by Victor Davis Hanson
I am on my first week of an annual tour I co-lead to Europe. Some random thoughts. I hope that urban density, apartment living, Smart cars, and motorbikes are not the envisioned future of the United States. For all our perceived sins, the American with his suburban house and yard, and pickup and boat, enjoys a freedom of choice and ease unmatched anywhere — and unappreciated in most surveys of comparable standards of living. That autonomy in private life translates into a freewheeling, unpredictable electorate, about all we have left of the modern equivalent of the homestead farmer of the nineteenth century.
If socialist health care is so preferable, with the power of the state to mandate preventative health care, why do Europeans smoke far more than Americans? On cultural issues, such as politely forming lines, or not defacing monuments with graffiti, or yielding to pedestrians, or driving with concern for others, I think supposedly selfish Americans are light years ahead. But how so, when our capitalist system breeds ‘me first’? And what exactly once created the European genius that we see expressed in the beauty of Italian architecture and the zest for excellence throughout the art and literature of old Europe?
World Beneath Their Feet
But more seriously, it is ironic to travel through Italy and see nearly all of its artistic treasures, whether classical or ecclesiastical, as a dividend of a religious, confident culture, and almost nothing comparable offered by the new Europe of socialism, statism, and agnosticism. If heaven is retiring at 55, leaving the apartment each mid-morning to sit in the local coffee shop, and then protesting on weekends about my lower than anticipated pension cost-of-living increase, then I would prefer hell.
The great unspoken truth? Somewhere right now, a U.S. ship, an American soldier, a circling F-16 keep the Russians honest, the fear in al Qaeda, the Straits of Hormuz open, the commerce of the Mediterranean safe — unknown, unappreciated to the mass of European utopian citizenry — whose cultural ancestry made us Americans what we are.
You Can’t Possibly Take Care of Yourself
What worries me about Obama is not the specifics of the nationalization of GM and Chrysler, the government rescue of the United Auto Workers, the effort to take over college financing, proposed universal health care, massive deficits and tax increases, although they are worrisome and only the beginning, but the attendant culture of ‘inflate your tires’ and ‘wash your hands’ paternalism. I think we are entering an age in which the federal government will increasingly guide our thoughts into what is deemed correct — the sort of car we must drive, the type of salary we should make, the sort of job we should have, even the type of thoughts we are to express, and all in the name of collective brotherhood. The slavish manner in which the media lock stepped into Bush the near fascist for tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, renditions, Patriot Act, Iraq, and Guantanamo, followed by choruses of Obama the sensitive, anguished overseer of tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, renditions, Patriot Act, Iraq, and Guantanamo was one of the most frightening things I‘ve seen in a free society in 50 years.
The Wages of Statism
In Europe the collective effort to diminish religion, to do away with national identity and exceptionalism, to embrace pacifism and a forced equality of result slowly erode human aspiration. I accept all this is the reaction to the horrors of the 20th century, but we too went through the horrors, although to a lesser extent, and socialism need not be the only corrective to nationalist fascism or communism.
How odd that the caricatures of Americans as grasping workaholics who sacrifice the good life in an illusory search for material wealth more likely fit the materialist European, who predicates his existence on a guaranteed job, pension, apartment, and more or less same existence as everyone around him — at the repression of notions of religion, or national aspirations, or dreams of seeking to be different, and, yes, more successful than others.
The very notion that the government in the United States would emulate Europe, hoping to nationalize or regulate as much as possible, to be overseen by a professional technocratic class on top, aided by legions of government clerks, is also frightening. How odd to see Europeans aspire to inherit an elegant villa, or a stately ancestral estate, appreciate the beauty of past individual genius or the fruits of ancient overweening ambition, and yet in the here and now ensure that few such expressions of individualism are any more likely. I understand the logic, and perhaps the necessity of, the state-subsidized box-like apartment complex, and the hundreds who are jammed into it with access to good water, sewer, and power hookups, but there is no beauty, no mark of the individual to be found there.
Human Nature Trumps All Else
The natural human response to forced multiculturalism, socialism, and equality of result is cynicism. One senses that in Europe the public persona is a mere veneer. Privately most scheme to avoid taxes, to moonlight, to barter- — if they are not among the government elite with high-paying, hyper-perked tenures at a ministry — while avoiding the legions of new unassimilated Muslims from North Africa, and especially the Americanized troika of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage. Let us avoid such institutionalized cynicism in the U.S.
Not Obamaized Yet
Like most skeptics of the new Obama frontier, I’d simply trust in the ancient wisdom that one cannot get something for nothing — so creating $9 trillion in new debt either ruins the currency or burdens those not born to pay for it. One cannot tax a productive class into oblivion and not kill the proverbial goose. One cannot mandate equality by result without extreme coercion and endemic cynicism. The experimentation and utopian tinkering by a paternalistic overseeing class, Ivy-League trained but without experience in private enterprise or the underbelly of American life, can never prove successful. These are age-old truths that transcend Obama, but apparently must be rediscovered to our great pain each new generation.
Capitalists, farmers, eccentrics, and individualists created the American Constitution; clerks, bureaucrats, ministers, and appointees wrote the Constitution of the European Union. Are we then surprised at the comparative results?
More on European perceptions in the next posting — and the beauty and majesty of ancient Italy and Greece.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson