I don’t believe in God. However, I do believe in divine retribution. Without going into the specifics of this somewhat counterintuitive theology, suffice to say here that its central axiom is the idea that actions have consequences. One cannot go on committing evil without reaping a whirlwind or two. Eventually Nemesis overtakes Hubris, and the results aren’t pretty.
This is our future. Or, at least, one hopes it is – otherwise, there is no justice in this world, or perhaps even in the next.
This struck me as I was reading a column by Steve Chapman, a mildly conservative journalist with vaguely libertarian leanings: according to him, people on the right (of which I count myself one) are "addicted to apocalypse." He takes us through decades of conservative apocalyptic rhetoric, from Ronald Reagan predicting the end of freedom in America due to the depredations of Medicare to Ted Cruz – the liberal media’s villain of the moment – who recently said:
“The challenges facing this country are unlike any we have ever seen. … (T)his is an administration that seems bound and determined to violate every single one of our Bill of Rights. We’re nearing the edge of a cliff. … We have a couple of years to turn this country around, or we go off the cliff to oblivion.” Citing Reagan, Cruz declared: “One day we will find ourselves answering questions from our children and our children’s children, ‘What was it like when America was free?'”
According to Chapman, whose likeness accompanying his column shows him smiling the smile of the self-satisfied bourgeois, this is all so much balderdash, because, you see, Reagan was wrong: Medicare wasn’t that bad (it’s cheaper than Obamacare!), the counterculture receded (not where I live, but whatever), and the Soviet Union faded away (well, yes, just as the apocalyptic Ludwig von Mises predicted). See? Nothing to fear! Good times are ahead! The world is our oyster!
The problem with those grumpy old conservatives, says Chapman, is that "when their dire predictions fail to come true, they keep forecasting the worst possible outcome if they don’t get their way. They seem to need the perpetual excitement of impending doom."
The smugness of our political class is impenetrable: they believe the system that sustains and rewards them is invulnerable, or nearly so. The society in which they live is, seemingly, a well-ordered one, where – in spite of a few glitches, like government shutdowns caused by evil nihilists and other subversive elements – the machinery of society runs smoothly, interrupted only by occasional burps and hiccups
Yet just beneath the surface, there is a roiling, like some giant serpent crawling mere inches below the cool green grass, making odd curlicues in an otherwise perfect lawn: a message written in an alien cursive, signifying – what?
As the workers go off every morning, lining up at Starbucks and preparing to earn their daily bread, American drones take off from secret silos somewhere in the desert, seeking out their intended victims – and some not intended. As the sounds of normalcy stream in through an open window – leafblowers in the distance, chirping birds crowding around the feeder, children brawling in the schoolyard – the news that the NSA is collecting our emails seems irrelevant. We go about our business, and the political class goes about theirs – the former quite ordinary, the latter quite another story altogether.
A new study shows our noble crusade to "liberate" Iraq killed half a million people. It is impossible to even imagine such a crime: the mind shuts down in the face of those numbers. I can’t even visualize half a million dead bodies – can you? And that doesn’t take into account the sanctions, which killed hundreds of thousands more, mostly old people and children. Nor does it include the number we killed in the first Gulf war – we’re surely up to a solid million dead by now.
Getting away with this is what we call "American exceptionalism." God (or Nature) punishes evil, eventually – but not us. We’re the exception.
But are we?
Since the end of World War II, the United States has murdered so many innocent people that the numbers approach Hitlerian dimensions. Yes, I know I’m teetering on the edge of breaking Godwin’s Law here, but numbers don’t lie – and it’s getting worse. Since September 11, 2001, the death toll has increased exponentially, and there’s no end in sight.
One could make the case that a self-conscious evil, the sort that revels in its moral inversion and loudly proclaims its transgressive nature at least has the virtue of honesty about it. But that’s not our style: we kill because we’re fighting for Democracy and Freedom and against Intolerance and Sheer Badness. And we believe our own lies, if only because of that warm toasty feeling we get when we repeat them, like hot chocolate quaffed in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve.
The lies we tell ourselves insulate us from the cold realities the rest of the world must live with, and we convince ourselves we’re safe. Outside the Western metropolis, those Other People suffer coups and depressions, tyranny and terror – but we are immune. Because, after all, we’re Americans – and nothing like that has ever happened here.
Oh, there was the Civil War, but that was a long time ago, before the invention of Twitter. On that occasion the god-hero Lincoln arose to save the nation by jailing his opponents, banning newspapers, and burning down half the cities of the South – but, as I said, all that was Long Ago and Far Away, and now we have inspiring statues and yearly reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg. And, yes, there was that nasty Great Depression, but the god-hero Roosevelt arose to save us, and now no bank can ever fail because the US government says so, and we have our Safety Net, which may have a few holes in it but whatever.
Don’t worry: be happy – because this is America, and we’re exceptional.
Yet economics doesn’t make exceptions: all are subject to its immutable laws. We used to know this, but sometime around the 1930s we lost this knowledge because remembering it was inconvenient. The banks were failing: the bubble of the 1920s had popped and reality – economic reality – had set in. How to insulate ourselves against the pain of deflation? The anesthetic of governmental action was applied in huge doses and the patient seemed to recover: but the underlying illness lingered.
"We owe it to ourselves," they told us, and they are still singing the same song after all these years. Those antediluvians who insist otherwise are simply doomsayers, grumpy old reactionaries who want to spoil our fun: when we need more money we just print it. So what’s the problem with raising the debt limit? After all, our moral debt dwarfs our monetary one, and yet here we are, safe and sound – no lightning bolts have issued forth from Heaven, no plagues of boils or infestations of frogs have blighted the country.
I won’t deliver a long lecture here on basic economics: there’s no room – and, really, no need. Because any ordinary person can see what is wrong with this picture: one cannot consume more than one produces. The average American used to understand this: the American political class, on the other hand, has always had its own arithmetic, one founded on the very same "exceptionalist" doctrine that has steered our foreign policy on its present mad course. Bound by no law but that which they legislate, Washington’s reckless hubris defies the laws of nature and the gods themselves. In short: they’re begging for that lightning bolt, as did Icarus – and look where he landed.
Oh, but in Chapman’s World, all is calm, all is right, and if it’s not – well, take that pill the doctor prescribed for the nameless all-pervasive anxiety that hangs over this paradisiacal scene. You’ll feel better in a minute….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).