November 18, 2008
Human nature has a blind spot. We often detect external flaws faster than internal ones—seeing the speck in our neighbor’s eye sooner than the beam in our own, to use the biblical metaphor.
This same tendency exists at the national level. Such blindness can be fatal, as Ralph Waldo Emerson warned when he wrote, “A nation never falls but by suicide.” In America today, we readily perceive the dangers posed by international terrorism, hostile foreign regimes, uncontrolled immigration, the global narco-gangsters, etc. It is the threat within that seems to be off the radar screen.
The fall of Rome and other dominant civilizations manifest similar pathologies—imperial overreach, runaway spending, erosion of money’s purchasing power, personal debauchery. At the most fundamental level, national suicide follows moral decay. Hard work, thrift, deferring self-gratification, self-reliance—the individual virtues that enable people to prosper and civilizations to thrive—fade away. They are supplanted by self-indulgence, borrowing from the future to live it up today, refusal to accept personal responsibility, and wanting something for nothing, even at the expense of innocent others.
Sad to say, there are signs of such rot, such weakness of character, all around us today. Our nation is drowning in debt. Our culture is increasingly ignoble and hedonistic—people would rather read about Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton than Michael Monsoor and Ross McGinnis (two Congressional Medal of Honor winners who gave their lives in Iraq). Many Americans are afflicted with a sense of entitlement, believing that “society” owes them a living and that they shouldn’t have to work to improve themselves. Millions want to feed at the government trough rather than put forth the necessary years of effort to succeed on their own. They demand ever-larger handouts from Washington—that is, from their fellow citizens who pay taxes.
So widespread is the insidious belief that individuals have an inherent “right” to government support that politicians are locked into a permanent search for ways to confiscate more wealth from more people. Private property—the basis for so many other human rights, and the indispensable prerequisite for social prosperity, indeed, the very key to our country’s economic success—is under siege and our future at risk.
Anecdotes illustrating this moral rot abound. The most memorable I ever heard was during the Whitewater scandal, when the possibility was raised that Bill Clinton had defrauded the American taxpayer. At a public presidential appearance, a woman called out from a crowd, “Don't you worry about Whitewater, Bill, just keep our welfare checks coming!" Translation: “Steal if you want, Mr. President; just give me my own little piece of something-for-nothing.”
Recently (on Oct. 17, to be exact) radio talk-show host Sean Hannity asked callers to say why they favored Obama for president. What followed was a depressing succession of people saying that Obama would give them more money, free health care, and other goodies. Totally forgotten was Democratic President Kennedy’s appeal, “Ask not what your country can do for you …” In its place was the piggish attitude, “I want it. Promise to give it to me and my vote is yours.”
As pathetic and demoralized as such me-first attitudes may be, individuals like those aren’t the crux of the problem. The real culprits are their enablers: educators who fill their minds with the notion that political taking, rather than economic service to one’s fellow man, is a legitimate way to profit; “intellectuals” who scorn property rights and define “justice” as government redistribution of wealth; clergymen who confuse socialism with Christianity; and especially the demagogic politicians who pander to them. The pied pipers of this ethical plague, not the mice they mislead, bear the primary responsibility for the culture of thievery that is corroding the fabric of our republic.
Indeed, our outrage should not be directed at the poor dupes, but toward the rich and powerful, and their congressional allies, who use government to enrich themselves. Congressmen pontificate about helping the little guy, and then give subsidies to millionaire farmers. They publicly commiserate with the middle-class family who can’t afford mortgage rates adjusted up to 8 or 9 percent, and then approve when the Fed and Treasury Department arrange 2.5 percent lines of credit for wealthy Wall Street firms. They lament Joe Lunchbucket’s economic challenges, then dole out billions of dollars of earmarks and corporate welfare to their country club buddies. Who can blame the small fries for wanting relatively modest handouts when they see all this?
Congress is leading the assault on private property, and reaping a windfall from it. The gold-plated health insurance and retirement plans, the all-expenses-paid vacations, the millions in cash that pass through campaign accounts and PACs … “Public service” pays well these days. Since they oversee a trillion-dollar political market for stolen goods, it shouldn’t surprise us that members of Congress skim a relatively modest commission of a few million for themselves.
The U.S. Congress is becoming as corrupt as the Roman senate, which kept transferring property from the productive sector of society to the unproductive sector, until finally the productive sector collapsed and Rome herself fell. We aren’t at that stage yet, but there isn’t much time left to wake up and confront the moral rot that threatens to sink us.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.