Nation at the Crossroads



RINGOES, NJ. The world is hunkered down. For some months now we have been holding our collective breath, waiting to see if the financial meltdown is going to stabilize or if things will continue to deteriorate. People are worried. Unemployment is creeping up. Restaurants, shopping malls, and car dealerships are hurting. Worried people are staying home and holding on to their money. But as if the financial crisis weren’t enough, we’ve recently been confronted with a crisis of another sort. Swine flu began, as we all now know, somewhere in Mexico but has now infected people in countries around the globe. People are wearing surgical masks on subways, Joe Biden is telling people not to fly, schools are closing, and people are understandably worried. Americans look with hope to the Center for Disease Control to deliver us from this newest affliction or at least render it less virulent even as they look to Congress and the Obama administration to deliver us from the shadow of fiscal disaster.

For people who love liberty, each new crisis should raise concerns that extend beyond the contours of the crisis itself, for crises tend to facilitate the consolidation of power. The putative solutions enacted to solve our current financial troubles make this principle abundantly clear. Nationalization of banks, increased oversight of entire industries, replacing CEOs, and regulating compensation—all of this indicates the various ways the national government has insinuated itself into a system already fraught with federal controls. The spending frenzy—dubbed a stimulus—will serve to enslave our children and grandchildren under the burden of debt, while the only thing stimulated is the re-election prospects of those officials savvy enough to bring the bacon home to their districts.

The same sort of helplessness that most Americans feel in the face of the economic turmoil is felt as the swine flu (or N1H1, lest we discriminate against pigs and their representatives) continues to spread across the land. “The government needs to act!” we find ourselves thinking. Surely our scientific community, so well-funded and technologically advanced, can save us from this pestilence. Again, we look to the national government and its offshoots to protect us, and even if this latest bug turns out to be less vile than the nightmarish scenarios we’ve imagined, there will always be another lurking just off stage.

The first danger, then, is the coming Leviathan, an all-encompassing state apparatus that will subsume individual will under its all-seeing benevolence. Citizens may respond with complacency. After all, if all of one’s basic needs are met, why rock the boat? On the other hand, people may attempt to throw off the bonds of the oppressive regime. If the central authority resists, a further loss of freedom would result unless the people successfully free themselves by formal separation from the central power or by defanging the Leviathan by constitutional means. The first option is some form of secession; the second is a radical reordering (or restoration) of our constitutional system.

Yet there are some issues that, rather than serving to consolidate power, threaten to rend the garment of our society. Same-sex marriage is one of those issues. Although, there are some who champion an amendment to the constitution, the issue is being decided in other ways. Recently, the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that same-sex unions are legitimate marriages. It seems obvious, though, that when courts force same-sex marriage onto a state, democratic principles have been abrogated. States can, as Vermont just did, vote to legalize same-sex marriage, and in such a case the principle of democracy seems to remains intact.

But is it really so simple? The Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 declared that federal law recognizes only heterosexual marriage as marriage. Yet, if and when more states legalize same-sex marriage, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the implications of this on inter-state relations. Are same-sex marriages performed in Vermont legitimate in Idaho? If not, confusion reigns. If so—and this is in keeping with the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution—one state will be forced to recognize a union that it considers illegitimate. When seen from this light, the will a majority in one state is used to trump the will of a majority in another. Hardly a democratic victory.

The second danger, then, is fragmentation that results from cultural conflicts that are rooted in values so inimical to each other that co-existence is simply not a viable option. Those who oppose same-sex marriage argue that our culture is moving steadily toward the fate of Gomorrah whose end came in a fury of fire and brimstone. Those who support this novel arrangement argue that those who oppose it are religious fundamentalists seeking to impose a harsh and repressed morality on all of society. If the rift cannot be mended, formal separation may, in fact, come to be seen as the logical solution.

Speaking recently on Public Radio, David Brooks noted that the Republican Party had, in recent years, moved steadily to the right so that moderates no longer felt at home in the GOP. He suggested that the GOP was a party whose power was primarily limited to the south and a few outliers. Yet, this regionalism of which Brooks speaks simply forces us to ask a very basic question: what holds us together as a nation? A commitment to values rooted in the American Founding? Can this be true given the deplorable ignorance of American history exhibited by the average voter? Can it be true given the enthusiastic embrace of the welfare state and corporate capitalism that characterizes our political landscape? Surely, Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and the rest would stand dumbfounded (and furious) at the manifold ways the federal government has insinuated itself into the lives of Americans. They may even suggest it was time to throw off the yoke of the oppressor, or at least take strong steps to rein in the leviathan.

