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Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Live Free or Die
Live Free or Die
MY REMARKS are titled tonight after the words of General
Stark, New Hampshire's great hero of the Revolutionary War: "Live free
or die!" When I first moved to New Hampshire, where this appears on our
license plates, I assumed General Stark had said it before some battle
or other—a bit of red meat to rally the boys for the charge; a touch of
the old Henry V-at-Agincourt routine. But I soon discovered that the
general had made his famous statement decades after the war, in a letter
regretting that he would be unable to attend a dinner. And in a curious
way I found that even more impressive. In extreme circumstances, many
people can rouse themselves to rediscover the primal impulses: The brave
men on Flight 93 did. They took off on what they thought was a routine
business trip, and, when they realized it wasn't, they went into General
Stark mode and cried "Let's roll!" But it's harder to maintain the
"Live free or die!" spirit when you're facing not an immediate crisis
but just a slow, remorseless, incremental, unceasing ratchet effect.
"Live free or die!" sounds like a battle cry: We'll win this thing or
die trying, die an honorable death. But in fact it's something far less
dramatic: It's a bald statement of the reality of our lives in the
prosperous West. You can live as free men, but, if you choose not to,
your society will die.
My book America Alone is often assumed to be
about radical Islam, firebreathing imams, the excitable young men
jumping up and down in the street doing the old "Death to the Great
Satan" dance. It's not. It's about us. It's about a possibly terminal
manifestation of an old civilizational temptation: Indolence, as
Machiavelli understood, is the greatest enemy of a republic. When I ran
into trouble with the so-called "human rights" commissions up in Canada,
it seemed bizarre to find the progressive left making common cause with
radical Islam. One half of the alliance profess to be pro-gay,
pro-feminist secularists; the other half are homophobic, misogynist
theocrats. Even as the cheap bus 'n' truck road-tour version of the
Hitler-Stalin Pact, it made no sense. But in fact what they have in
common overrides their superficially more obvious incompatibilities:
Both the secular Big Government progressives and political Islam recoil
from the concept of the citizen, of the free individual entrusted to
operate within his own societal space, assume his responsibilities, and
exploit his potential.
In most of the developed world, the state has gradually
annexed all the responsibilities of adulthood—health care, child care,
care of the elderly—to the point where it's effectively severed its
citizens from humanity's primal instincts, not least the survival
instinct. Hillary Rodham Clinton said it takes a village to raise a
child. It's supposedly an African proverb—there is no record of anyone
in Africa ever using this proverb, but let that pass. P.J. O'Rourke
summed up that book superbly: It takes a village to raise a child. The
government is the village, and you're the child. Oh, and by the way,
even if it did take a village to raise a child, I wouldn't want it to be
an African village. If you fly over West Africa at night, the lights
form one giant coastal megalopolis: Not even Africans regard the African
village as a useful societal model. But nor is the European village.
Europe's addiction to big government, unaffordable entitlements,
cradle-to-grave welfare, and a dependence on mass immigration needed to
sustain it has become an existential threat to some of the oldest
nation-states in the world.
And now the last holdout, the United States, is
embarking on the same grim path: After the President unveiled his
budget, I heard Americans complain, oh, it's another Jimmy Carter, or
LBJ's Great Society, or the new New Deal. You should be so lucky. Those
nickel-and-dime comparisons barely begin to encompass the wholesale
Europeanization that's underway. The 44th president's
multi-trillion-dollar budget, the first of many, adds more to the
national debt than all the previous 43 presidents combined, from George
Washington to George Dubya. The President wants Europeanized health
care, Europeanized daycare, Europeanized education, and, as the
Europeans have discovered, even with Europeanized tax rates you can't
make that math add up. In Sweden, state spending accounts for 54% of
GDP. In America, it was 34%—ten years ago. Today, it's about 40%. In
four years' time, that number will be trending very Swede-like.
But forget the money, the deficit, the debt, the big
numbers with the 12 zeroes on the end of them. So-called fiscal
conservatives often miss the point. The problem isn't the cost. These
programs would still be wrong even if Bill Gates wrote a check to cover
them each month. They're wrong because they deform the relationship
between the citizen and the state. Even if there were no financial
consequences, the moral and even spiritual consequences would still be
fatal. That's the stage where Europe is.
