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Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform

14 August 2008

These are unconnected but related observations about America.  Subjective observations, one man’s views.  I am confident you will find them of interest.  Comments are welcomed! 

After 200 years of success — even more counting the years as a colony, during which the uniquely American character evolved — America has developed some disturbing characteristics.

The American character

Our State has grown so great that we have grown small.  Under its administrative tutelage we have developed a taste for grovelling, selfish, materialistic equality — becoming acquiscent to a centralized, authoritarian government.  How can we rekindling the love of liberty that blossomed in 1776?

Liberty is the only corrective for our vices, new and old.  Only liberty can drag us away from the worship of money ad our preoccupation with our small private affairs.  There are times when liberty alone can relacethe love of comfort with higher and more active enthusiasms, can provide ambition with loftier aims than the acquisition of wealth and can shed enough light to lead people both to see and judge their vices.

Liberty is a school of virtue in which men and women learned to be citizens by exercising their rights and carry out their duties.  Only as citizens do people attain their fullest stature.

The easy slide to soft despotism

A soft despotism fosters the growth of those defects to which we are especially prone, and drives us in the direction we were already going due to our natural inclinations.

A free market economy easily combines with a society devoted to personal independence to produce motes.  Men are no longer tied to each other by race, class, unions, or family.  We are too ready to think merely of our own interests, to think merely of our own interests, to consider no one but themselves — to withdraw into a narrow individualism where all public good is snuffed out.

Despotism, far from fighting against this tendency, makes it irresistible since it deprives all citizens of shared enthusiasms, mutual needs, the necessity for understanding, opportunities for collective action.  it confines us to private life.  We were moving towards isolation; despotism confirms it.

We are cooling in our feelings for one another; despotism will freeze them solid.

A natural, easy, and wrong response to growing government power

A growing number of people are not taken in by a pretence of an increasingly illusionary freedom.  They have stopped taking an interest in government and live in effect within their own walls.  Occasionally our leaders attempt to revive the patriotism which had led to so many wonderful achievements in our past, but over time each such effort produces less result. 

Our leaders wish that we vote whatever they believe necessary to maintain the empty charade of a free election, but over time more and more people stay away.  History has no more common spectacle than this.  Almost ever ruler who has destroyed freedom sought to keep its outward form, from Augustus through today.  Thus ruler flattered themselves that they would be be able to add to their power the moral authority which comes from public consent,

Government Finances

All the above might still allow us to stumble along for generations.  Unfortunately there is an approaching danger which might bring things to a boil.  As former Comptroller-General David Walker and others have long warned, our government has run up liabilities that we cannot pay.

Worse, the ramshackle finances of our government are inextricably bound up with private vested interests of all kinds that reform, however necessary, is impossible.  The current regime appears doomed to bankruptcy, and its crash might bring down the whole structure of society — which must afterwards be rebuilt brick by brick.

Conclusion

This is the best thing I have ever written.  Or it would be, except that these words were written first by Alexis de Tocqueville.  The bad news is that these excerpts are not from Democracy in America — but from The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, describing life in the last generation or so of the doomed monarchy of France.

Written between 1852 and 1856, its warnings should today ring loud and clear to us.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  11. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  12. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  13. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  14. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008 

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 August 2008 3:13 am

    The following jumped into my head as I read the above, “the elimination of causes does not always eliminate the effects which have had the origins in those causes” – Guicciardini (1984 [1561]), The History of Italy, Sidney Alexander.

    Maybe like the city states of Italy equilibrium seems to have been lost and while the globe wrestled with rebalancing & looking to new external powers, America has fallen sort on its cold war image both to its domestic and foreign audiences.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Great quote, insightful point. Thanks for the comment!

  2. judasnoose permalink
    14 August 2008 4:38 am

    “A growing number of people are not taken in by a pretence of an increasingly illusionary freedom. They have stopped taking an interest in government … Our leaders wish that we vote whatever they believe necessary to maintain the empty charade of a free election, but over time more and more people stay away. History has no more common spectacle than this.”

