Philip Nolan deserved his fate. In Edward Everett Hale’s allegory The Man Without a Country , Philip Nolan, a Lieutenant in the United States army, damned his Country when he was found guilty of treason. “D–n the United States. I wish I may never hear of the United States again.” Upon hearing his outburst, the judge granted his wish, sentencing him to spend the rest of his life at sea, never to touch foot on its soil and never to hear a word as to its news.No, this is not a piece about Edward Snowden. This regards a growing number of people who are feeling dispossessed by a government grown bigger and more intrusive. In so doing, government has assumed responsibilities once held by non-governmental organizations, from the PTA to Rotary to Churches. Quoting from Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone , Niall Ferguson enumerates some statistics in his recent book, The Great Degeneration : The average membership rate for thirty-two national, chapter-based associations is down 50% over the past thirty years. Membership of parent-teacher associations is down 61% over the same time. Volunteerism is increasingly being replaced by government bureaucrats. Charles Murray made similar observations about religious and secular organizations in his 2012 book, Coming Apart . What individuals once did by banding together has been assumed by government only too eager to take on more responsibilities.
In Balance , Glen Hubbard and Tim Kane make the point that throughout history great powers have risen and then fallen. The authors cite the examples of Rome, China, the Ottoman Empire, Spain and Great Britain. Empires rose because of available education and an abundance of people with ideas, but success was sustained because of the rule of law, property rights and open markets. They fell for internal reasons – usurpation of power by government that becomes less and less trustworthy, inertia on the part of citizens and erosion of economic vigor. Forgotten in each country’s success were the root cause of their rise. Complacency supplanted inquisitiveness, risk-taking and hard work.
Government now accounts for almost 40% of GDP, when states and local governments are included. It has an octopus-like grip on social services, making an ever-increasing percentage of the people dependent on government. “[A democracy] can only exist as a permanent form of government until the majority discovers it can vote itself largesse out of the public treasury.” The quote has many fathers, but it was the sentiment expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 opus, Democracy in America . Approximately 50% of all working Americans pay no federal income taxes. About one third of Americans live in a household that receives some form of public assistance. It suggests a people that have grown increasingly dependent on the generosity of government, embedded in a symbiotic relationship – they keep in office those who keep them in money, food and shelter. Welfare is not limited to individuals, however. Crony capitalism has morphed into a form of corporate welfare, with businesses from banks to homebuilders whose profitability is reliant on government assistance, in the form of tax credits or rebates. Again, the relationship is symbiotic. Absent massive tax simplification and reform, we are doomed to follow the paths of those great powers that preceded us.
The immigration bill that is making its way through Congress has set shameless Democrats, who will do anything for another bloc of votes, against xenophobic Republicans. Without a photo ID, immigrants here illegally might be able to vote, one of the most hallowed rights and duty of American citizens. Nobody knows how many non-citizens (or dead people) vote in each election, but the number is not insignificant. Citizenship used to be something sought and cherished, but to the extent one can come here illegally, vote and receive entitlements demeans its sanctity. At the same time there are Republicans whose demand for fences, guards and Drones is reminiscent of the Soviet’s Iron Curtain; it is offensive to U.S. values of freedom and human dignity and risks the nation becoming insular at a time when international relations are critical.
Friday’s Wall Street Journal suggested that the most successful policy in limiting illegal immigration was the Bracero guest-worker program. The program, which began during World War II when most young male Americans were in the military, was designed to bring Mexican farm workers to the U.S. It worked well enough that it was extended after the War but finally expired in 1964. Visa expansion programs and more guest-worker programs would likely lower the number of illegals entering the United States. Fear of competition, whether it is goods, services or labor is no justification for exclusionary tactics.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the immigration bill will add substantially to the tax roles and help reduce the deficit. Whether that is true or not, we should not forget that the vast majority of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. According to most estimates, less than one percent of our population can trace their ancestry to Native Americans. In contrast, the number of Americans who could trace their lineage to the 102 people who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 was estimated to be 12% ten years ago by the History News Network – that would equate to almost 50 million Americans today. America is indeed the melting pot it has always been seen to be. “E Pluribus Unum,” (out of many, one) is properly embedded in the Great Seal of the United States.
Added to this litany of troubling events have been the recent scandals – in all cases, a consequence of an over-reaching, mean-spirited and less responsive government. Benghazi demonstrated an Administration that put politics ahead of doing what was right, and then lied about what they did. The IRS has highlighted a political party enlisting the services of Washington’s most intrusive agency to penalize their opposition and reward their friends. And the tapping of phones of reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News are manifestations of a government attempting to intimidate the press.
Taken together, these events and actions have soured people on government. Neither political party is highly considered. Congress’s favorability polls are barely in double digits. Even Mr. Obama has lost the luster he once had. Very few, if any, feel as angry about the Country as did Philip Nolan, but a growing number of people are concerned that the Country is not the one they once knew. The very fact that ignorance of our own history is becoming ubiquitous means that more and more people have little if any understanding of the principles on which this nation was founded, or of the risks that the founders took, so that their descendants might live in a country where freedom was valued more highly than personal possessions. Thirty-eight percent of Americans failed a test on civics, according to a test conducted two years ago by “Newsweek.” Only 58% of Americans could identify the Taliban, while 76% of Finns, 75% of Brits and 68% of Danes could. On this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 22% of students tested proficient in civics and only 18% in U.S. History. Ignorance may help some politicians stay in office, but is harmful to a successful democracy.
In a review of Balance in Friday’s Journal, Matthew Rees quotes the authors: “American democracy has proven itself more powerful than all of the skeptics’ and cynics’ concerns.” But, as Mr. Rees adds, the book is a “…reminder that societies that seem invincible are often anything but.” I would add that change is continuous and never-ending; the question is, in what direction will change flow? Will we stay the current path of increased dependency and reduced freedoms, or will we reverse course? If we choose the latter, which I believe is necessary for our salvation, will we be willing to accept the near-term consequences that such adjustments will bring?
Do we, like Philip Nolan, deserve our fate? The answer has to be, yes. We have elected those that govern us. We have been persuaded by the promise of perpetual care. We have abdicated personal responsibility in favor of promises to which we have been told we are entitled. We are mindful of the present, but mindless of the future – of the costs we are placing on those that come after. We appear ignorant of the fact that freedom is not free. All societies, whether totalitarian or democratic, make pacts – they exchange security for certain individual rights. The question is one of degree. While we all recognize that the greatest responsibility of any government is the safety of its citizens, the Founding Fathers instituted a system of checks and balances; so as to prevent the usurpation of power by any one branch.
But, over the last several decades, the Executive branch has assumed ever more power; so if legislation fails or Congress refuses to confirm a particular nominee, Executive Orders are issued and “Czars” are appointed. The first five American Presidents issued a total of 15 Executive Orders. The last five (including only Mr. Obama’s first term) have issued 1349. In terms of White House “Czars,” between the Administrations of Harry Truman and Bill Clinton no President had more than eight. Things changed. George Bush had 33 and, in his first term Barack Obama has had 38. These are people appointed by the President who hold power, but are not subject to Congressional oversight. The trend toward increased executive power is ominous.
Increasing encroachment on our rights by government, combined with an erosion of personal responsibility and a lack of knowledge of our history have changed the nature of people’s relationship with their elected officials. None of us has been or will be consigned to sail the Seven Seas, as was Philip Nolan, never to set foot again on American soil nor to hear news of our country. We don’t damn our Country. We feel saddened. Many of us feel this is no longer the Country for which so many gave their lives. It is not the same place whose history we once studied. It appears Orwellian. We may not be men and women without a Country, but we are without the Country we once knew.
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