Again, what unifies us? Aside from a vague commitment to the vocabulary of liberty, it seems that what unites Americans is a national habit of looking to Washington to solve our problems. If Washington will only fix things, we will be free to gratify our appetites without restraint. This is not the government of the Founders nor is it the concept of liberty for which they bled and died. They established a republic that was modest in its scope and aims, and their conception of liberty was firmly rooted in the belief that liberty was tied to virtue and that to abandon the latter would be to abolish the former.

For a long time now, the direction of power United States has been toward the center. Both political and economic power has been consolidated as the Washington-Wall Street Oligarchy has assumed its current grotesque shape. Yet at the same time, there are certain social issues that continue to polarize Americans. Will the center hold? Does a substantive center remain? In the coming years Americans will be forced to consider what it is that unifies us. Do we share a commitment to truths that are robust enough to sustain us? Or will we conclude that the bonds that united us have dissolved?

The future of the United State is, as with every nation, uncertain. A return to a modest republic is, to be sure, a possibility, but that would require a radical change of direction. Without such a change, the course of our nation will continue to oscillate between centralization and fragmentation, away from virtue and toward unrestrained liberty until the party is brought to a crashing halt. Peril lies on every side, for talk of secession is as fraught with danger as the inexorable march toward Leviathan or the slouch toward Gomorrah.


  1. Here’s a partial counterargument: Many of these problems are not caused by too much power in Washington, but by a refusal to use existing powers, or a refusal to fix simple inconsistencies.

    The banking crisis happened because fed regulators refused to clamp down on Wall Street, despite years of specific information that pointed to the consequences.

    A serious epidemic could be stopped if the public health agencies used their powers of quarantine. They do have the power, but the aristocratic connections of the HIV virus caused them to stop using quarantine except in the most extreme circumstances. And public health protection has also been eroded by HIPPA, the privacy act, which doesn’t really stop criminals from using medical records but does interfere with the quick exchange of information. HIPPA was sold as an increase of rights and freedom, and like most other such increases, it’s really a hindrance to life and liberty.

    “A return to a modest republic” is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but we aren’t going to get there until we disentangle the concepts of “liberty” and “rights”. We really shouldn’t be asking “how do we get more rights”, but rather “how do we insure that an ordinary man can support an ordinary family”. Those two goals are in fact mutually exclusive.

  2. Mark, a minor quibble, at risk of undo parsing:….”They established a republic that was modest in its scope and aims,…” Actually, I think you are entirely correct in the former and a bit off on the latter. I think the Framers established a Republic modest in the scope of its insertion into the daily lives of the citizen but gargantuan in its aims. Freeing up the citizenry to pursue their daily lives unencumbered by government imposition would divert opportunity from inefficient government purview to a more dynamic and productive Civics that was citizen-centric, rather than government-centric. The adoption of a Republic, not a Democracy was their protection of the people from the mob-wing of citizen-centric government.

    How many times did we hear phrases like “The public is waiting to see what the President will do to make their lives better” during the immediate interim after last falls election. Funny, but after all these years of listening to chatter about “democracy”, the public seems to think its job is to wait to see what their government will do for them…to protect them…to nurture them in retirement…to educate them….to create jobs….to stimulate technological advances. While these things are wonderful pursuits if government is so inclined….expecting a government to be the principle provider will result in a very circumscribed, very distilled and entirely denatured approach to human life.

    When the upper tax rate was far higher in the 50’s , it would have been expected to have a people cling to these sentiments but now that we have a top tax rate far lower, we actually have an increase in these sentiments in a completely counter-intuitive manner. To have a people who expect so much of their government and then turn out in so low a numbers at the polling venues…another bit of counter-intuitive “reality”.

    I think the public is demonstrating a kind of alcoholic pathology in their relationship with the current moonshine government. They continue to think the government is killing their future drop by drop but they are afraid that their life would somehow deteriorate without it. They take another hit of the hair of the dog that bit em and learn to shrug off the continuing degradation.

