September 3, 2019
Today we’re sharing an essay from American Consequences featured contributor Bill Bonner. It’s the kind of pull-no-punches look at American liberty, patriotism, and history we’ve come to expect from Bill, and we think you’ll enjoy it…
The Hollowing Out of American Liberty
How independent we really are, circa 2019…
By Bill Bonner
When Europeans discovered America, some thought it might be a kind of Eden. Explorers recounted their tales of naked savages, snakes, and low-hanging tropical fruit. Maybe it was Eden, but gone to seed.
Whatever it was, many thought they could make a paradise out of it. Adventurers, entrepreneurs, religious zealots of every stripe – all made their way to the New World intent upon turning it into the Eden of their dreams. Five hundred years later, America is what they made of it – both a paradise, and a complete mess.
But if Americans have a special gift, it is a talent for ignoring irony and ambiguity and going on with their special mission: getting rich.
Most Americans look at the country as if it were an Enron financial statement. Sure, many of the assets are fictitious and the liabilities are understated. But like Merrill Lynch, we are all bullish on America.
“Proud to Be an American,” says one bumper sticker. “One Nation – Indivisible,” says another.
America was, of course, founded on the opposite principle – the idea that people were free to separate themselves from a parent government whenever they felt they had come of age. But no fraud, no matter how stupendous, is so obvious as to be detected by the average American. That is America’s great strength – or its most serious weakness.
After September 11, 2001, so many Americans bought flags that the shops ran short. Old Glory festooned nearly every porch and bridge. Patriotism swelled every heart.
Europeans coming back to the Old Country reported they had never seen anything like it. A Frenchman takes his country for granted. He is born into it, just as he is born into his religion.
He may be proud of La Belle France the way he is proud of French cheese. But he is not fool enough to claim credit for either one. He just feels lucky to have them for his own.
Nation of Immigrants
America, by contrast, is a nation of people who chose to become Americans. Even the oldest family tree in the New World has immigrants at its root.
And where did its government, its courts, its businesses, and its saloons come from?
They were all invented by us. Having chosen the country – and made it what it is – Americans feel more responsibility for what it has become than citizens of most other nations.
They take more pride in it, too.
But what is it? What has it become? What makes America different from any other nation? Why should we care more about it than about, say, Lithuania, or Chad?
Most Americans, if pressed for an answer, would reply, “Because America is a free country.”
What else can be said of the place?
Its landmass is as varied as the Earth itself. Inhabiting the sands of Tucson as well as the steppes of Alaska, Americans could as well be called a desert race as an Arctic one.
Its religions are equally diverse – from mossbacked Episcopalians of the Virginia Tidewater to the holy rollers of east Texas and the Muslims of east Harlem. Nor does blood itself give the country any mark of distinction.
The individual American has more in common genetically with the people his people come from than with his fellow Americans. In a DNA test, this writer is more likely to be mistaken for an IRA hit man than a Baltimore drug dealer.
No Common History
America never was a nation in the usual sense of the word.
Though there are plenty of exceptions – especially among the made-up nations of former European colonies – nations are usually composed of groups of people who share common blood, a common culture, and a common language.
Americans mostly speak English, but they might just as well speak Spanish. And at the debut of the republic, the Founding Fathers narrowly avoided declaring German the official language – at least that is the legend.
A Frenchman has to speak French. A German has to speak the language of the Vaterland. But an American can speak anything. And often does.
Nor is there even a common history. The average immigrant didn’t arrive until the early 20th century. By then, America’s history was already three centuries old. The average family missed the whole thing.
If Americans weren’t united by blood, history, religion, or language – what else is left?
Only an idea: that you could come to America and be whatever you wanted to be. You might have been a bogtrotter in Ireland or a baron in Silesia; in America, you were free to become whatever you could make of yourself.
“Give me liberty or give me death!” said Patrick Henry, raising the rhetorical stakes and praying no one would call him on it. Yet the average man at the time lived in near-perfect freedom. There were few books and few laws on them. And there were fewer people to enforce them.
Henry, if he wanted to do so, could have merely crossed the Blue Ridge west of Charlottesville and never seen another government agent again.
Illusion of Self-Government
Thomas Jefferson complained, in the Declaration of Independence, that Britain had “erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People and eat out their Substance.”
Yet the swarms of officers King George III sent to America would have barely filled a mid-sized regional office of the IRS or city zoning department today.
Likewise, the Founding Fathers kvetched about taxation without representation. But history has shown that representation only makes taxation worse.
Kings, emperors, and tyrants must keep tax rates low; otherwise, the people rise in rebellion. It is democrats who eat out the substance of the people: The illusion of self-government lets them get away with it.
Tax rates were, on average, only 3% under the tyranny of King George III. Among the dubious blessings of democracy are average tax rates 10 times as high.
“Americans today,” wrote one of the founders of the libertarian movement, Rose Wilder Lane, in 1936, “are the most reckless and lawless of peoples.” But, she immediately continued, “we are also the most imaginative, the most temperamental, the most infinitely varied.”
This was after the Lincoln administration had annihilated the principle of self-government… but before the Roosevelt team had finished its work.
By the end of the 20th century, Americans were required to wear seatbelts. And they ate low-fat yogurt without a gun to their heads. By the start of the 21st century, they were submitting to strip searches at airports and demanding higher taxes to “protect freedom.”
The recklessness seems to have been bred out of them. The variety, too. North, south, east, and west, people all wear the same clothes and cherish the same ideas.
Liberty has been hollowed out in modern America. But it is still worshipped as though it were a religious relic.
Now here are some of the headlines we’re reading…
This brings us to the latest escalation of the trade war with China… Mr. Trump’s main reelection selling point is the economy. People think it is doing well. And to maintain that illusion, Mr. Trump needs to put more fake money into the system.
Rapidly changing national demographics are creating a perfect storm that could turn the winner of the Electoral College permanently blue. By all metrics, trends in numerous red or purple states point to a shrinking percentage of Republican-leaning older white voters, who are being replaced by younger, non-white, female voters who tend to lean Democratic.
Want to see the Northern Lights AND the Milky Way? Those in the northern U.S. states–and even in cities including New York and Boston–could have some extraordinary luck this weekend.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Assistant Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
September 3, 2019