    This is pretty much why I am critical of attempts to mobilize collective action within the existing framework of pseudo-legitimate politics.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe that this trait is a symptom of rot, not a policy prescription. Reform efforts repeatedly failed in France’s Ancien Regime, leading to the bloody French Revolution and the dictatorship of Napoleon. Signing on to a program going in that direction by passivity does not seem wise, in my opinion. Nor do I see how this is compatable with any sense of responsibility as a citizen.

    However, as de Tocqueville notes, it is good preparation to be a serf.

  3. Tree Frog permalink
    14 August 2008 4:41 am

    Is that 1952 supposed to be 1852?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, and thank you for catching this!

  4. plato's cave permalink
    14 August 2008 5:40 am

    Not a word in here about democracy! Tsk, tsk! Apparently, in your view, democracy or the ideal of equality have seduced us into selfish individualism and ruined our sense of civic responsibility. But democracy hasnt done this, “liberty” has — liberty in the JS Mill sense of freedom to do anything we want as long it doesnt harm another. This sense of liberty is also the underpinning of modern economic liberalism, and so you are saying that “liberty” in the economic sphere has undermined “liberty” in the political sphere.

    Everything in our political and popular culture says that economic freedom is the ultimate blessing of democracy. Maybe that fuzzy philosophy is to blame for the ills you see.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand this “Not a word in here about democracy!”

    This is a 800 word post quoting a book about France’s Ancien Regime, noting some similarities between their problems and ours. Not much scope in terms of content or room to factor in the role of democracy.

    Also, since the Ancien Regime long predated Mill’s “sense of freedom” — in either theory or practice — that seems a poor explanation for the diagnostic similarities between them and us.

    These historical analogies cannot be taken too far, but remind us that our problems are not unique. And so, perhaps, are the solutions. I believe this is important esp for Americans, as we often tend to seek solutions from new flashy theories — rather than look to history. America might not be as exceptional as we believe it to be.

  5. Mikyo permalink
    14 August 2008 3:12 pm

    Perhaps we could begin with deBushification. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Republican party? :P
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, that would put us on the fast track to late Roman republic-type social wars. After President Johnson and Carter the Repubs could purge the Demos, and after Bush vice versa.

    After all, it could not help to consider that our opponents might have some valuable insights and that we should work together.

    I suspect an objective analysis would show that the policy differences between the two parties are quite small (certainly by international averages, probably by historical US standards). I recall that a political science theory says that the differences between parties become more personalized as the policy differences grow smaller. The the need to differentiate themselves remains when policy differences diminish, so they resort to demonizing the opponents.

    “While our foreign policies are almost identical and domestic policies are similar, my opponent is a fiend in human form — while my supporters are angels of light.” {not an actual quote}

  6. FxConde permalink
    14 August 2008 4:35 pm

    The observation of demonizing is very accurate. Many liberal/Democrats hate President Bush but for the most part he is a pro life moderate and is in general closer than many other politicians to their cause. The citizens are at fault for many of these problems. We have allowed ourselves to be turned into special interest groups by category and then separated to be sold to the political elites. This is reflective of a personnel immaturity which seems to be plaguing our society. I find this very disturbing. To fix the direction of the country we must convince people, who are essentially self centered children, to become independent real adults. It is a tall task.

  7. plato's cave permalink
    14 August 2008 4:51 pm

    (FM) “This is a 800 word post quoting a book about France’s Ancien Regime, noting some similarities between their problems and ours. Not much scope in terms of content or room to factor in the role of democracy”

    (PC) Sorry, I thought the words below referred to contemporary America:

    “Our State has grown so great that we have grown small. Under its administrative tutelage we have developed a taste for grovelling, selfish, materialistic equality — becoming acquiscent to a centralized, authoritarian government. How can we rekindling the love of liberty that blossomed in 1776″

    You have made similar statements elsewhere: “we have sacrificed liberty for equality and prosperity.”

