If you write a column, you get a lot of email. Sometimes, especially in a political season, it’s possible to discern from it certain emerging themes—the comeback of old convictions, for instance, or the rise of new concerns. Let me tell you something I’m hearing, in different ways and different words. The coming rebellion in the voting booth is not only about the economic impact of spending, debt and deficits on America’s future. It’s also to some degree about the feared impact of all those things on the character of the American people. There is a real fear that government, with all its layers, its growth, its size, its imperviousness, is changing, or has changed, who we are. And that if we lose who we are, as Americans, we lose everything.
This is part of what’s driving the sense of political urgency this year, especially within precincts of the tea party.
The most vivid illustration of the fear comes, actually, from another country, Greece, and is brilliantly limned by Michael Lewis in October’s Vanity Fair. In “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” he outlines Greece’s economic catastrophe. It is a bankrupt nation, its debt, or rather the amount of debt that has so far been unearthed and revealed, coming to “more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek.” Over decades the Greeks turned their government “into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums” and gave “as many citizens as possible a whack at it.” The average government job pays almost three times as much as the average private-sector job. The retirement age for “arduous” jobs, including hairdressers, radio announcers and musicians, is 55 for men and 50 for women. After that, a generous pension. The tax system has disintegrated. It is a welfare state with a cash economy.
Much of this is well known, though it is beautifully stated. But all of it, Mr. Lewis asserts, has badly damaged the Greek character. “It is simply assumed . . . that anyone who is working for the government is meant to be bribed. . . . Government officials are assumed to steal.” Tax fraud is rampant. Everyone cheats. “It’s become a cultural trait,” a tax collector tells him.
Mr. Lewis: “The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. . . . Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible.”
Thus can great nations, great cultures, disintegrate, break into little pieces that no longer cohere into a whole.
And what I get from my mail is a kind of soft echo of this. America is not Greece and knows it’s not Greece, but there is a growing sense—I should say fear—that the weighty, mighty, imposing American government itself, whether it meant to or not, has for years been contributing to American behaviors that are neither culturally helpful nor, as we now all say, sustainable: a growing sense of entitlement, of dependency, of resentment and distrust, and an increasing suspicion that everyone else is gaming the system. “I got mine, you get yours.”
People, as we know, are imperfect. Governments, composed top to bottom of imperfect people wielding power, are very imperfect. There are of course a million examples, big and small, of how governments can damage the actual nature and character of the citizenry, and only because there was just a commercial on TV telling me to gamble will I mention the famous case of the state lotteries. Give government the right to reap revenues from the public desire to gamble, and you’ll soon have government doing something your humble local bookie never had the temerity to try: convince the people that gambling is a moral good. They promote it insistently on local television, undermining any remaining reserve among our citizens not to play the numbers, not to develop what can become an addiction. Our state government daily promotes what for 2,000 years was understood to be a vice. No bookie ever committed a crime that big.
Government not only can change the national character, it can bizarrely channel national energy. And this is another theme in my mailbox, the rebellion against what government increasingly forces us to become: a nation of accountants.
No matter what level of life in which you operate, you are likely overwhelmed by forms, by a blizzard of regulations, rules, new laws. This is not new, it’s just always getting worse. Priests are forced to be accountants now, and army officers, and dentists. The single most onerous part of ObamaCare is the tax change whereby spending $600 on goods or services will require a 1099 form. Economists will tell you of the financial cost of this, but I would argue that Paperwork Nation is utterly at odds with the American character.
Because Americans weren’t born to be accountants. It’s not in our DNA! We’re supposed to be building the Empire State Building. We were meant—to be romantic about it, and why not—to be a pioneer people, to push on, invent electricity, shoot the bear, bootleg the beer, write the novel, create, reform and modernize great industries. We weren’t meant to be neat and tidy record keepers. We weren’t meant to wear green eyeshades. We looked better in a coonskin cap!
There is I think a powerful rebellion against all this. It isn’t a new rebellion—it was part of Goldwaterism, and Reaganism—but it’s rising again.
For those who wonder why so many people have come to hate, or let me change it to profoundly dislike, “the elites,” especially the political elite, here is one reason: It is because they have armies of accountants to do this work for them. Those in power institute the regulations and rules, and then hire people to protect them from the burdens and demands of their legislation. There is no congressman passing tax law who doesn’t have staffers in his office taking care of his own financial life and who will not, when he moves down the street into the lobbying firm, have an army of accountants to protect him there.
Washington is now to some degree the focus of the same sort of profound resentment that Hollywood liberals inspired when they really mattered, or seemed really powerful. For decades they made films that were not helpful to our culture or society, that were full of violence and sick imagery. But they often brought their own children up more or less protected from the effects of the culture they created. Private schools, nannies, therapists, tutors. They bought their way out of the cultural mayhem to which they’d contributed. Their children were fine. Yours were on their own.
This is part of why people dislike “the elites” and why “the elites,” especially in Washington, must in turn be responsive, come awake, start to notice. People don’t like it when they fear you are subtly, day by day, year by year, changing the personality and character of their nation. They think, “You are ruining our country and insulating yourselves from the ruin. We hate you.” And this is understandable, yes?