Do you want to hear some really bad news? I mean dauntingly bad, horrifyingly bad, news so bad you could spend days or even weeks ruminating on it, worrying about it, desperately praying for it not to be true.
Are you ready? Here goes:
While you might have heard that the national debt in the United States is approaching $14 trillion, the actual unfunded liability of all American governments exceeds $125 trillion.
Stupefying, ain’t it?
And stupefying is precisely the right word, since news like that brings out the stupid in people. Nothing enervates the chicken in Chicken Little like a weather report predicting falling skies. If you find yourself in the business of selling advertising or shrieking treacly books or quack nostrums to Chicken Little, it behooves you to hire yourself some weathermen. Worked for Al Gore, didn’t it?
Am I being cynical? Not so much. Mainly I’m just being old.
I am an old libertarian. Not an old man, I hope, though of course I’m not getting any younger. But I have been a very radically committed libertarian since I was 19 years old, and an anarcho-capitalist since I was 24. I have been swimming in this ocean for 30 years, where many folks all over America are just now daring to wet their toes. I can defend the proposition that I am the first consistent theorist of both rational egoism and market anarchism, but, leaving that claim aside, it remains that I have been a libertarian for a long, long time.
Why does that matter? Because I’ve seen the gravely-predicted collapse of the starry firmament before. More than once. More than twice. More than a dozen times. It does seem plausible to me that the-world-as-we-know-it will someday come to an end. But with every passing day, I become more resolved in the belief that that day will not be tomorrow, regardless of the breathless weather reports.
It’s like this: New libertarians can be excitable. You’ve lived your whole life in an eyes-glazed-over sleep-walking state, and then, all at once, you wake up. The precipitant cause might be Atlas Shrugged or a John Stossel TV special or a reading from Jefferson on a radio talk show. Doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that you suddenly see the world as if had just been made, as if you had never seen it before. And you become acutely aware of the many defects in the way the world has been assembled.
That much is good, but, even so, in this state you are more than unusually likely to conclude that things are so bad that they are beyond repair. The timeline in Atlas Shrugged is only 13 short years, after all. How could we have shambled this far down The Road to Serfdom without being in imminent danger of being immediately enserfed?
I am not jaundiced — to the contrary. But I am an old libertarian, and I know from years of paying close attention to events that nothing changes as rapidly as we expect it to, nor as dramatically. Changing trajectories is easy if you are one person on foot, or a dozen folks all loaded into one airplane. But a nation of 300 million souls, each one of us with his own agenda — this is not any easy thing to move. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but experience argues that it doesn’t — not very much, not very quickly, not very often.
As creepily socialist as Barrack Obama and his creepy minions might be, the most outrageously socialist thing ever done in the United States was the imposition of wage and price controls by President Richard Nixon in 1971. But if you don’t remember that event first-hand, chances are you know nothing about it. Why? Because it came to nothing in the long run. The damage was undone — and then forgotten.
I am not jaundiced, but neither am I a Pollyanna. For the most part, the American people are amiable and apathetic, stoutly anideological without being at all prickly about their generally-mellow pragmatism, normally much more interested in sports or work or family life than in public affairs. They really, truly like the idea of giving the tiller a nudge every two years, or every four, leaving the ship of state to navigate itself between elections.
Yes, this is foolhardy, as many people are discovering just now. But it’s hard to argue that it has not been a fairly placid policy, up to now. If you want to see quick, dramatic, stomach-wrenching change, you have to go to those benighted places where there are always mobs of people in the streets, each one of them screaming desperately for revolution at once. As dismaying as the ground-state indifference of the American people might be, it’s hard to argue that the peaceful tenor of our day-to-day existence is somehow a bad thing.
It’s possible that I am more aware than others might be of just how benignly tolerant we are in this country: Almost everywhere else, if you say the kinds of things I say every day, at full voice, you will be sent to jail — or to your grave. As much as we might beef about unjust restrictions of our liberty — and I love to sing in that choir — the fact that I am free to speak the most outrageous kind of heresy is a potent testament to just how free we still are in this country.
Could we be more free? But of course! But as gloomy as the heavens might seem at any given moment, it turns out that the sky does not fall, no matter how much you might think it ought to.
Yes, we are in a perilous state, but we didn’t get here overnight. One betrayal followed another, starting with the 1789 constitution, which began the process of undermining the democratic Spirit of ’76. It was the power of philosophy that got us to where we are, and it will be the power of philosophy that will get us out. But just as the perversion of human liberty in America was a gradual process, effected over the course of 200 years, it seems reasonable to suppose that the reversal of this awful state will take some time to work out.
Practically speaking, what is likely to change in the short run? Not very much, I don’t think. It’s easy to take up the weatherman’s mantle and predict cyclones and hurricanes and always more storms. But, in reality, tomorrow’s weather will very probably be a lot like yesterday’s. Things will change in the long run, one may hope for the better. But the changes we are most likely to see in the near future will be largely imperceptible.
I apologize if this is a disappointment to you. I would dearly love to live in the kind of civilization I can describe in such elaborate detail. But to get there quickly, many, many people would have to die. For the moment, at least, I think I can stand to wait for a more propitious opportunity for radical change.
In the mean time, would you like to hear some really good news? Murder rates are down substantially all over America. The cause? Theories abound, but one plausible explanation is the millions of people who bought guns, fearing that the Obama administration would impose new gun control laws. If this is true, this is very, very good news for advocates of individualism. The more people take responsibility for their own lives and property, the less beholden they will be the to the state.
Obviously, things could get a lot worse than they are right now, and I will talk about those scenarios shortly. But things can get better, too, as the self-arming of the American middle class indicates. Either way, the changes we see are likely to take quite a bit longer than we expect them to, and they may be so gradual as to seem like no change at all.
One could wish for a more accelerated rate of change, but it were well to remember that different is not always better. For my own part, I want for all of us to have a chance to grow to be old libertarians. I know what I want, and I know why I am right to want it. But I can stand to wait to get where I’m going peacefully.
Reasons to be cheerful: Defying the specter of ugly fates.
- Part 0: The ground we stand upon is firm and the lever of the human mind grows ever stronger.
- Part 0.5: Sleeping giants can’t sleep forever.
- Part 1: Things rarely change as quickly or as dramatically as we expect them to.
- Part 1.5: Who cares about the tunnel? All I can see is the light…
- Part 2: If we are wise, and if we are lucky, we won’t “meet the new boss” because there won’t be any bosses.
- Part 2.5: It’s raining soup and all you can do is piss and moan that Big Mother hasn’t given you a free bowl.
- Part 2.9: Marksmanship is a perfectible praxis.
- Part 2.9.5: Carrying a concealed firearm is the first step to reclaiming responsibility for your own self-defense.
- Part 3.0.0: While it may be implausible that western civilization could collapse, this much seems certain: You will not be prepared for what happens next.
- Part 3.0.1: You are ungovernable: Other people have power over you only because you have surrendered your own sovereign authority to them — and they can’t stop you from taking it back.
- Part 3.0.2: What has it cost us to have been so wrong for so long about selflessness and self-adoration?
- Part 3.0.3: When you resolve never to let other people dominate you, you come to be indomitable.
- Part 3.1: The song of the self.
- Part 3.1.1: Psalm.
- Part 3.1.2: Redemption is egoism in action, so do the world a favor and catch your self doing something right.
- Part 3.1.3: Praising Cain: Change the world forever by learning to love your life the way you actually live it.
- Part 3.1.4: “Get me rewrite!” How to revise the script of your life — writing yourself a happy ending.
- Part 3.2: Yuppie love: The egoist’s guide to mastering the art of frolicking naked with the one you love.