Friday, June 19, 2009

Future USA

I was thinking today about the future of our country, as I often do. Though I try to avoid making predictions (since they almost always turn out to be faulted), I think I will put down how I see this country going, and what my children and their children may well expect.

Ever since the Civil War, the tendency in this nation has been toward centralization, specifically, the increase in the power and reach of the federal government. The presence of slavery on this continent was even more pernicious than we recognize, for the bloody, protracted effort to eradicate it from our society inevitably meant that the federal authority would have to take to itself extraordinary powers to manage the crisis. To my mind, the Civil War was the turning point in American history. Before it, states' rights were the norm, and most of the power in American governance resided in the states. The Constitution was very specific: Any powers not granted to the federal government by its precepts were to remain with the states. The war changed all that. It determined once and for all that the federal authority was transcendent, and that, instead of holding such power as was not ceded to it by the states, it would forever hold the prevailing power, ceding only such power to the states as it chose.

This was a violation of the spirit in which the nation was created - a direct affront to the vision of the Founding Fathers. The United States was meant to be just that: a union of states, each of which has sovereignty to determine its own destiny, culture, laws and way of life. But slavery, that great evil, made it impossible for the federal government to respect this precept. And so the central authority took upon itself the power necessary to purge our society of slavery, and in the process (as always happens) assumed rights that it never again gave up. (For once a power is taken from the people and given to the government, it is rarely, if ever, returned to them.)

And so, to put it briefly, we decided to choose a society free of slavery over one in which the federal government was limited by the power of the states and of the Constitution. Now it is true that the Constitution was amended after the Civil War to incorporate certain powers into the federal sphere, and it would have been well if the aggrandizement of the central authority had stopped at that point. But the process of centralization had been set in motion by the greatest upheaval which our nation had witnessed, and it continues to this day.

The second milestone in this process of centralization was the amendment, in 1913, establishing the federal income tax. This gave to the growing federal authority a virtually unlimited source of revenue to facilitate the expansion of its power. This amendment was the natural outcome of decades of increasing centralization, for the government could not have supported and expanded its authority without an enormous and ever-replenishing income. The ratification of the sixteenth amendment by the states was the most serious mistake they made since the secession that prompted the Civil War, since, as with the need to eradicate slavery, the income tax virtually guaranteed a perpetual growth in the power of the central government. It is, of course, a matter of no surprise that the income tax has done nothing but increase since its creation, exactly as the size and scope of the federal government has increased.

The third watershed in this process of usurpation by the federal government of individual and states' rights was the New Deal, and again, it arose out of a crisis. The financial collapse that was the Great Depression gave the central government precisely the same rationale for expanding its powers as the existence of slavery had done. And as with the struggle against slavery, the 'progressive' program of the New Deal, while addressing a genuine need for action, served to grow the central government enormously in the name of humanitarian reform. This is the most pernicious aspect of the process of centralization: It is usually touted as a positive benefit to society, redressing social and economic ills and improving the quality of life of the citizens. It is thus difficult for the forces of traditionalism and limited government to combat such measures, as it leaves them open to the charge of being racists or class-ists or retrogrades. (We see this every day in the public sphere at this moment.)

The current economic crisis offers to the federal government yet another opportunity to expand its powers, and it has not been slow in taking advantage of it. It may well be that the next few years will represent a fourth major phase in the erosion of individual and states' rights in favor of increasing centralization. The clamor for universal health care has all the earmarks of the righteous fight of the anti-slavery struggle and the New Deal, and anyone who opposes it is immediately labeled as a heartless retrograde. I have little doubt now that we will, in fact, have some form of socialized medicine and health insurance operated by the central government. Perhaps it will not at first be fully centralized, but the movement toward that end will be irresistible. When the president states that the proposed program will be neither a mandate nor a federally-run health care system, he is telling only part of the truth. It may not begin that way, but its natural evolution will certainly be in that direction. And so my first prediction is that, in the lifetime of my children, we will have in this country a single, central, socialized medicine and health insurance system dictated and operated by the federal government.

As with every form of socialized medicine, this will inevitably mean long waits for care and government mandated rationing of services. As a result, I believe that a black market in both care and medicines will develop, just as it did in the old Soviet Union (indeed, we are seeing the origins of this now with the influx of medicines from Canada and Mexico), and like that system, it will be officially illegal but informally tolerated. This black market will be robust though unreliable, but it will be necessary not only to provide needed services, but also to keep pressure off the government system, which would be intolerable without it.

