Small World: What’s gone wrong

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

“This country’s a mess.” That judgment might win the support of many, perhaps most, Americans. It could also win endorsement from citizens in almost all of Europe, the Middle East or you name the geography. The whole globe — minus a few islands of contentment, e.g. Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica, Japan (for the past few months) — seems to be suffering a deep malaise.

Think back a decade or two: History was over, a scholar told us. The magic formula for a nation’s happiness and prosperity had been found. It was, quite simply, democracy in politics and free markets in economies. Yet the masses of people now disgusted with their national mess would disagree derisively. What went wrong? With apologies for sweeping too broadly, let me suggest four of the underlying causes. You can add or subtract as your personal experience directs. I would blame:

Money. In a free market, the way to get what you want is to bid and buy it. Economic laws, unfortunately, have been applied to politics. The rule “one man = one vote” has now become “many dollars = many votes.” The Supreme Court affirmed that rule in its decision that spending money in elections is tantamount to the exercise of free speech. The clink of coins, alas, drowns out the voices of crowds in the town square.

So pity the IRS clerk trying to figure out the obscure provision of law that allows certain ill-defined organizations to benefit from tax-free contributions. And pity also the clerk who must apply the loophole of law that allows an Apple or other clever U.S. companies to avoid payment of reasonable taxes. Think hard and try to imagine how and why legislators dreamed up such beneficial (for selected folks) provisions for the law of our land.

Population Growth. In some countries — Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Israel for examples — water is a key factor. It becomes explosive when an increasing number of mouths demand it. Those mouths become loud in expressing their disappointment or despair. The American variation is the demand of a steadily increasing population (from immigration more than births) for basic government services. The government can’t satisfy the demand for education, health care, jobs, however, without income from taxes — which the most devoted conservatives refuse to provide.

Ignorance and apathy. One consequence of a failing educational system is a poorly informed public, easily manipulated by sensation-seeking media. There is no end of sources of information, but the limitation is severe on the public’s ability to access and assess those words. A public that has given up on the political system or become hostile toward it is easily led into traps that betray their fundamental interests as citizens. Think how campaigns based on social issues end up robbing voters of the economic rights they deserve. Clown-like politicians (you can name a few) garner votes because of their entertainment skills and provocative jabs without ever talking honest, good sense to voters.

An ignorance of history is one of our greatest national failings: We forget what has worked in the past and should sensibly be retained. Prudent regulations for banks, for instance, should never have been dropped. Most political philosophers from Aristotle on have known that man is not naturally angelic and must be reined in by rule of law.

Hubris. We have the power to interfere in the business of other nations and, therefore, think we have also the authority to do so. Often our knowledge of the targeted foreign land is poorly informed or distorted by selfish interests. Americans are by nature problem-solvers; that does not mean, however, that our solutions are always the wise ones. A dose of humility is distasteful, but necessary medicine — both abroad and at home.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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