America is just beginning this process. I looked at the
rankings in Freedom in the 50 States published by George Mason
University last month. New Hampshire came in Number One, the Freest
State in the Nation, which all but certainly makes it the freest
jurisdiction in the Western world. Which kind of depressed me. Because
the Granite State feels less free to me than it did when I moved there,
and you always hope there's somewhere else out there just in case things
go belly up and you have to hit the road. And way down at the bottom in
the last five places were Maryland, California, Rhode Island, New
Jersey, and the least free state in the Union by some distance, New
New York! How does the song go? "If you can make it
there, you'll make it anywhere!" If you can make it there, you're some
kind of genius. "This is the worst fiscal downturn since the Great
Depression," announced Governor Paterson a few weeks ago. So what's he
doing? He's bringing in the biggest tax hike in New York history. If you
can make it there, he can take it there—via state tax, sales tax,
municipal tax, a doubled beer tax, a tax on clothing, a tax on cab
rides, an "iTunes tax," a tax on haircuts, 137 new tax hikes in all.
Call 1-800-I-HEART-NEW-YORK today and order your new package of state
tax forms, for just $199.99, plus the 12% tax on tax forms and the 4%
tax form application fee partially refundable upon payment of the 7.5%
tax filing tax. If you can make it there, you'll certainly have no
difficulty making it in Tajikistan.
New York, California... These are the great iconic
American states, the ones we foreigners have heard of. To a penniless
immigrant called Arnold Schwarzenegger, California was a land of plenty.
Now Arnold is an immigrant of plenty in a penniless land: That's not an
improvement. One of his predecessors as governor of California, Ronald
Reagan, famously said, "We are a nation that has a government, not the
other way around." In California, it's now the other way around:
California is increasingly a government that has a state. And it is
still in the early stages of the process. California has thirtysomething
million people. The Province of Quebec has seven million people. Yet
California and Quebec have roughly the same number of government
workers. "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation," said Adam Smith,
and America still has a long way to go. But it's better to jump off the
train as you're leaving the station and it's still picking up speed than
when it's roaring down the track and you realize you've got a one-way
ticket on the Oblivion Express.
"Indolence," in Machiavelli's word: There are stages to
the enervation of free peoples. America, which held out against the
trend, is now at Stage One: The benign paternalist state promises to
make all those worries about mortgages, debt, and health care disappear.
Every night of the week, you can switch on the TV and see one of these
ersatz "town meetings" in which freeborn citizens of the republic (I use
the term loosely) petition the Sovereign to make all the bad stuff go
away. "I have an urgent need," a lady in Fort Myers beseeched the
President. "We need a home, our own kitchen, our own bathroom." He took
her name and ordered his staff to meet with her. Hopefully, he didn't
insult her by dispatching some no-name deputy assistant associate
secretary of whatever instead of flying in one of the bigtime
tax-avoiding cabinet honchos to nationalize a Florida bank and convert
one of its branches into a desirable family residence, with a swing set
hanging where the drive-thru ATM used to be.
As all of you know, Hillsdale College takes no federal
or state monies. That used to make it an anomaly in American education.
It's in danger of becoming an anomaly in America, period. Maybe it's
time for Hillsdale College to launch the Hillsdale Insurance Agency, the
Hillsdale Motor Company and the First National Bank of Hillsdale. The
executive supremo at Bank of America is now saying, oh, if only he'd
known what he knows now, he wouldn't have taken the government money.
Apparently it comes with strings attached. Who knew? Sure, Hillsdale
College did, but nobody else.
If you're a business, when government gives you 2% of
your income, it has a veto on 100% of what you do. If you're an
individual, the impact is even starker. Once you have government health
care, it can be used to justify almost any restraint on freedom: After
all, if the state has to cure you, it surely has an interest in
preventing you needing treatment in the first place. That's the argument
behind, for example, mandatory motorcycle helmets, or the creepy teams
of government nutritionists currently going door to door in Britain and
conducting a "health audit" of the contents of your refrigerator.
