metropolis. Three centuries later, if you seek our monument, look in the hole.
I think that’s exactly right, though it brings no satisfaction to say so. We’ve lost much of what makes a robust, resilient, and energetic people by putting our economy under a clumsy and unwieldy set of ever expanding and ever changing rules. Sometimes these rules lead to obviously absurd results, like shutting down kids’ lemonade stands. Most of the time, however, we just put up with it on the assumption that somehow all those rules are protecting us. So what if the remaining generation of Americans have nothing to show for their tenure on earth but a hole in the ground, so long as that tenure is long and comfortable courtesy of free health care and generous pensions?
True, whether that (somewhat exaggerated) trade-off is worth it is, at base, a moral question. Is “mediocrity of spirit” a problem? Do government entitlements contribute to it? These are questions that do not readily lend themselves to empirical analysis. But one’s answers to such questions will tell you most everything you need to know about his politics.