Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Decline Is in the Mind

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

It’s Over? Really?

In the last two years, we have a heard a constant litany of “decline,” as in America is over as it once was. Fifth-century AD Rome is often evoked, as are the contemporary economic miracles in China and India to “prove” inevitable American waning. A few of the more imaginative declinists see us as Justinian’s Byzantium, a crumbling power vainly trying to hold on to a world long lost, with a Detroit no different from a half-populated failing Byzantine city in the Levant. This time around — remember our past serial crushing by the supposedly superior Soviet system of the 1950s, the Japanese, Inc. ascendancy of the 1970s, the EU soft power dominance of the 1980s, and the present Chinese supermen of the 21st century — we really, really, really are through, as if semi-literate suburban lounging American teens, with baggy pants, ears plugged with hip-hop, and sleeve tattoos will soon be slaving away to satisfy their new growling Tiger Mom People’s Republic bosses.

The gloomy prognoses come from both the anguished conservative who sees the culprit as the erosion of American individualism and self-reliance, and the new Obama coalition that thinks a sense of exceptionalism abroad is synonymous with arrogance and imperialism, and at home was symptomatic of an inherent unfairness, a downright mean country that, thank god, had to change. The one gags at the foul whiff of decline, the other sees it as an aroma of welcome reset. Both confess it is here, both unwelcomed and welcomed.

For the conservative, the depressing symptoms are staggering debt, as in the Obama administration plans to equal all the red ink of all prior administrations in nearly five or six years of planned governance (at $1.6 trillion a year that is not a hard thing to do). Surely, the president’s legacy for the next quarter-century will be ubiquitous line graphs and pie charts proving in an eye blink that the Obama administration was the mother of all borrowers. There is more, of course. We awoke one morning and suddenly General Motors was analogous to the Postal Service, its suspect, now politically incorrect competitors the far better run Fed-Ex-like Toyota or Ford. Abroad the bows, the apologies, the euphemisms for terrorism, the realignment to embrace enemies and snub friends, the deer-in-the-headlights, make-it-up-as-you-go-along diplomacy — all that was the unfortunate result of a larger desire to take the US down a needed peg or two in a new multilateral fashion.

In this present age, no one in this administration in the abstract can explain why Israel is a more humane place than Syria — and why that fact deserves our preference. Or why Japan plays more by the rules than does China, or why Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic deserve our empathy and support in a way Russia does not. Or why a jail in Guantanamo is more humane than any outside the fence in Cuba. (In truth, the inmate at Gitmo has access to better food, healthcare, and freedom of religion than the “free” man in Castroland). In short, traditionalists are aghast at the last two years, and see it as a sort of gangrene that has spread from a long festering but heretofore treatable old wound.

Decline Is More Recline

But in the Obama vision, decline is the wrong word for necessary readjustment — analogous to the wondrous post-Churchillian socialization of Britain after the war, in which an aging imperialist air force and navy gave way to the new people’s National Health Service. As far as the staggering debt goes, massive red ink is a necessary reset policy, a long overdue method of fair redistribution. Both the borrowing and its eventual remedy will bring a much needed reality check to a cowboyish and inherently unjust “old” America. Ponder the politics of debt: more borrowing means more government (200,000 new employees during Obama’s first two years alone), which in turn means good jobs for the deserving, a growing political progressive constituency of loyal and grateful public workers, and more watchdogs (cf. to monitor everything from fatty foods to breast pumps) that can spot racial, gender, and class bias and take the appropriate and long overdue federal action — create a bureau, hire federal watch- and attack-dogs, publicize private sector immorality, and then establish new fees and regulations to justify more bureaus.

More borrowing also means that taxes must go up and that usually ensures that those who make at some point in their lives Obama’s “enough” will have to do their patriotic duty and finally pay their fair share. After all, they made such sums, if outside of government (that is, not the enlightenened sort like University of California administrators or San Jose police chiefs who take in over $500,000 a year), at someone else’s expense (the peasant idea of a limited good). They should thus fork it back over to its rightful owners, the commonwealth that was veritably robbed in the first place.