They're not yet confiscating your Twinkies; they just want to take a
census of how many you have. So you do all this for the "free" health
care—and in the end you may not get the "free" health care anyway. Under
Britain's National Health Service, for example, smokers in Manchester
have been denied treatment for heart disease, and the obese in Suffolk
are refused hip and knee replacements. Patricia Hewitt, the British
Health Secretary, says that it's appropriate to decline treatment on the
basis of "lifestyle choices." Smokers and the obese may look at their
gay neighbor having unprotected sex with multiple partners, and wonder
why his "lifestyle choices" get a pass while theirs don't. But that's
the point: Tyranny is always whimsical.
And if they can't get you on grounds of your personal
health, they'll do it on grounds of planetary health. Not so long ago in
Britain it was proposed that each citizen should have a
government-approved travel allowance. If you take one flight a year,
you'll pay just the standard amount of tax on the journey. But, if you
travel more frequently, if you take a second or third flight, you'll be
subject to additional levies—in the interest of saving the planet for Al
Gore's polar bear documentaries and that carbon-offset palace he lives
in in Tennessee.
Isn't this the very definition of totalitarianism-lite?
The Soviets restricted the movement of people through the bureaucratic
apparatus of "exit visas." The British are proposing to do it through
the bureaucratic apparatus of exit taxes—indeed, the bluntest form of
regressive taxation. As with the Communists, the nomenklatura—the Prince
of Wales, Al Gore, Madonna—will still be able to jet about hither and
yon. What's a 20% surcharge to them? Especially as those for whom vast
amounts of air travel are deemed essential—government officials, heads
of NGOs, environmental activists—will no doubt be exempted from having
to pay the extra amount. But the ghastly masses will have to stay home.
"Freedom of movement" used to be regarded as a bedrock
freedom. The movement is still free, but there's now a government
processing fee of $389.95. And the interesting thing about this proposal
was that it came not from the Labour Party but the Conservative Party.
That's Stage Two of societal enervation—when the state
as guarantor of all your basic needs becomes increasingly comfortable
with regulating your behavior. Free peoples who were once willing to
give their lives for liberty can be persuaded very quickly to relinquish
their liberties for a quiet life. When President Bush talked about
promoting democracy in the Middle East, there was a phrase he liked to
use: "Freedom is the desire of every human heart." Really? It's unclear
whether that's really the case in Gaza and the Pakistani tribal lands.
But it's absolutely certain that it's not the case in Berlin and Paris,
Stockholm and London, New Orleans and Buffalo. The story of the Western
world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and
government "security," large numbers of people vote to dump freedom
every time—the freedom to make your own decisions about health care,
education, property rights, and a ton of other stuff. It's ridiculous
for grown men and women to say: I want to be able to choose from
hundreds of cereals at the supermarket, thousands of movies from
Netflix, millions of songs to play on my iPod—but I want the government
to choose for me when it comes to my health care. A nation that demands
the government take care of all the grown-up stuff is a nation turning
into the world's wrinkliest adolescent, free only to choose its record
And don't be too sure you'll get to choose your record
collection in the end. That's Stage Three: When the populace has agreed
to become wards of the state, it's a mere difference of degree to start
regulating their thoughts. When my anglophone friends in the Province of
Quebec used to complain about the lack of English signs in Quebec
hospitals, my response was that, if you allow the government to be the
sole provider of health care, why be surprised that they're allowed to
decide the language they'll give it in? But, as I've learned during my
year in the hellhole of Canadian "human rights" law, that's true in a
broader sense. In the interests of "cultural protection," the Canadian
state keeps foreign newspaper owners, foreign TV operators, and foreign
bookstore owners out of Canada. Why shouldn't it, in return, assume the
right to police the ideas disseminated through those newspapers,
bookstores and TV networks it graciously agrees to permit?
When Maclean's magazine and I were hauled up in
2007 for the crime of "flagrant Islamophobia," it quickly became very
clear that, for members of a profession that brags about its "courage"
incessantly (far more than, say, firemen do), an awful lot of
journalists are quite content to be the eunuchs in the politically
correct harem. A distressing number of Western journalists see no
conflict between attending lunches for World Press Freedom Day every
month and agreeing to be micro-regulated by the state. The big problem
for those of us arguing for classical liberalism is that in modern
Canada there's hardly anything left that isn't on the state dripfeed to
one degree or another: Too many of the institutions healthy societies
traditionally look to as outposts of independent thought—churches,
private schools, literature, the arts, the media—either have an
ambiguous relationship with government or are downright dependent on it.
