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Why the U.S. will never recapture its greatness

By Mark Christensen - posted Friday, 8 June 2012


Thomas Friedman is deeply concerned that the United States will never recapture its former greatness. The New York Times columnist has co-authored a book on the subject and recently sought advice from Francis Fukuyama.

Apparently, Americans have forgotten their founding political culture. While there must be limits on centralised authority, “government was also created to act and make decisions”. Bold leadership and “changes in institutional rules” are required to rescue America from its parlous state of “vetocracy”, a hate-fuelled system stymied by exuberant exploitation of indispensible checks and balances.

If the 2012 election campaign tackles the size and role of government, a debate that “has been with us since our founding days,” says Barack Obama, one can confidently predict the exchanges will resolve nothing of substance. “I know that the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington,” offered the President recently. “Keep in mind, I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem.” 

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It’s likely Mitt Romney lacks the intellectual courage to exploit such craven political relativism. Republicans, fearing a loss of the centre, will allow the debate to be framed by the lazy belief that governments can perfect a balance between the common good and individual interests. The extreme, so the story goes, is electoral suicide.

Yet one hardly need be a political scientist or historian of the Revolutionary era to appreciate American exceptionalism is absent a viable middle ground. It’s Liberty or Death. Either government can solve every problem or it can’t. The individual is sovereign, or socialism the answer. You’re simply free, or not.

The U.S. Constitution portends such absolutism. Freedom is a self-evident truth. All men are already equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Coercive state power stems, exclusively, from the consent of ordinary people.

Dazzling rhetoric, never mind the inconvenient metaphysics. If they inure in our nature as human beings, why, then, is it necessary for government to define and secure such rights? Is it not dangerous and confusing for democracy to infer, by virtue of its sheer existence, it possible to externalise and negotiate the mysteries of our inner world? Is political authority merely a facilitator, never an achiever of ends?

America is distinctive because of its bloody-minded willingness to overlook the fact politics is based upon a lie. Yes, a semi-worthwhile white lie, but a fib nonetheless. And several Founding Fathers knew this. Alexander Hamilton was one.

“For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” he argued in Federalist Papers number 84.

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“Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power.”

Hamilton vehemently opposed attaching a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, fearing the enumeration of positive rights would prove divisive, a veritable rabbit hole for zealous legislators. To contain debilitating sophistry, America’s best hope, though itself an ironic work-around, was the universality of the Constitution, as its abstractions are at least suggestive of the elusive characteristics of the American Dream.

His political foe, Thomas Jefferson, was another with serious misgivings about democratic efficacy, hinting at the ruse during his inaugural speech: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others?”

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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