We have already seen the impending nationalization of the banking industry, and it is being conducted, not surprisingly, in the name of fairness and for the good of the average American. And while corporate greed has become disruptive of our economic health, how much worse will federal control prove to be? At least in corporations there is accountability, to the directors, to the share holders, to the employees and to consumers. But in a federally-run economic system, the only accountability will be at the ballot box. And we have seen time and time again how tendentious and easily manipulated that can be. In every poll taken on the subject, voters declare that they are displeased with the direction of the government and the quality of its elected officials, yet overwhelmingly they affirm that they are content with their own representatives. And so, the inability of the electorate to link the behavior of their own officials to the wider condition of the nation keeps the hide-bound denizens of government in office until their rigoring corpses are carted out of the halls of power on a pallet.

And so my second prediction is that, the process already having begun, we will have a centrally-dictated financial system, not perhaps in the lifetimes of my children, but in those of their children. Ours will gradually become a command economy, with such tight governmental control and regulation of the market that the market will cease to be free in everything but name. And, with historical irony, all this will be done in the name of a free and fair market.

Now, these two taken together - centralized health care and insurance and nationalized banking and finance - will be sufficient to render the federal government nearly omnipotent, and something like the absolute master of the states. All power, all financial policies, all personal decisions regarding the quality of one's life, will reside in the central government, which will tout itself as the guardian and guarantor of individual liberties, expressed not as maximum freedom or opportunity, but as fairness and a better quality of life. Our lives will be better, more secure, longer and easier, the central authority will say, precisely because it will have taken to itself near-total power over them. And such power, once given up by individuals and the states, will never be returned. As a result of this near-total usurpation of power, the states will lose whatever sovereignty they may have left, and they will become nothing but quaint artifacts of a bygone era, characterized not by any real power, but merely by cultural diversity and symbolic differences.

From this comes my third prediction. Within the lifetime of my grandchildren's grandchildren, the United States will have become, in effect, a massive dictatorship run from Washington. It will be a new sort of dictatorship; not one lorded over by a single man or woman, or even by a single party, but a dictatorship of bureaucracy backed by technology, in which the titular leaders will be no more than that. If I may coin a phrase, the United States will become a mega-garchy.

The president, congressmen, department heads will be nothing more than managers of this massive bureaucratic system, which will be, ironically, a progressive, left-wing dictatorship, put in place by people who claim to be serving the public interest and combating a right-wing menace, at the very same time that they have stripped our citizens of their birthright as free men and women. In other words, the mega-garchy will be a dictatorship of benevolence, imposed for our own benefit by those who wish to remove from us all risk and initiative, in order to preserve us from ourselves, while concentrating all power in the hands of the central government.

I am tempted to say that I am glad I will not live to see this, but I have too much solicitude for my children, and for their offspring whom I may never see, to take such a passive position. Indeed, if the young men who volunteered to serve in the Union Army in 1861 had taken that position, slavery might have persisted for another fifty years. (Like Lincoln, I am confident that it would eventually have sunk under the weight of its own economic ossification. However, unlike him, since I have hindsight, I think it might have been better to have allowed this process to occur naturally, rather than to have permanently altered the nature of American democracy, while in the process having taken the lives of 612,000 young Americans.) And so I cannot content myself with my own mortality, consigning my descendants to the fate of all those who, as Dostoevsky said, exchange their liberty for bread. For that, in my view, is precisely what we are doing for the sake of a "fairer" financial system and cheaper health insurance and doctor visits, and so on.

No, I would like to leave to my progeny something like the nation that the Founders wished to be left to me: a nation with a strictly limited central government, wherein real power resides close to the citizens, and in which personal liberty and opportunity are at both a premium and a maximum. But I am not sure at this point what I can do to bring this about: this may be left to future generations to decide.

And so comes my fourth prediction, which is more in the nature of a hope than an expectation: At some point, probably late in this century, the government having become so suffocating of rights and opportunities, so paternalistic in its attitude and maternalistic in its behavior, and the economy having reached the point of utter collapse, there will be a second revolution in America. And that revolution will take as its values the very same values, purged as they have been of racial injustice, that were embraced by the Founders, and enshrined for all to see (who care to read it) in the Constitution. And that, I think, is the great advantage which this second American revolution will have: It will take as its guiding principle the very document which the first one struggled so heroically to produce.