Learning To Love Debt

More borrowing can spell inflation and that too can be good. When more money is printed and circulates, those with accumulated piles of it have less, and those without such stashes can more easily start anew. It is a sort of reset financial diplomacy, where we all get to start over with a new sort of money. All that was the rallying cry in ancient Rome — more currency, more public spectacles, more government assistance, redistribution of property and cancellation of debt — one so terrifying to chroniclers like Horace, Livy or Sallust. If any of them were alive today, they would see Obama’s agenda as an updated, polished version of old crude Catiline’s, promising the oppressed that they might get out of their credit card debt, mortgage debt, student loan debt, and fill in the blanks debt.

All this borrowing is not foreordained, but a matter of deliberate policy, coupled with an insidious modern consumerist lifestyle that justifies expenditures with borrowed money by appeals to radical egalitarianism — “if they have x, then I too deserve y.” The desire or need for, not the means by which, is our new credo. The private counterpart of the collective borrowing of $1.6 trillion this year is the maxed-out credit card holder jockeying to somehow borrow more still on a paycheck that has not yet arrived — inasmuch as nations simply reflect the collective values of their citizens.

Your Choice, Not Mine

Yet all this is optional. For a number of years, I have written x-number of columns explaining that decline is a choice, not a destiny. Decline compared to what? China with its warped demography and rendezvous with environmental cleanup and social disorder? Europe and Japan with fossilized populations and statist economies? India with insidious layers of the old caste system and 1940s socialism still to be displaced? The kleptocratic, shrinking state of Russia? The Arab world — with endemic tribalism, gender apartheid, religious intolerance and suspicion of science and its repercussions?

The tragedy, reader, is that any of us in 2-3 minutes can see how it could all be reversed — a full-fledged effort to develop all our energy resources, from nuclear to natural gas, radical cuts in public spending, closed borders, fiscal sanity and pay-as-you-go legislation, a return to merit instead of situational pleading. Given our wealth and talent, in four years we could balance the budget, slash energy imports, and make schools work far better with fewer dollars.

No, decline is a state of mind, and proceeds so often from the dreams of utopianism, or the creed that a new generation can change human nature, eliminate war, legislate peace, end inequality, and enforce an equality of result — alone through state power wielded by enlightened despots and philosopher kings amid imposed “civility.” In response, the productive, highly taxed, upper-middle classes become alienated, convinced that their efforts will not lead to their own self-interested advancement. So they adopt “quietism,” a sort of psychological hibernation from society, a disconnect where they virtually drop or hide out from popular culture — a theme as old as characters in Plato, Sophocles and Euripides, authors who at times focused on those so resistant to the redistributive Athenian state.

But It Is Not Easy To Turn Us into Belgium

In America’s case, these are choices, not fate. The Constitution is still here should we wish to follow it. Our ancestors left us freeways, airports, and universities and a rich infrastructure. Napa Valley, Silicon Valley, and Central Valley agriculture here in bankrupt California are still sources of amazing ingenuity and enormous wealth creation. Even with 9.6% unemployment, millions rise at 6 a.m. to go to work; millions work the night shift. So to nullify that dynamism, well, that takes work. It requires constant sloganeering about inequality. It demands massive social engineering to create huge public work forces to administer redistributive entitlements. It must entice a new privileged elite to go over to the side of crony capitalism and insider favoritism of the GE sort. It encourages a demonized “them” and a deified “us,” — the abyss say somewhere around the Obama’s $250,000 line of annual income. It requires an ideology of envy and jealously and the exit of moral responsibility for self. It dictates that most personal unhappiness emanates from not having what someone else supposedly does, and can be rectified by state action rather than personal improvement. Yet that is all hard to do quickly in America.

Just Say No

So because statist utopianism is both against innate human nature and without any historical record of success, it is not inevitable. The sane can stop it by daily, no hourly, saying no to the utopian narcotic, even (or especially) in its most seemingly mundane and innocuous manifestations (Dear Mrs. Obama, those who buy expensive baby formula surely have enough money for a breast pump if they so chose, and the latest federal concern over why some women do not nurse should at least start with addressing their own thinking and attitudes, not funding someone or something to root out a third party’s supposed coercion and oppression). If we speak “truth” to power and ignore the incoming salvos of “mean, greedy, selfish, privileged, racist, nativist, sexist, homophobe, Tea-bagger, and yokel,” decline can stop. It really is a state of mind — the choice not to brush off opportunistic rust from hard steel after a very brief rain.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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