    This is not a simple maligning of government, it is a cautionary rebuke of a government with pretensions of omnipotence and a people who have far more potential power to move things in a more productive direction than they think. You are completely correct that if there was a greater historical awareness, things would likely be be entirely different. It aint nostalgia, it’s prudent planning.

    Taken in another direction….the last 16 years are a tremendous essay in what not to do and if the lesson were used…and compared against the decades of history prior to the last 16 years, we could craft a far better future.

  3. polistra….your assertion about the recent financial problems being a result of not too much government interaction but too little regulation….this ignores the role of the Federal ?government in encouraging many of the dysfunctional financial arrangements as a means, whose genesis goes back over 8 years ago to create the so called “ownership society” …coupled further with Greenspan’s acknowledged recognition of home mortgages as a generator of economic power after the collapse of the tech bubble. Government did not cause the financial collapse but they are a distinct “unindicted co-conspirator”.

    Government did not clamp down because it actually thought encouraging the apparatus was good policy.
    Reserve currency status emboldens them in taking another slog on the bottle.

  4. Some of the Founders had modest aims for the country, but how can a country of our size and population not function as an empire? The anti-Federalists were prescient in pointing out the elements of the Constitution that were imperialistic rather than republican. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that a small, poor country like the United States in the 1780s could long fend off the Old World powers without a centralized government. Alas, isn’t it always war and insecurity that doom republican self-government?

    As much as I admire the ideal of the yeoman farmer, was it not Jefferson himself that negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the ultimate extension of “empire”? Truth be told, American history is the story of the continual enlargement of our influence and the immodesty of our aspirations. I don’t mean to disparage this spirit unequivocally because it is tremendously productive and positive in many respects. Nonetheless, one can spy within it the seeds of our present problems and our eventual downfall.

    The root of it is our relative youth (it will take another few centuries before we are anywhere near as densely settled as Europe) and the Enlightenment philosophy of our regime. Augustine warned us in the City of God about the dangers of the libido dominandi, the imperial impulse. Both by accident (geography) and design (our regime), America is suffused with that impulse. I fear that it will take catastrophe, tragedy, and a breakup of the country before we realize the wisdom of a limited republic.

  5. The comments raise a good question: was the US initially a modest republic? Could a nation conceived on an abstract idea on a “limitless” continent retain a modest disposition? It seems to me that a return to modesty (or the establishment thereof) is really the only alternative to Leviathan at home and attempted empire abroad. This is, then, perhaps more a cultural question than a political or constitutional one: how can we become a modest republic inhabited by modest citizens?

  6. Mark, to a certain extent, we already have a generation of “modest” citizens and are suffering for it. There is too much complacency , too much consigned acceptance of a clearly unsustainable approach to biology and business (the get out of ethics free card of “it’s business”) . Their is hero and star-worship of our popular entertainments and this allows the citizen to vicariously enjoy excellence without attempting it themselves.

    Rather than modesty, I would assert it’s both humility and respect we need to temper a pedal to the metal pursuit of excellence. Little in popular culture respects anything else…there is an awful lot of snarkiness and belittling of anything one opposes because it is a cover for self-loathing that may be acknowledged or not.

    Fox said it in one of his posts, he was seeking the “discipline” of contentment…..I don’t know if the outward appearance of the Amish is one of “modesty” or respectful discipline in search of contentment. Then again, being Amish aint for everybody nor should it be.

    Sometimes I think “modesty” is a default position…too easy, self efacement as a salve for consignment but maybe I’m confusing it with false-modesty.

  7. By “modesty” I mean a sense of natural limits within which humans are relegated to live and act. We can push beyond these only at a cost. In this sense, modesty is simply a proper grasp of the human condition. I do not mean complacency, sloth, or laziness. I suspect living a truly modest life requires a kind of discipline that is not easy to acquire or maintain.

  8. “Living beneath one’s means” is modest. (Unless one crows about it.) It also enables one to save money and decrease one’s enegry use.

    Time is the one luxury that can not be saved or retrieved. Each of us are alloted a certain amount of time to live out our life as humans on this planet. What we do with our time has the power to influence, for better or worse, those around us.

    The case for leading one’s life according with an eye towards the “hereafter” is a question of faith. The choice is ours. 🙂

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