086 The Character of Nations

For good reason thinkers such as Aristotle have urged us to invest wisely and well in politics, for political structures really do make all difference in the world. Importantly, good systems, from the standpoint of history, are rare and priceless jewels. Angelo M. Codevilla, professor of international relations at Boston University, has published a probing study entitled The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility (New York: BasicBooks, c. 1997).

Take, for example, the case of Social Security. As instituted in 1937, it “was a pay-as-you-go, chain-letter scheme” which worked for several decades simply because lots of folks worked to pay for a few who retired. Recipients, largely unaware of how the system actually works, imagined they had “earned” their monthly checks. “Twentieth century American politicians, precisely like Otto von Bismarck, who invented social security” a centurty ago, “used the young workers’ contributions to buy the votes of retirees, while promising workers that their time would come” (p. 245). Now more and more of us realize that Social Security is, in fact, a huge Ponzi scheme which “yhielded enormous increases to those who were the first to collect.” Folks retiring 30 years ago have received one hundred times more than they contributed, whereas a worker retiring now “will be lucky to get an increase of 2 percent on the money contributed.” In a decade, those retiring will receive perhaps “40 cents on the dollar compared to money invested” in the market (o, 246). Had a person invested what the government took (say $3,000 a year) in the stock market, he would retire with a total of $1,880,000, allowing him to withdraw $126,000 a year for 15 years! Instead, under the present system, he will, at best, receive $14,000 a year!

Indeed it matters what system structures our lives! And it matters what kinds of persons lead a nation. Codevilla argues, beginning with a citation from Lorenzo de Medici, that “What the Prince does then do many for upon die Prince are the eyes of all” (p. v). Or, to cite Sophocles’ Antigone, “He that is a righteous master of his house will be a righteous statesman” (pp. 2-3). Character really does count! It makes a huge difference whether Harry Truman or Bill Clinton serves as President! As a result of our leaders’ actions–acknowledging of course that in America we elect and support them–this country has indeed changed. Indeed, “Anyone over forty is tempted to think of the America in which we live as a different country from that in which we grew up” (p. 1).

Sixty years ago, for example, no American would have envisioned “Supreme Court decisions that would take schools out of the hands of local citizens, drive religion out of public life, safeguard obscenity, create ‘protected classes,’ establish abortion, and ordain a host of other changes in American life” (p. 23 1). To understand what happened, we must recognize that a new “regime,” following radically different principles, has come to power and exerted its will, especially since 1965. “Like ships, corporations, or athletic teams, regimes tend to take on the personality of their chiefs” (p. 36). Under the earlier regime, for example, organizations such as the Boy Scouts and National Rifle Association and Christian churches enjoyed favor and benefits. Under the current regime, organizations such as Planned Parenthood and SIECUS (the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States–originally funded by the Playboy Foundation, but now safely connected to the taxpayer tap) have vaulted to the corridors of power. “Today, unlike a generation ago, one can do what one pleases to an American flag, anywhere. But no one is free to pray publicly ‘in a public school” (p. 3).

Worth pondering is the question Codevilia raises concerning Alexis de Tocqueville, for the image of America drawn by Tocqueville has been the true magnet which has drawn folks here from around the world. He found here, in the 1830’s, a people living in ways Europeans could not imagine, for they enjoyed “unprecedented freedom and popular participation in government, along with unprecedented respect for law and morality’ (p. 213). Their religious life, their commitment to local associations, their work ethic and willingness to assume civic responsibilities, their insistence on an armed citizenry (much like the Swiss today) ready to defend their freedoms and rights, made the new nation something wondrous to behold.

That lustrous image, however, is 130 years old and fading fast! Should he “return to America” in our day, de Tocqueville “would find the Constitution he had described dead in all but formal and vestigial aspects” (p. 284). Rather than a land with few laws and lots of law-abiding citizens, “he would find an incomprehensible infinity of regulations and hordes of haughty officials propitiated by a nation of increasingly resentful subjects” (p. 248). Rather than being impressed by ordinary citizens willing to live according to and enforce the law on their own, he would be distressed by the amount of evasions and complaining and fear expressed about crime and violence in this land. A law-abiding land has become law-evading.

As Codevilla sees it, “The rule of law in America is eroding in theory and in practice” (p. 249). Rather than legislatures passing laws which the courts enforce, increasingly we live in a land governed by bureaucratic regulations. “That is because,” he informs us, putting his finger on a very precise moment, “when the Supreme Court let pass into oblivion its ruling in the Schechter case (1935) that Congress could not delegate legislative and judicial powers to its creature, the National Recovery Agency, it effectively amended the Constitution to allow Congress to delegate its powers to bureaucracies both unelected and unlimited by the Constitutior” (p. 250).