Up north, "intellectual freedom" means the relevant film-funding
agency—Cinedole Canada or whatever it's called—gives you a check to
enable you to continue making so-called "bold, brave, transgressive"
films that discombobulate state power not a whit.
And then comes Stage Four, in which dissenting ideas and
even words are labeled as "hatred." In effect, the language itself
becomes a means of control. Despite the smiley-face banalities, the
tyranny becomes more naked: In Britain, a land with rampant property
crime, undercover constables nevertheless find time to dine at curry
restaurants on Friday nights to monitor adjoining tables lest someone in
private conversation should make a racist remark. An author interviewed
on BBC Radio expressed, very mildly and politely, some concerns about
gay adoption and was investigated by Scotland Yard's Community Safety
Unit for Homophobic, Racist and Domestic Incidents. A Daily Telegraph
columnist is arrested and detained in a jail cell over a joke in a
speech. A Dutch legislator is invited to speak at the Palace of
Westminster by a member of the House of Lords, but is banned by the
government, arrested on arrival at Heathrow and deported.
America, Britain, and even Canada are not peripheral
nations: They're the three anglophone members of the G7. They're three
of a handful of countries that were on the right side of all the great
conflicts of the last century. But individual liberty flickers dimmer in
each of them. The massive expansion of government under the laughable
euphemism of "stimulus" (Stage One) comes with a quid pro quo down the
line (Stage Two): Once you accept you're a child in the government
nursery, why shouldn't Nanny tell you what to do? And then—Stage
Three—what to think? And—Stage Four—what you're forbidden to think . . .
Which brings us to the final stage: As I said at the
beginning, Big Government isn't about the money. It's more profound than
that. A couple of years back Paul Krugman wrote a column in The New York Times
asserting that, while parochial American conservatives drone on about
"family values," the Europeans live it, enacting policies that are more
"family friendly." On the Continent, claims the professor, "government
regulations actually allow people to make a desirable tradeoff-to
modestly lower income in return for more time with friends and family."
As befits a distinguished economist, Professor Krugman
failed to notice that for a continent of "family friendly" policies,
Europe is remarkably short of families. While America's fertility rate
is more or less at replacement level—2.1—seventeen European nations are
at what demographers call "lowest-low" fertility—1.3 or less—a rate from
which no society in human history has ever recovered. Germans,
Spaniards, Italians and Greeks have upside-down family trees: four
grandparents have two children and one grandchild. How can an economist
analyze "family friendly" policies without noticing that the upshot of
these policies is that nobody has any families?
As for all that extra time, what happened? Europeans
work fewer hours than Americans, they don't have to pay for their own
health care, they're post-Christian so they don't go to church, they
don't marry and they don't have kids to take to school and basketball
and the 4-H stand at the county fair. So what do they do with all the
Forget for the moment Europe's lack of world-beating
companies: They regard capitalism as an Anglo-American fetish, and they
mostly despise it. But what about the things Europeans supposedly value?
With so much free time, where is the great European art? Where are
Europe's men of science? At American universities. Meanwhile,
Continental governments pour fortunes into prestigious white elephants
of Euro-identity, like the Airbus A380, capable of carrying 500, 800, a
thousand passengers at a time, if only somebody somewhere would order
the darn thing, which they might consider doing once all the airports
have built new runways to handle it.
"Give people plenty and security, and they will fall into spiritual torpor," wrote Charles Murray in In Our Hands.
"When life becomes an extended picnic, with nothing of importance to
do, ideas of greatness become an irritant. Such is the nature of the
The key word here is "give." When the state "gives" you
plenty—when it takes care of your health, takes cares of your kids,
takes care of your elderly parents, takes care of every primary
responsibility of adulthood—it's not surprising that the citizenry cease
to function as adults: Life becomes a kind of extended
adolescence—literally so for those Germans who've mastered the knack of
staying in education till they're 34 and taking early retirement at 42.
Hilaire Belloc, incidentally, foresaw this very clearly in his book The Servile State in 1912. He understood that the long-term cost of a welfare society is the infantilization of the population.