    Obviously democracy is an experiment in trouble, and “equality” is a notion that frightens a lot of people. I’m not willing to return to an ancien regime of class, privilege or wealth, however. Your remarks about a loss of connectedness (and empathy, i might add) with the social groups we share the world with, are going in the right direction.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “I thought the words below referred to contemporary America”

    Agreed, that was my thought on reading these words. Written 150 years ago about events 200 years ago, yet they could have been written today.

    De Tocquiville, with his great love of liberty, did not write as a fan of the Ancien Regime or advocate a return to class privileges. He described the decay and rot of that regime — which makes the correspondence disturbing.

  8. Mikyo permalink
    14 August 2008 5:58 pm

    Change back to a conscript military. It would be stronger, or at least larger. It would cost less. Assuming that ‘fortunate sons’ also had to risk the draft, then maybe our leaders would be forced to use them more cautiously. Or am i dreaming?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There is a sufficient number of people willing to serve in the military — if well compensated. There is IMO widespread and intense public opposition to a peacetime draft. Opposition among the elites — few of whose children now serve — is esp extreme.

    The political calculus is obvious. We might as well seek to save energy by changing the value of G or pi.

  9. Mikyo permalink
    14 August 2008 8:00 pm

    There is also a sufficient number of people willing to serve Blackwater, or enlist in a Freikorps. I don’t feel safe with them. With respect, some jobs should never be given to the kind of people who would volunteer for them.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you believe this applies to the military? It is quite a high bar, disqualifying for a job anyone who wants it. Sounds to me as if we would have a military of dissatistied and disinterested people, who would leave when there term is up.

    Not exactly the people needed to make the extreme committment of time and energy necessary to master the complex and demanding (both mental and physical) requirements of a modern military. No can most of these jobs be mastered in four years. Where would you get the long-service officers, NCO’s, and technicians needed?

  10. Mikyo permalink
    14 August 2008 9:18 pm

    I am not sure. But i do believe that there is a great difference between a citizen army and a professional army. I thought maybe changing from one to the other might have been a mistake. What i fear is a privatized army. One of men loyal only to their paymaster.

  11. 14 August 2008 9:33 pm

    Where would you get the long-service officers, NCO’s, and technicians needed?

    There’s no reason why you couldn’t offer attractive benefits and high pay to people who choose to stay on after their term of conscription expires. Think of the conscription as a “trial period”; high command could look through the masses of conscripts for soldiers who perform particularly well, and try to romance them into making a career out of the military.

    But I’m not sure you’d even need incentives like that. Throughout most of American history a military career meant low pay, shoddy benefits, glacial promotion and generally being viewed by polite society as a kind of voluntary eccentric, and yet there were enough who wanted a military career despite all that to keep a small Regular Army together. In World War II many of those Regular Army soldiers (like Eisenhower) performed with great distinction as leaders of draftees.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What would be accomplished by replacing an equivalent number of volunteer first-term troops with draftees? Their morale would be far far lower, their reenlistment rates far lower. Hence maintaining the force would probably require drafting far more people, which would require more staff for training — both of which would reduce the savings.

    Consider randomly drafting people to be librarians or construction workers, then looking “through the masses of conscripts for those who perform particularly well, and try to romance them into making a career out of” library science or construction..

    I believe this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If we reduce our ambitions to dominate the world, we could have a much smaller military. As Chet Richards shows in “If Only We Can Keep It”, our military’s current size is disproportionate to that required to defend the US.

    This is the key to your last point: through most of our history we could field a tiny tiny regular military despite “low pay, shoddy benefits, glacial promotion and generally being viewed by polite society as a kind of voluntary eccentric.” If we had attempted to field the largest military in the world, that would have required a bit better conditions.

  12. 14 August 2008 10:42 pm

    What would be accomplished by replacing an equivalent number of volunteer first-term troops with draftees?

