Why America is Losing Altitude

Newly elected Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made one of the most important statements since the election: “America is exceptional. But it is not inherently so. America is exceptional because we embraced freedom. Because we enshrined it in our documents, and because we have lived and fought for the principles of freedom.”

If by “freedom” Paul means individual rights and capitalism — and he quite possibly does — then this is one of the most significant statements made by an elected leader in a very long time. It’s important not only politically, but also psychologically. Too many Americans simply take what they have for granted. They assume that the land of greatest progress in human history is something that came from somewhere or something else. If they’re fundamentalist Christians, they believe it came from the supernatural. If they’re secular liberals, they assume that it’s unfair and mean of Americans to keep their wealth — but they likewise assume it came from “somewhere,” and that it’s unlimited and will not go away. As evidenced by their votes, many Americans appear to assume that wealth and prosperity are causeless. This dangerous (and false) belief that prosperity just magically ‘appeared’ leads to reckless government spending and the inevitable debasement of the currency, hyperinflation (as in pre-Nazi Germany) and ultimate financial disaster. Why not spend recklessly, after all, if money is unlimited and cannot ever go away?

 I am a realistic optimist. I believe, and know, that the good is more important than the bad as long as human beings choose to think rationally and never evade reality. I know that honest mistakes do not usually create disaster, as long as thinking people make corrections over time. Life, and indeed all of human history, is one gigantic learning curve. But when people evade, put their heads in the sand, or refuse to perceive knowledge that is plainly in front of them, you can be sure there’s a proverbial “iceberg ahead.” Americans still talk about “when” the economy recovers and “when” everything will get better again. They mistakenly think that Obama, or maybe even now the Republicans, can fix things without altering our course in any radical way.

On the one hand, I like the optimism. But at the same time, I worry: Do these people understand prosperity will never return on our current course? In fact, on our current course we’re going to lose the still-great prosperity most of us still enjoy. The first warning signal was the economic meltdown of 2008. The government claims to have “stabilized” that crisis, which may or may not be true. But even if it did, it did so at the cost of creating even bigger problems (none the least of which unfathomable debt). America is a debtor nation and our central bank is following the same inflation of the currency that previous regimes (most notably, the Weimar Republic which preceded Hitler in Germany) perpetuated. Such policies have always ended in disaster.

America is like a metaphorical airplane flying at an altitude fifty times higher than any other airplane before it. When other planes, flying at lower altitudes, crashed, it was always bad, of course. But America has further to fall. And there’s no precedent in human history for a disaster of that magnitude. America will bring the whole world down with it because while America may be slipping as “# 1,” it still has the greatest accumulation of wealth in human history. More than that, America has by far the greatest psychological expectation of wealth and growth. Wealth is not new here; it’s the to-be-expected, the always to-be-expanded. America is a place where generations of people have become accustomed not only to great comfort, but to greater and greater comfort with each generation. The current generation is no exception. Look how technology has progressed in just the last decade. Look how all our lives are forever changed by the Internet and the latest high-tech gadgets. Capitalism, grounded in science and reason, brought all this about. Yet it’s capitalism, along with reason, that many Americans and nearly all of their intellectual and political leaders have abandoned. And this abandonment wasn’t so much about capitalism as it was a blind commitment to the entitlements of an always-expanding welfare state. But a growing welfare state and a growing private economy cannot coexist. At some point, it has to be one or the other.

The good news is that a recommitment to reason is always available, at any time and place. Even if there is further decline or an economic collapse, reason can still be re-applied to economics and government. (If it is, it will be the first time in at least a century.) When Thomas Paine wrote of “common sense” as the foundation of early America, he was referring to reason. Past societies didn’t have as much to lose as America does. When you have more to lose, you’re often more willing to be shocked by reality when everything is already rotten and awful anyway. Maybe the last election will be the beginning of a trend; a trend that will expand as more people confront reality rather than run away from it.

These issues are much bigger than any one election, or any one bad President. They’re psychological and cultural in nature. It’s up to Americans to save America. And with it: Human life as we know it.