…history;which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
In a vein similar to Gibbon, Mark Twain allowed that the worst that could be said about anyone was that he was human. Prior to Twain, but after Gibbon, James Madison declared that no laws would be necessary if men were angels, but as they clearly had nothing of the angelic about them (at least as regards their behavior) laws were needed. A little before Madison wrote about angels Immanuel Kant observed, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This bit of quotomania should indicate the direction I’m about to go.
Laws have been around for about three millennia, but if their purpose was the generation of public tranquility and happiness they have clearly failed. At their best they prevent the outbreak of systematic violence, but bitter strife persists -always at the edge of hostilities.
The United States has about as good a governmental system and a set of basic laws and principles that can be found anywhere on the planet. Yet constant internal conflict has been its rule rather than an exception. Its deadliest war, one that had more fatalities than all the others combined, was a civil war. The US is the richest and strongest country in the world, but often seems as bitterly divided as countries whose problems dwarf ours. Why?
Basically, life has two main problems under which all others fall – money and craziness. Alas, they are often combined. Of the two craziness is the worse as its course can’t be predicted. The quest for riches, and its offspring power, can often be understood, though contamination with craziness can overcome the rational, if venal, pursuit of wealth.
It seems an ineluctable human characteristic for national success and satisfaction to be inversely related. Countries where freedom is abolished and wealth confiscated or evaporated, like Venezuela and Cuba, rarely express dissent sufficient to rise to the level of revolt. The downtrodden are too concerned with survival to do little but assent or flee.
But let a little liberty and prosperity into the polity and the search for money and the expression of craziness will spread like a miasma. America today is split into three fractions. The first consisting of those who don’t know or care about what’s going on. A second which wants the government to leave them alone. And the last which wants to the government to intervene in most of life’s facets. I’ll focus on the second and third of these groups. Money and craziness are interwoven into their core beliefs as intricately as the threads of fate are spun by the Norn.
Those who want less government interference in their activities include farmers who are fiercely independent until the subject of farm subsidies is broached – independence vanishes like good behavior. Then there are the businesses which want protective tariffs, or favorable banking arrangements, or tax relief, or unregulated immigration which allows them access to cheap labor. Industry typically wants less government regulation; there may be a good case for less oversight, but principle is not the guiding light – greater profit is. There’s not much craziness here; it’s all about money. They (all of the above) want more and don’t particularly care about the source or means. These are the people who believe that the Department of Defense is underfunded. The US defense budget is bigger than those of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan combined. And it’s getting bigger. If we can’t lick the entire solar system with this much spending we should become Quakers.
The third group is a bizarre mix of both money and craziness. Its adherents want the government to spend more while simultaneously regulating more. The sudden attraction of “socialism” to the young who don’t know any better and some of the old who seem to have advanced memory loss is the latest expression of this wacky amalgam. Most of those who profess to be socialists or kissing cousins of the system can’t even define it.
Making stuff free is a carryover from the tooth fairy. Stuff costs money. Somebody has to make or provide it and someone has to pay for it. Economists have won fame and prizes for devising systems which purports to maximize the production of stuff sometimes out of fat air, but reality can only be denied for a while. Practitioners of the dismal science who point out the impossibility of direct top down management of the economy are typically labeled as being in favor of poor people sleeping under bridges. Good intentions always trump sound reasoning.
The favorite free stuff seems to be medical care – free college tuition is on the list, but is a distant second. Total US medical spending is now about five times what we spend on defense. We’ve long since passed the point where additional expenditure on medical care has any demonstrable effect on outcomes. When it come to what is jocularly referred to as healthcare we seem to be caught in a positive feedback loop that is headed to economic extinction. We’ve even declared healthcare to be a right.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and Healthcare. The last of these rights requires that someone pay for it. Thus, you may have to pay for my right. There’s a distinction between a natural right and an obligation that society decides to assume. With worldwide debt, public and private, at about $280 trillion. We’re about Right ourselves right out of existence.
Another issue we can fight over without ever reaching a satisfactory agreement is income disparity. Especially as it’s the wrong statistic regarding personal income. The correct one is income mobility. Most Americans in the top quintile of income started adult life in the bottom fifth and then moved up as their experience and careers progressed. Even The New York Times allows that income mobility in the US has not changed much despite the appearance income disparity. But the issue makes for good campaign rhetoric.
Disputes in the US are supposed to be settled by the rule of law. And, at least in theory, that’s a good practice. The problem is that nobody know how many laws there are much less what they command. Thirty years ago the US Code was 23,000 ages long. Today your calculator may not have enough digits for them. The IRS code is more than 73,000 pages long. And we haven’t yet begun to tally state and local laws. Thus, selective prosecution with all its attendant evils is the rule. With so many laws how could it be otherwise? Then there are the judges who get to say what the laws mean and when so disposed are able create new ones. A friend of mine from New Orleans said you knew you had made it when you had your own priest, your own waiter, and your own judge. The rule of law is the noblest of concepts which in practice is a pile of baloney.
Most of the angst that seems to permeate American society is, in my opinion, the result of too much leisure. Our species evolved in struggle. Our current affluence, is an evolutionary instant in duration. We’re so rich that the poor are obese, yet we’re miserable despite all the plenty. It’s because we have too much time to worry about trivia like bigger submarines and free everything. Idle hands do more than the devil’s work. The press and politicians couldn’t do without them.
The late Charles Krauthammer left medicine for political journalism because he thought politics was more important. Perhaps he was right, but he should have spent more of his time at Oxford studying the Scottish Enlightenment. The wise Scots of two and a half centuries ago thought that the great problems of human existence could not be solved by politics. I can see nothing in contemporary life to make one object to that premise.
So what’s the solution? Beats the hell out of me. I’m a diagnostician not a surgeon. But if forced to make a recommendation I’d go with Rossini’s Pappataci – I had to squeeze an opera reference somewhere in this piece. The Pappataci is a club whose goal is to eat, drink, sleep, and shut up. Rossini, who understood more about humanity than almost anyone who ever lived, devoted the entire second half of his life to this club. An exemplary undertaking.