    I’m not advocating a draft (though if we continue on the road we’re on today a draft is probably the only sustainable option). I’m just responding to your question about how you could maintain a core of technically skilled and/or long-service personnel in a conscript Army.

    This is the key to your last point: through most of our history we could field a tiny tiny regular military despite “low pay, shoddy benefits, glacial promotion and generally being viewed by polite society as a kind of voluntary eccentric.” If we had attempted to field the largest military in the world, that would have required a bit better conditions.

    Well, of course, but that tiny tiny Army was never expected to win wars (beyond banana-boat punitive expeditions and the like) on its own. It was expected to provide the scaffolding around which a real Army could be mustered via conscription in an emergency. The problem today isn’t the way we recruit the Army, it’s that we perceive ourselves to be in a perpetual emergency, requiring a perpetual mobilization.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree with all this. My point was that recruiting long-service people to maintain our vast military is a major challenge, and switching to a draft would make this task more difficult. You replied:

    “But I’m not sure you’d even need incentives like that. Throughout most of American history a military career meant low pay, shoddy benefits, glacial promotion and generally being viewed by polite society as a kind of voluntary eccentric, and yet there were enough who wanted a military career despite all that to keep a small Regular Army together.”

    True, but of little relevance to us. That was sufficient to maintain a very tiny regular army — not today’s vast military establishment.

    Whether we need this vast military is a different question.

  13. 14 August 2008 10:44 pm

    Mikyo’s fears are reminiscent of Marius, Sulla and the shift of allegiance from state that occurred under Marian rule. That aside;

    I think you have to bear in mind the financial limits to private militias and the essential division between current conflict, possible future conflict and the maintenance of American hegemony. America’s military is so massive in expenditure and bureaucracy and it’s strategic scope so vast that it’s hard to imagine the likes of Blackwater playing much more than a tiny part in it.

    As for conscription, you’d swell the ranks but you’d dilute the quality, or even divide the military along Conscript/Professional lines. People that choose to serve will likely not look well upon people that are forced to serve and vice versa. Bad idea all around. Better to make the benefits of volunteering more competitive.

  14. judasnoose permalink
    15 August 2008 12:49 am

    “extreme committment of time and energy necessary to master the complex and demanding (both mental and physical) requirements of a modern military. No can most of these jobs be mastered in four years. Where would you get the long-service officers, NCO’s, and technicians needed?”

    Is the purpose of the military only the defend the US, or is it to “go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”?

    There is a simple way to maintain a “modern military,” but one that would ultimately destroy the state to save the nation.

    Simply start training with firearms in grammar school. Require basic proficiency in military science for all high-school graduates. Require all college graduates to know enough chemistry to synthesize explosives. Make home arsenals more common than home computers. Be prepared to keep the policies in place despite a massive uptick in American-versus-American gun violence.

    Of course, revolution and civil war would break out, because the USA is no longer a unified nation but rather a divided empire of subcultures. But there would a gun behind every blade of grass, and no one would dare to invade.

    For the less bloodthirsty, an alternative would be to simply stop going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and focus the effort on healing America’s numerous subcultural divisions. That would mean a vastly diminished military, and a vastly decreased amount of foreign policy bribery. The US would have to shrink back into being a republic — it would be a loss of glory! God forbid that the US might no longer lead the world in military modernity!

    The USA is parasitized by plutocrats. The plutocrats make money from US social decay. Ergo, one must either get rid of the plutocrats or tolerate the social decay.

    If one tries to rebuild neighborhoods, walk the precincts, get the vote out, and otherwise work within the system — the plutocrats will skim all the profits out of the system, and all your effort will merely serve to enrich your enemies.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Interesting analysis.

    “If one tries to rebuild neighborhoods, walk the precincts, get the vote out, and otherwise work within the system — the plutocrats will skim all the profits out of the system, and all your effort will merely serve to enrich your enemies.”