Though he surveys a host of issues and investigates the influence of ideas affecting “prosperity, family, and civility” in assorted countries, to Codevilla “The most contentious and consequential issues touch religion” (p. 14). Here the new, basically leftist regimes, throughout the West during the past century, have focused their most concentrated efforts, doing everything possible to sideline traditional faiths and replace them with political systems. In his judgment, “The very essence of modern Western government has been the attempt to tame and even to eliminate religion” (p. 176). To explain, he writes: “The French and Italian branches of the liberal tradition that stems from the French Revolution treated religion as an enemy. The German, British, and Scandinavian branch treated it as a competitor. Later, liberals in most places gave up liberal ideas for some amalgam of Marxism and Freudianism, firmly embedded in statism. The pure versions of these doctrines, in addition to the late-nineteenth-century vitalism that merged with other elements to form fascism, have taken European souls from Christianity and Judaism. Indeed all these doctrines have won converts within the walls of the churches themselves. This unequal struggle for the souls and habits of Europeans has taken place over education, abortion, euthanasia, and the treatment of political enemies, as well as over the very place of religion ‘in public life” (p. 183).

So the Soviets, following the iron fisted ways of Lenin and Stalin, ruthlessly suppressed and sought to stamp out all religious life. The Swedes, learning subtler lessons from Antonio Gramsci, “perhaps the most perceptive theorist of totalitarianism,” slowly worked to seize control of influential institutions (educational and media especially) and work from within them to accomplish their goals. Though the means have differed, the ends have remained constant, and the traditional influence of Christianity has been vastly reduced in once “Christian” nations.

Codevilla clearly calls for a restoration of much that’s been lost in the West, though exactly how it can be done remains unclear.

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From a different perspective Balint Vazsonyi addresses some of the same issues. A concert pianist, who fled his native Hungary after the brave freedom-fighters failed to dislodge their Soviet oppressors 1956, Vazsonyi sought and found, in the United States, a remarkably free, open, vibrant country which he enthusiastically embraced and made his own. As he rememberts it, He actually felt as if he’d landed on a different planet, so dramatically better were things here than in Communist Europe. And he particularly fell in love with America’s written Constitution and the Rule of Law it secures for all her citizens. But times have changed, and in America’s 3O YearsWar: Who Is Winning? (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 1998) Vazsonyi articulates his growing concerns for his adopted land. Having watched the Nazis impose their regime in Budapest in 1944, then the Soviets impose theirs in 1948, he knows that they both espoused equally brutal variants of “socialism.” He further developed a kind of litmus paper sensitivity to the devious propaganda and hidden agendas of collectivism.

And he’s especially learned to understand how much “social justice” rhetoric (whether Nazi or Marxist) subtly enshrouds plans for totalitarian socialism–for the “good” of the many an enlightened few seize control of a state and then stay in control to pursue their own interests. Thus, a decade after arriving in the U.S., he watched in amazement as his finest music students began to repeat the cliches and cant he’d heard in Hungary two decades earlier. They sang softly of “love and peace,” but their speech resonated with the code words and phrases he’d heard ad nauseum “in Hungary during the nazi and Soviet occupations” (p. 13). “‘Reactionary,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘oppressor and oppressed,’ and ‘redistribution’ were some of the words taken straight from the Marxist repertoire” (p. 13).

American students in the 1960’s absorbed, like soft, fluffy ink blotters, fashionable slogans from European academicians (some of whom simply followed Heidegger’s subtle post-WWII shift from Nazi to Communist ideology). Especially important, in this country, were representatives of the Frankfurt School, such as Herbert Marcuse, who landed a position at UCSD which helped him influence “countercultural” publications as well launch the careers leading campus radicals. (That one of Marcuse’s disciples, Angela Davis, an unabashed old-line Marxist, was asked to give the Martin Luther King speech at the University of Chicago in 1999 demonstrates how powerfully such folks have maintained their hold on the levers of power in certain circles!) Consequently, Vasonyi believes, “An entire generation of Americans was affected, a generation now at the zenith of power. And here is a point of seminal importance: Unless a person has consciously repudiated the teaching of the 1960’s, that person will unconsciously carry on the 1960’s agenda” (p. 15 6).

Vazsonyi’s students’ language and resulting behavior marked a decisive turning, in critically significant intellectual quarters, away from the principles which had guided this nation from its inception. Consequently, “For the past thirty years, all aspects of our lives–and all of our institutions–have been moving in one direction: away from America’s founding principles. Like a compass, these principles–foremost among them the rule of law, individual rights, guaranteed property, and common American identity–have provided our bearings for two centuries” (p. 16).

Justification for thus departing from America’s most tested traditions stemmed from a naive commitment to “social Justice,” which Vazsonyi believes to be “among the most successful deceptions ever conceived” (p. 53). Indeed, “The essence of communism is social justice–the elimination of poverty, the elimination of suffering, the elimination of all differences that erect walls between people. The essence of communism is the global village ‘in which everyone benefits equally within an interdependent and socially conscious world. The essence of communism is the rearing of children by the village”(pp.57-58). Although few folks in the United States openly embrace the label “communist” or “socialist,” we are forever urged to pursue “universal health cars” and the “redistribution of wealth,” to demand the state care for the impoverished and disadvantaged, to impose “speech codes, sensitivity training, restrictions on parents’ rights, school-to-work–the list goes on and on. The agenda is with us, the Party is not” (pp. 176-177).