Genteel decline can be very agreeable—initially: You
still have terrific restaurants, beautiful buildings, a great opera
house. And once the pressure's off it's nice to linger at the sidewalk
table, have a second café au lait and a pain au chocolat, and watch the
world go by. At the Munich Security Conference in February, President
Sarkozy demanded of his fellow Continentals, "Does Europe want peace, or
do we want to be left in peace?" To pose the question is to answer it.
Alas, it only works for a generation or two. And it's hard to come up
with a wake-up call for a society as dedicated as latterday Europe to
the belief that life is about sleeping in.
As Gerald Ford liked to say when trying to ingratiate
himself with conservative audiences, "A government big enough to give
you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have."
And that's true. But there's an intermediate stage: A government big
enough to give you everything you want isn't big enough to get you to
give any of it back. That's the position European governments find
themselves in. Their citizens have become hooked on unaffordable levels
of social programs which in the end will put those countries out of
business. Just to get the Social Security debate in perspective,
projected public pension liabilities are expected to rise by 2040 to
about 6.8% of GDP in the U.S. In Greece, the figure is 25%—i.e., total
societal collapse. So what? shrug the voters. Not my problem. I want my
benefits. The crisis isn't the lack of money, but the lack of
citizens—in the meaningful sense of that word.
Every Democrat running for election tells you they want
to do this or that "for the children." If America really wanted to do
something "for the children," it could try not to make the same mistake
as most of the rest of the Western world and avoid bequeathing the next
generation a leviathan of bloated bureaucracy and unsustainable
entitlements that turns the entire nation into a giant Ponzi scheme.
That's the real "war on children" (to use another Democrat
catchphrase)—and every time you bulk up the budget you make it less and
less likely they'll win it.
Conservatives often talk about "small government,"
which, in a sense, is framing the issue in leftist terms: they're for
big government. But small government gives you big freedoms—and big
government leaves you with very little freedom. The bailout and the
stimulus and the budget and the trillion-dollar deficits are not merely
massive transfers from the most dynamic and productive sector to the
least dynamic and productive. When governments annex a huge chunk of the
economy, they also annex a huge chunk of individual liberty. You
fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state
into something closer to that of junkie and pusher—and you make it very
difficult ever to change back. Americans face a choice: They can
rediscover the animating principles of the American idea—of limited
government, a self-reliant citizenry, and the opportunities to exploit
your talents to the fullest—or they can join most of the rest of the
Western world in terminal decline. To rekindle the spark of liberty once
it dies is very difficult. The inertia, the ennui, the fatalism is more
pathetic than the demographic decline and fiscal profligacy of the
social democratic state, because it's subtler and less tangible. But
once in a while it swims into very sharp focus. Here is the writer Oscar
van den Boogaard from an interview with the Belgian paper De Standaard.
Mr. van den Boogaard, a Dutch gay "humanist" (which is pretty much the
trifecta of Eurocool), was reflecting on the accelerating Islamification
of the Continent and concluding that the jig was up for the Europe he
loved. "I am not a warrior, but who is?" he shrugged. "I have never
learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it." In the
famous Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, Mr. van den Boogard is past
denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and has arrived at a kind of
"I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at
enjoying it." Sorry, doesn't work—not for long. Back in New Hampshire,
General Stark knew that. Mr. van den Boogard's words are an epitaph for
Europe. Whereas New Hampshire's motto—"Live free or die!"—is still the
greatest rallying cry for this state or any other. About a year ago,
there was a picture in the papers of Iranian students demonstrating in
Tehran and waving placards. And what they'd written on those placards
was: "Live free or die!" They understand the power of those words; so
MARK STEYN'S column appears in several newspapers, including the Washington Times, Philadelphia's Evening Bulletin, and the Orange County Register. In addition, he writes for The New Criterion, Maclean's in Canada, the Jerusalem Post, The Australian, and Hawke's Bay Today
in New Zealand. The author of National Review's Happy Warrior column,
he also blogs on National Review Online. He is the author of several
books, including the best-selling America Alone: The End of The World as We Know It. Mr. Steyn teaches a two-week course in journalism at Hillsdale College during each spring semester.
The following is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College on March 9, 2009.