Monday, October 02, 2006

America Not So Beautiful

by Tibor R. Machan

As a kid in Budapest I read a bunch of exciting American novelists, including Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Max Brand and others. I also saw some pretty exciting movies before the Soviets marched in a banned them all in 1948. Even afterward we kept trading the books back and forth in our small black market. They helped us counter the really nasty propaganda the Soviets and their Hungarian puppet regime put out against America through the government-controlled press and educational (read: indoctrination) system.

Yes, much of this was lopsided because it was, after all, mostly
fiction and cast the American past in far more favorable light than truth would have it, although Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
contained some harsh truths about the country. Still, the viciousness of slavery and segregation and the depth of the racism did not come through fully until after I finally ended up on these shores, although by then the process of reparation and reform had been well under way. Also, I spent much time around the military in Germany in which there wasn't the racial divide that became evident to me once I came stateside.

One thing, though, was different back then from what it is now: the basic social-political philosophy associated with America had been pretty clearly and openly individualist, stressing individual
freedom, the free market economy, civil liberties and similar ideals I later learned came from the influence of classical liberalism. Of ourse, when I arrived, in the late 50s, the welfare state had become ubiquitous and both the Democrats and Republicans had gotten on board with it -- FDR, after all, had mesmerized much of the country with his utopian, anti-libertarian fantasies and promises as well as the corrupt charge that the Great Depression was the fault of individualism and economic laissez-faire.

Still, much of the language of politics, even in the era of Eisenhower, honored the ideals and ideas of the Founders, as sketched in the Declaration of Independence, whatever was the actual, messy socio-political reality throughout the country. And in time, with the national candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, these ideas received a bit of rhetorical run for their money, so that most citizens were reminded of what it was that made their country really different from the rest of the world, especially from regions controlled by the Soviets.

The fall of the Soviet empire was quite an encouraging development to those like me who had come to realize that human beings are treated most justly and are best off when they have their basic rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness respected and legally protected. I turned my attention to these matters very early in my academic career and tried seriously to do a thorough comparative assessment as between laws and public policies that were loyal to the Founders' vision and those that guided people toward one or another form of statism. Although I never believed there must be progress for the better in human history, the demolition of the Berlin Wall was very encouraging.

Unfortunately, by that time there wasn't much intellectual, academic commitment to classical liberalism, if indeed there ever has been, in the centers of learning, so the newly liberated countries received bad leadership and only here and there were they urged to embrace the principles of a fully free society. As far as America's leadership in these matters was concerned, it had long been abandoned and the two active political parties focused mainly on just how much of a welfare state -- with a focus on government controlling which parts of our lives -- should public policy promote.

It seemed, in fact, that the demise of socialism in practice energized the hordes of the faithful in the American academy to come up with all sorts of more or less reconstituted clones of the statist system. In Europe the gutless "third way" became the intellectual and political rallying vision, while America got bogged down in panic about the environment, guilt about the past, and so called wars on poverty, drugs, and terror. Freedom got scant attention! The vision of a fully free society -- resting on the idea that adult human beings must take responsibility for their lives and solve their numerous problems in civilized, non-coercive ways -- got buried in all the muck of reactionary trust in government. It was as if the country regretted rejecting the monarchy it so boldly tossed aside in 1776, and wished once again for a king -- or at least Nanny or protectionist state.

None of this needs to spell doom. People rid themselves of bad habits with great difficulty and the governmental habit is the worst; it can take decades, even centuries to overcome. One can only hope that the next generation and those following it will manage to recover the ideals and ideas of the Founders despite how the bulk of the intellectuals and academics, not to mention politicians and bureaucrats, have demeaned them.

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