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Governments Rot When Their Citizens Let Them (Part I)

We get the worst government we're prepared to tolerate.

by
Dan Miller

Bio

April 30, 2011 - 12:00 am

Not long ago I suggested that we might as well elect a real clown, Grumpy, to serve as president of the United States. When he ran (very successfully) for the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in 2010, Grumpy promised that, with him in office, things wouldn’t get worse. Though he didn’t have a clue what deputados actually did, the voters would find out, he claimed, if they elected him. Thus far at least, few of the candidates popular enough to win the 2012 beauty contest against President Obama seem to be much better than Grumpy — leaving the field, such as it is, still wide open. With conditions worsening and the country’s mood tanking, Obama’s second term — said to be a mythical creation of David Axelrod — could be worse than the Grumpy administration. But to whom should we turn?

Barack Obama currently has the worst approval ratings of his presidency. According to a new survey from Rasmussen Reports, only 22 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction. Three years into his term of office, only 25 percent of voters “strongly approve” of the job he’s doing. Having numbers so low should make it difficult to win four more years. Unfortunately, just because Mr. Obama is vulnerable doesn’t mean Republicans will take advantage of the political opportunity. [...] The damage four more years of Mr. Obama would do to the economy and US global prestige should be enough to motivate Republicans to rally behind the leader who seems to have the best chance of knocking off the Democrat, but who is it? There’s lots of talent out there, but finding Mr. or Mrs. Right isn’t easy in a congested field with no frontrunner unifying the elephant herd.

Fortunately, the United States is not at the point where revolution is necessary. Our votes remain effective if cast wisely for someone worth having. However, if they are cast frivolously, things will get worse. Remember the Declaration of Independence? Here’s one little part:

Prudence [...] will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. –Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.

Throughout the world, there are many disastrous, corrupt, and inept governments, but far fewer good ones. The government of the United States is still better than most. Even when honest people enter government, however, as some still do, there is often a downward spiral as they adapt to and adopt the culture of governance. They rarely improve but often worsen it.

Is this because some leaders are inherently self-serving, self-indulgent, hypocritical, lying jerks, routinely given to platitudinous remarks? People often accept them as their supporters glowingly portray them. That’s part of the problem, but there is more to it. In most of the countries with which I have a passing familiarity, being in “government service” has long had a predominately self-service aspect, coupled with a you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours mentality. From the lowest to the highest positions, government service is commonly seen as the way to self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, all at the expense of the ignorant schmucks conveniently available to be milked and governed.

I recall a petty postal official in Venezuela, when I was there about a decade ago, who routinely sold all of her supply of Venezuela’s many official stamps as soon as she had received them. She pocketed the nice premium that she charged to a vendor staked out at a stand just outside the post office. The vendor, in turn, sold them at a second mark-up — because none were available inside. Yes, that’s just the way it had always been and always would be, so nothing could be done — until el Presidente Chávez came to power and everything got far worse. Crony capitalism, crony socialism, crony communism — crony whateverism; in this regard, at least, they’re all the same.

So why are the governments of many countries worse than that of the United States? Because the United States has a history and retains a vestigial culture, albeit increasingly diluted and diminished, of individuality, independence, and public service as a burden to be accepted, only temporarily, for the common good. To us, the concept may seem rather naive, funny, and old-fashioned. It shouldn’t. Cincinnatus (519 – 438 B.C.), who returned to plow his fields in Rome when he had finished his job as supreme military commander, is fading as a role model and even a memory.

He gained fame as a model of Roman virtue. He was a farmer above all, but when called to serve his country he did so well, efficiently, and without question, even though a prolonged stay away from his farm could mean starvation for his family. When he served his country, he made his stint as dictator as brief as possible. He was also admired for his lack of ambition.

Much of that culture, although diminished in Rome, spread slowly to parts of what was then the wider world, including Britain. Centuries later, Britain gradually transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, with many of the individual freedoms and restraints on government set forth in the United States Constitution. It took a very long time. Nor was it, as the French ruling class understood, automatic. M. Guillotine’s clever and comparatively humane device, celebrated as the people’s avenger, was much in use as the French Revolution proceeded. Far less humane “rebels” in Libya are hardly proving themselves historically unique by exacting their vengeance without much sensitivity.

