Dying by entitlements

By Janice Fiamengo
October 15, 2012

Mark Steyn has done a spate of interviews recently on the occasion of the paperback release of his 2011 bestseller After America: Get Ready For Armageddon. A few weeks ago, he remarked to Canadian television host Michael Coren that, contrary to those who claimed his predictions about American collapse were alarmist, he now finds that, in the wake of American credit downgrades and the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi, his warnings were actually rather moderate. In hundreds of pages of outraging and depressing detail, Steyn shows how the United States of America has mortgaged its future, put ideological conformity above all other values—whether of knowledge, prosperity, national security, or cultural survival—and is declining into a state of moral lassitude that heralds catastrophe.

Such decline is not only an American story, as Steyn’s title indicates. The whole world will be affected by the loss of American influence, as aggressive yet unstable regimes step into the breach. When Britain ceased to be the dominant power following World War II, the transition of leadership to the United States was all but seamless, but that will not be the case when nations shaped by illiberal values assert their dominance. And unlike the gradual unraveling of countries such as France and Italy, the American collapse could well be swift and brutal. As the only great nation in the world founded on an idea, the United States is unlikely to stay together once that idea has died. With its strength sapped by intrusive bureaucracy, economic torpor, and loss of moral purpose, it could in a short time begin to break up. The ensuing leadership vacuum will, Steyn predicts, be disastrous for the world, producing not a new world order but world disorder, “a fractious planet of hostile forces.”

How did things come to such a pass? Simply put, America stopped being a nation founded on the ideals of freedom, self-reliance, and local government, with the self-confidence that came with those. Almost imperceptibly at times—and in dramatic, contentious lurches at others (the New Deal, ObamaCare)—it shifted towards collectivism, cradle-to-grave security, and control of its subjects’ lives; the shift has resulted in a precipitous decline in personal responsibility and productivity. Within a decade, as Steyn calculates, it will be “spending more of the federal budget on its interest payments than on its military,” and many in leadership positions will be glad to have it so, believing the exercise of power in the world to be a bad thing. But domestic spending in the name of “compassion” is not only unsustainable but fundamentally unreal, as Steyn points out: “There’s nothing virtuous about ‘caring,’ ‘compassionate’ ‘progressives’ demonstrating how caring and compassionate and progressive they are by spending money yet to be earned by generations yet to be born.” And the spending is not even the main issue—though certainly a pressing one—but is rather a symptom of a more profound societal sickness.

As such a summary suggests, After America is a disquieting book, an angry lament for a once-proud nation on a course to disaster. And no one is better equipped to write it than Steyn, syndicated journalist and well-known conservative commentator whose earlier book, America Alone, chronicled the problems of Western Europe and the increasing isolation of the United States. An articulate nay-sayer both admired and reviled for his willingness to explore unpopular subjects, he became the subject of a human rights complaint for his writing inMaclean’s, a Canadian magazine, about the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Although he was not found guilty, the incident illustrated the West’s current peril, in which Islamists use the tools of rights protection against those who seek to safeguard and exercise rights, and it consolidated Steyn’s credentials as a defender of free speech. What he has to say in After America has been said by others before him, but his version of the story is particularly robust and riveting.

The title notwithstanding, After America is most valuable not for its predictions about the imminent future but for its magisterial account of what has gone so wrong—and so suddenly—with America. After the extraordinary technological advances of the first half of the twentieth century, invention and innovation have now been largely replaced by government regulation. Almost all that remains of the American can-do spirit is “a memory of faded grandeur” in a country that no longer aims for the moon, literally, or has the will to secure its borders, prevent crime, or prosecute war against its enemies. In a dramatic symbol of its loss of purpose, it cannot even rebuild the World Trade Centre in a timely manner. In its dithering and defeatism, the once exceptional nation is following in Europe’s footsteps, for “The story of the western world since 1945,” Steyn laments, is that “invited to choose between freedom and government ‘security,’ large numbers of people voted to dump freedom.” In return for comfort, such people have been happy to relinquish their right to make their own decisions and to speak their minds on controversial issues. The more their government has grown, the more inexorable and irresistible has become its power and the more taken-for-granted the belief that individuals cannot manage their own lives. As Steyn explains:
Government health care is not about health care, it’s about government. That’s why the Democrats spent the first year of a brutal recession trying to ram ObamaCare down the throats of a nation that didn’t want it. Because the governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in fundamental ways that make small government all but impossible ever again. In most of the rest of the western world, it’s led to a kind of two-party one-party state: right-of-center parties will once in a while be in office, but never in power, merely presiding over vast left-wing bureaucracies that cruise on regardless. All such ‘technocratic’ societies slide left, into statism and stasis.
It follows logically that the more people become dependent on government, whether through government jobs, government contracts, or government handouts, the less they will be inclined to vote to reduce its size.
Once in place, moreover, big government enforces a monopoly on ideas and seeks not only to marginalize but even to medicalize dissent. When Juan Williams was fired from National Public Radio for admitting that he felt nervous when Muslims in fundamentalist garb boarded an airplane, NPR executive Vivian Schiller suggested he should see a psychiatrist. In universities, in newsrooms, on government committees, many forms of diversity are touted except the only one that really matters: diversity of ideas. Moreover, the diversity mantra has become a thin cover for the mediocrity of intellect that now cripples America’s young people. Public schooling is largely about feeling good, while college education in the humanities and social sciences provides “a leisurely half-decade immersion in the manners and mores of American conformism.” Steyn’s analysis of Michelle Obama’s undergraduate thesis offers a sobering example of the diminishment of elite education since the 1970s: as he shows, her major project was a record of imprecisely expressed grievance, navel-gazing, and self-righteousness.
Steyn is particularly effective in emphasizing the moral impact of burgeoning government and its culture of dependence. Though conservatives are often damned for their supposed selfishness, he points out that government largesse itself tends to produce selfishness and anarchic violence, as the protests in Greece revealed. Far from enabling citizens to live well, as its proponents claim, welfare produces instead a lack of purpose and reduced life-satisfaction. As Steyn phrases it with his characteristic wit and concision, “Big Government means small citizens: it corrodes the integrity of a people, catastrophically.”
The only hope for America’s survival, Steyn contends, is to drastically reduce the size of government and return decision-making power to individuals at the local level. The United States is still different enough from Europe that this may be possible: it is the one place in the world where, after the 2008 economic collapse, crowds of citizens took to the streets demanding not that government do more for them—continue entitlements, borrow even more heavily—but that it get out of the way. According to Steyn, that’s the America that has a fighting chance, the one that stands for economic dynamism and individuality. It now faces the choice to live free or die of the nanny state.
Steyn’s feisty intelligence and panache are everywhere on display in this extraordinarily readable book. His riff on President Obama’s self-satisfied address to the German people on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall had me gasping with laughter, as did his response to a media pundit’s claim that Tea Party opposition to ObamaCare was merely an expression of redneck bigotry. His dissection of how political correctness enabled Nidal Hasan to kill thirteen men and women at Fort Hood—and how the mainstream media immediately attempted to deny he was motivated by Islam—is a masterly feat of analysis, the outrage perfectly calibrated with wit. One can only feel grateful that there exist political writers with Steyn’s ability, chutzpah, energy, and courage. Unfortunately, purveyors of serious warnings are rarely welcomed, and their difficult advice is almost never followed.