I recently read a speech given by Charles Murray at the 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture. And I think I can say without hyperbole that it is the best, or one of the best speeches I have ever read. It perfectly articulates the concerns that I have, not just about the Obama Administration, but about the general direction that the United States is heading.
He asks the question:
Do we want the United States to become like Europe?
Now, before you dismiss this as yet another diatribe against socialism, read on. Murray acknowledges that are things to admire about the European system. He also points out that the desire to emulate Europe is not necessarily an evil or sinister master plan:
I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like–a lot to love–about day-to-day life in Europe, something that should be kept in mind when I get to some less complimentary observations.
One of the primary reasons that this speech stood out to me the way it did was that often we focus on the European economy when pointing out the weaknesses of the socialist system. High unemployment, high taxes, inflation and low incentives are all part of the European system that we would do well to avoid here in the U.S.
However that is not Murray’s focus. He only mentions the economic issue in passing:
The European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that. So let me rephrase the question. If we could avoid Europe’s demographic problems, do we want the United States to be like Europe?
Tonight I will argue for the answer “no,” but not for economic reasons. The European model has indeed created sclerotic economies and it would be a bad idea to imitate them. But I want to focus on another problem.
His focus is cultural. He points out the eroding institutions of family, community and religion in Europe, and fears that a similar fate is awaiting the United States. He argues that a government that eliminates the satisfaction in performing basic human tasks, such as raising children or holding down a job will be a government that destroys fundamental cultural principles that define a society.
Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality–it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met–family and community really do have the action–then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.
And that is the heart of the problem. And that is why I am so opposed to the policies of liberalism. Liberalism, or Progessivism would seek to eliminate personal responsibility, personal accomplishment. It seeks to replace the individual with an institution and to define that individual as only a member of a group. “Middle Class”, “African American”, “Hispanic”, “Rich” and so forth. Liberalism tries to define what “happiness” is, when that is obviously an individual pursuit.
The result of allowing the government to become our caretaker, our benevolent mother, our nanny and our provider, is unequivocal mediocrity. Americans have always celebrated greatness. Have always pursued perfection. Indeed, our founders endeavored under the pretense of forming a “more perfect union” when they debated and created the Constitution. Are we willing to trade our greatness for a mediocre security? Are we willing to forfeit American Exceptionalism for European style leisure?
Progressives may be. Liberals might be. Even some Republicans might think that a fair trade.
But not me.
How then do we stop the tide of dependence? Murray concludes:
It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.
And that is the key to victory in 2012. The American people need to hear once again how spectacular, how inspired, and how exceptional the United States really is. Policy debates are important. But underlying them is a rich culture founded on the marketplace of ideas, of greatness, of freedom.