As one would expect from folks inhaling Marxist maxims, the attack has begun on private property. As Marx prescribed, the abolition of private property is the primary goal of communism. All injustice, he thought, derives from the inequities wrapped up in individuals “owning” things which should be shared as freely as the air and water. So, “Property–‘m all its forms,” Vazsonyi insists, including one’s eamings–holds the key” (p. 133). From the Magna Carta’s guarantees ‘in 1215, the Common Law has a proud tradition of defending private property rights. “Experience shows property and liberty to be inseparable. Indeed, one might conclude that liberty is a function of property guaranteed. This is so because, in the broadest sense, everything may be seen as a person’s property–evcn life itself. Invariably, those societies that indulged in the large-scale, ‘legal’ taking of lives, started by taking property through government action ” (P. 13 5).

When Vazsonyi looks at the “legal takings” of federal bureaucracies, especially the Environmental Protection Agency, and the mounting tax burden borne by American citizens, he urges that we carefully note what it all means, what another 30 years will do to this “land of the free and home of the brave.”

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Vazsonyi’s concern for private property is also underscored by Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages (New York: St. Martin’s Press, c. 1998), a richly documented and engaging work which argues this thesis: “When property is privatized, and the rule of law is established, in such a way that all including the rulers themselves are subject to the same law, economies will prosper and civilization will blossom” (p. 3). Importantly, he stresses: “Private property institutionalizes justice ” (p. 162). Acquiring private property, though often pilloried as a malign manifestation of selfishness, is, ‘in fact, and at the most fundamental level, the key to justice.

Interestingly enough, Ayn Rand’s experience in Communist Russia enabled her to see this clearly. As she wrote, in an essay entitled “Man’s Rights,” in 1964, “‘The right to life is the source of all rights–and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave. Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to an action, like all others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it . . . (p. 172).

Such property rights, of course, have hardly been the norm in human history. Freedom, unlike wildflowers, has not exactly flourished in all quarters of the globe! Ancient societies– Persia, China, Aztec Mexico–rarely granted their subjects private property rights. Influential philosophers such as Plato frequently fantasized about idyllic cooperatives which mandate economic equality and social justice, and where “mine” and “thine” disappear. With singular clarity, however, Aristotle (in his Politics) surveyed the actual conditions within which we live and declared “‘What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own; they care less for what is common; or at any rate they care for it only to the extent to which each is individual concerned. Even when there is no other cause for inattention, men are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another is attending to it . . . (p. 63).

What Aristotle advocated, Bethell argues, the English best realized when, during the Middle Ages, they established a judicial system which protected everyone’s liberty and prosperity. Even kings, beginning with King John accepting the Magna Carta 1215, were obliged to live as subjects to the laws of the land. Nourished in such soil, tilled with additives such s the Bill of Rights in 1689, philosophers such as John Locke clarified the principles which surely contribute to a truly good and just society. Bul that tradition, with its commitment to the rule of law, was challenged by the philosophes who launched the French Revolution. Reacting to that challenge, with his usual acumen, Dr. Samuel Johnson noted that children should be protected from the enchanting rhetoric of thinkers such as Rousseau who celebrated the community of goods, for “plausible arguments” often grace the “most erroneous doctrines.” Thus “You teach them that all things at first were in common, and that no man has a right to anything but as he laid his hands upon it; and that this still is, or ought to be, the rule among mankind. Here, Sir, you sap a great principle in society–property” (p. 95).

Despite Johnson’s warning, however, Rousseau’s utopianism quickly spread throughout Europe, especially infecting its social and educational philosophers. Bethell examines thinkers from William Godwin to Robert Owen, from Karl Marx to Leon Trotsky, and shows how deeply they detested private property, believing it to be the source of all human ills. He also visits various countries, such as the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire, and Ireland under English rule, showing how poverty spreads whenever private property is denied. Conversely, “miracle stories” such as modern Chile dramatically illustrate how people prosper when they are granted freedom and legal protection.

Fortunately, Bethell believes, the evidence for “the noblest triumph” is pouring in. The early works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, followed up by that of Milton Friedman, established a theoretical basis for property rights. In our decade, distinguished economists, such as Armen Alchian at UCLA, and Ronald Coase, at the University of Chicago (who won the Nobel Prize in 1991), have drawn “attention to one of the key contentions in this book: that transferable (exchangeable) property rights are the key to economic efficiency, to amity between neighbors and to peaceful relations in society more generally” (p. 316).

This book contains a wealth of historical illustration, an engaging discussion of the importance of economics (both theory and practice), and a persuasive call for free enterprise and the rule of law.


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