That’s a good question for this Christmas season. I’m not convinced we have reached the tipping point at which enough Americans understand that the unquestioned assumptions we live by – assumptions instituted in our culture decades ago – are what’s killing our way of life. But we are blessed to be able to get our education in a long sunset, one in which we still have light to see what’s going on, and are not feeling the lash of force or servitude.
We are finding, rather, that when we try to control and direct the spontaneously complex human arrangements from which we naturally benefit, that effort creates leverage that will eventually be turned against us. We’ve spent nearly 100 years allowing the leverage to be created. Now it’s being turned.
Here are five things we’re having the opportunity to learn, with slow-motion lessons few if any cultures have ever had the advantage of.
1. The limited arsenal of social shaming/ostracism is inherently an exercise in intolerance – no matter who does it. Nothing noble ever comes of it. If you want nobility, you have to do something positive.
Once you concede the “shaming” principle as a source of authority, meanwhile, there’s no place to draw the line. It can be used against you – against your livelihood, against the peace of your home, your wife, your children – for any purpose whatsoever.
Institutionalizing fake tolerance has turned out to mean that you don’t get to be tolerant: you have to be intolerant, as people are when they proclaim that the price of doing business in America is servicing same-sex weddings. The Duck Dynasty kerfuffle will be the least of our worries if we keep going down this path. But maybe the difficult moment for this wildly popular TV show will be a teachable one.
We’ll see what happens with Duck Dynasty. Whatever it is, a lot of people are going to learn the limits of tolerance in a culture in which chronological “adults” actually refer to each other – in the manner of six-year-olds – as “haters.” The essential intolerance – and moral irresponsibility – of that will be hard to miss.
2. The power to tax does, in fact, involve the power to destroy. The Obama administration, through its appointees in the IRS, is nakedly trying to make it impossible for right-wing groups to operate as non-profits in the United States. The degree to which this is happening without any pretense of even-handedness is amazing.
Maybe Americans will learn from this teachable moment that taxing income – taxing it at all –creates a moral hazard of breathtaking potential. The genie is out of the bottle on this one. It’s not enough to elect a different president. This will happen again, and it will happen worse, if Americans don’t rethink the income tax.
Just think about it.
3. Government doesn’t “care” about us. Government has no power to “care.” That’s not government’s job. The reason Obamacare is jackbooting so many of the American people in the shorts, right where it really hurts, is that it’s an operation of government, admitted to the inner sanctum of your life. Government is about enforcing rules. It’s not about caring that you, personally, are suffering from its actions.
What Americans can learn from this is the principle our Founders already believed in, and designed our republic around: that there should be a very restrictive limit on what we hand over to government – especially the central government – to have done for us. It’s not government’s fault that it isn’t a caring organization. Don’t blame government. But learn from this what its proper limits are.
4. Opportunity, jobs, and income equality decline as government grows. I may have been the only one laughing when Barack Obama gave his seminal speech on income inequality. The more we tax, regulate, and try to control outcomes – everything Obama and the progressive left are about – the poorer we make the middle class, and the harder we make it to surge upward from the lower-income quintiles. Want greater income inequality? Increase the size of government.
For a long time, America shouldered the economic burdens of regulation and taxes by either outproducing them or taking on debt. But we’ve entered a period in which the burdens are too great and immediate. Obamacare, EPA restrictions, the network of employment laws that make it increasingly unattractive to hire employees: the main thing making economic activity a challenge today is the government – and regulation has surpassed taxes as the principal economy-killer.
The more the entry price is raised for economic activity, the fewer players will get in, and the bigger will be the gap between the most successful and the least successful player. You can have government trying to control all your outcomes, or you can have prosperity. You can’t have both. Americans have a unique opportunity to learn this today.
5. Excluding God means inviting in evil. There is no such thing as a vacuum of moral authority: over our individual hearts, over our culture, over our civilization. It is playing pretend, to claim that we can live as if moral authority is an unoccupied throne. The throne of authority is always occupied; the question for each of us is what we acknowledge as occupying it.
I think more and more people are realizing that we have brought our society to a point of unsustainability, by trying to live as if the throne of authority is unoccupied. When we try to establish the impossible condition – a neutral absence of moral authority – bad things rush to fill the vacuum: intolerance, impatience, envy, greed, cynicism, bias, fear, cruelty, anger, hatred, nihilism, despair. All the laws and punishments in the universe can’t deter, or requite with “justice,” the societal sorrows that result.
The conundrum, as our Founders knew, is how to keep government respecting the people’s moral authority without being an enforcer of one religious organization over another. They gave us a pretty good start, but we are living proof that the conundrum is not yet solved.
As an optimistic conservative, however, I see signs that Americans are groping toward a resolution that recognizes where the moral responsibility lies: not in “government” – not in a vague “they” that can somehow fix everything we don’t appreciate about the world – but in us.
And I don’t despair of the dawn that may be on the horizon.