Mark Steyn argues that big government has become a form of religious belief, says Ed West
The Canadian-born, British-educated, American-based Mark Steyn is the biggest of the big beasts of the Anglosphere conservative commentariat. He is one of the wittiest, most original and erudite of writers of this era, even if one of the more pessimistic. As one of the reviews of his last book put it, he’s the only person who can make the impending apocalypse laugh-out-loud funny. That publication, America Alone, looked at the demographic implosion facing most of the western world; the sequel is about a more pressing, but not unrelated issue: debt.
The 111th United States Congress (2009-2011), the author points out, ran up more debt than the first 100 congresses (1789-1989) combined. Within a decade, America will be paying more in interest payments than on its military, which itself is more than the combined militaries of pretty much everyone else.
America is certainly not alone in this. Greece might be the first into the abyss but many European countries are falling into a debt black hole, a situation that David Starkey recently described as being as big a danger to Europe as 20th-century Fascism.
But just as a credit card statement says something about an individual, the West’s debt pile reflects a deeper moral malaise, both in the state and its people. Government spending is, Steyn argues, a “moral crisis”, not a spending one. And at the heart of it is an existential crisis, one not unconnected to Europe’s abandonment of faith, of a people who only desire to live for today.
Citing the economist John Maynard Keynes’s comment that “in the long run we are all dead”, Steyn points out: “Keynes’s flippancy disguises his radicalism. For most of human history functioning societies honour the long run; it’s why millions of people have children, build houses, plant gardens, start businesses, make wills, put up beautiful churches in ordinary villages, fight and if necessary die for king and country. It’s why extraordinary men create great works of art – or did in the Europe of old.
A nation, a society, a community is a compact between past, present, and future, in which the citizens, in Tom Wolfe’s words, ‘conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream’.”
Europeans have stopped thinking of themselves in such terms, and the stream has become a stagnant swamp. Shorn of a belief in the hereafter, or a higher truth, their cultural efforts have slumped as quickly as their birthrates. Why bother making great art or having children when in the long term we’re all dead?
In an enfeebled civilisation cut off from its own cultural heritage, the state and its apparatchiks have taken on the function of religion. In this secular world “Big Government becomes a kind of religion: the church as state”, and that religion co-opts “many of the best and brightest but politically passive”.
This statism is as intolerant as any theocracy, demanding a narrow set of values of those within its communion, even where those values are shamelessly ignoring the reality of life as it is truly lived.
Britain is, for once, way ahead of America, as Steyn, an Anglophile who has become deeply disillusioned by Britain, points out. He describes a failed, broken and violent society where people in the most expensive real estate on earth dare not wander outside their own homes (with excellent timing, the book came out just as London was rocked by three nights of looting that resembled a zombie film).
Steyn quotes Frederich Hayek’s description of the Britons of 1944, characterised by “independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, non-interference with one’s neighbour… and a healthy suspicion of power and authority”.
Today 40 per cent of Britons receive state handouts, tradition is reviled, and the standard response to any inconvenience is that the Government “do something”.
Reflecting on the welfare state, Steyn says: “Cooperation between the state and the individual has resulted in a huge expansion of the former and the ceaseless withering of the latter.”
This statism has made European society infinitely weaker, unhappier, more sterile and broke, and yet Barack Obama is busy importing this same failed ideology into America. It is, as Steyn comments, like coming down the gangplank on to Ellis Island and finding there’s this new thing called “serfdom” that is all the rage in America.