    Is this said on the basis of extensive analysis by multi-disciplinary teams and extensive computer modeling? Revelation from God? Psychic powers? It must be something certain, to justify abandoning any civic responsibility. Nothing like certainty of failure to rationalize passivity.

  15. judasnoose permalink
    15 August 2008 1:02 am

    “Reform efforts repeatedly failed in France’s Ancien Regime, leading to the bloody French Revolution and the dictatorship of Napoleon. Signing on to a program going in that direction by passivity does not seem wise…”

    Refusing to work inside the system does not mean total passivity.

    There are also ways to work outside the system.

    Consider a Jane Q. Hypothetical, a Daughter of the American Revolution who decides it is impossible to work within the system.
    1) She could remain within US territory and arrange a high-publicity civil disobedience arrest;
    2) She could emigrate to Russia and set up a newspaper telling the world why America has gone wrong;
    3) She could emigrate to the Gaza Strip, and try to help Palestinians as a protest against US-Israel collusion;
    4) She could become a Quaker war correspondent, write for justworldnews.com, and get linked by Fabius;
    5) She could devote her life to spray-painting anarchist slogans in public places;
    6) etc.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: These conversations on this site are astonishing. It appears that are many folks who evidently consider the US a dictatorship like NAZI Germany, justifying the extreme steps you describe in these comments.

    Folks will apparently go to great lengths to avoid real work, like organizing and working elections and the many simple steps that produce real change in societies. Comic book fantasies that you’ll never actually do are so much more fun.

  16. FxConde permalink
    15 August 2008 5:06 pm

    I’m currently running for my assembly district and I can say it’s been an interesting experience. Money is the lifes blood of the political process. My district is considered “safe” for my opponent and with the current economic conditions it has been impossible to raise any money. The party will help with a little time support but thats about it.

    Talking with many people in my district I find that the dependency factor is huge. Single mom’s want to know how I will help with health insurance or daycare etc. Seniour citizens want to know how I can get the government to help them. The only groups I have talked to that want any form of independence are small business owners. This may just be my district and I’m sure as I walk more I’ll find more independent people but it has me concerned.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this update. You are on one of the front lines in the struggle to shape America. My thanks to you for running. Please keep us posted on your experiences, and any insights you gain from this process.

  17. 16 August 2008 2:27 am

    “Folks will apparently go to great lengths to avoid real work, like organizing and working elections and the many simple steps that produce real change in societies. Comic book fantasies that you’ll never actually do are so much more fun.”

    Yup. Folks like you, Fabius, will run a hobby site like this one instead of running for office yourself. So you and I appear to have exactly the same bragging rights in terms of civic responsibility.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I was responding to what you said — that is what makes this a discussion — not what you do or what you are. I draw no comparisons between us, let alone bragging rights. You may be an ideal citizen by your standards, which are of course all that matter.

    I have never run for office. And I have zero results to show for 25 years of work for the Republican Party. So running this site cannot be less effective than my direct political involvement.

    Nor did I say that running for office is the highest form of citizenship. Rather the opposite, stressing its many expressions. To draw a crude analogy, consider I Corinthians 12 27:30…

    “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”

    All I ask is that each of us do something. Despair and passivity are greater dangers than any enemy. Which is where we started this discussion.

    P.S. Running this site is, as judasnoose says, just a hobby. Like building ships in bottles, but easier. While not as contributing to the a sense of community as well as does, for example, membership in a bowling or softball team, it keeps me off the street.

  18. Mikyo permalink
    17 August 2008 12:50 pm

    “… as if we would have a military of dissatistied and disinterested people, who would leave when there term is up…”

    Let us hope that our soldiers remain happy in their work. How sad if war became unpleasant, perhaps even a thing to be avoided.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: How unfortunate if we — including you — need our army to defend us against well-motivate soldiers or terrorists of other states or non-state groups, and they are not their — having taken up other occupations where they are more appreciated.

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