But not to worry. There are easy solutions. Well, maybe.

In more recent years, Britain’s culture has become no less multiculturally devalued than that of the United States. Venezuela, Cuba, and many others never, at least in recent memory, enjoyed cultures conducive to freedom and democracy. Ditto many countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, plus some of the countries they colonized. Mexico? Hardly a role model for the United States; I didn’t learn much about Mexican history or culture half a century ago in school, and I doubt that many young people in Mexico learn much today about the history or culture of the United States. Few are likely to develop cultural attitudes in contemporary Mexico compatible with life in the United States.

Haiti was colonized by France and revolted to form a “republic” at about the time of the French Revolution. There was some stability under various dictators. More recently, there was a rebellion in 2004, then earthquakes and floods that made existence even worse. Will Haiti ever have democracy and freedom? In the foreseeable future, there seems to be no path to that destination, including some kind of well-intended conquest; some type of mobocracy, maybe, but not freedom.

History suggests that where the requisite seeds and fertile soil are lacking, germinating and growing responsible, responsive governments for a free people is almost impossible. Although President Obama is not the only leader in the United States more hopeful than knowledgeable about even recent history, as president he is more capable than most others of doing great harm.

Obama’s historical ignorance could be a full time beat for somebody who does this work for a living, and it tells us something truly important about Barack Obama. His ignorance is as broad as it is deep. Not that you couldn’t deduce that on your own from his performance on the job.

This lack of historical awareness, along with other disabilities, seems to have spawned a penchant for ignoring reality in such places as Libya while
neglecting to water the fragile plant on our own still fertile soil — and while using what remains of it to bring impoverished cultures and their consequences to the United States.
Is an increasingly top-down political system, even at the local level, desirable? Could the Zeta gang and its offshoots thrive in any country with a still robust culture of democracy and freedom?

The U.S. Homeland Security Department has said that Mexican drug cartels, including the Zetas, have infiltrated 276 U.S. cities and represent the nation’s most serious organized-crime threat.

The National Drug Intelligence Center said the influence of Mexican drug gangs is “still expanding,” adding that they were more deeply entrenched than any other drug trafficking organization and operate coast to coast. [...]

In September [2010], the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) even posted signs along Interstate 8 in Arizona, more than 100 miles north of the border, warning travelers the area was unsafe because of drug and illegal-immigrant smugglers. The signs were posted along a 60-mile stretch of Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, the major east-west corridor linking Tucson and Phoenix with San Diego.

Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff Paul Babeu, whose jurisdiction includes the posted area, said Mexican drug gangs “literally do control parts of Arizona,” noting that gang members are armed with radios, optics and night-vision goggles “as good as anything law enforcement has.

“This is going on here in Arizona — 30 miles from the fifth-largest city in the United States,” he said.

Despite the failure and unwillingness of the United States government to enforce its own immigration laws, it has done a great job of preventing Arizona from helping to enforce them and punishing those who try — while simultaneously doing its best to turn Israel, the only reasonably free and democratic nation in the Middle East, over to the tender mercies of savages who would be delighted to emasculate the United States as well.

Many insist upon worshiping their own deity of Change; some, such as the New Black Panthers, more rabidly than others. Racist kinetic action? Nah, not with a post-racial president in charge. Many say that they want social change in the United States of the sort that brought much of Europe close to economic ruin. Meanwhile, as the United States struggles quite contentiously but not very well to get our own financial house in order, the dollar weakens and gold breaks $1,500 per ounce.

On the morning of Wednesday, April 20th, “Troy Polamalu has amazing hair, top-selling NFL jersey” was shown as the top story on Yahoo News. The point is not that Mr. Polamalu’s amazing hair is less than newsworthy, or even less than fascinating. It is that we have rather more important matters to pay attention to, and to ensure that our elected and appointed government officials deal with them on our behalf. Our basic liberties are eroding. Multiculturalism becomes the governmental and social norm. The authority of the allegedly most transparent government in history receives ever more expansive interpretations, its interpreters intent upon directing us along the paths they, in their infinite unwisdom, deem best.

But this is not all. Hot-button issues, no less a distraction than Troy Polamalu’s amazing hair, also play a significant role in ensuring the worst government possible — as I take up in Part II.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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