The news is catching up to Mark Steyn, and the author is catching up to himself. His rollicking new book chronicles the advanced cultural, strategic and economic decline of the United States. It’s called After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, and it picks up the story that Steyn told in his last book, America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It. The earlier book was about how the West outside America was on greased skids to civilizational collapse; in this book he demonstrates that America has more than caught up.
The earlier book made much of the demographic collapse in Europe (and Canada) and, on the same grounds, characterized America as the West’s last, best hope. That was rather too rosy a look at his adopted land, and the intervening five years have brought Steyn around to the view that there is plenty of rot in the land of the feckless and the home of the broke.
Steyn has been catching up to the wider applicability of his argument that the West has been “looting the future to bribe the present,” the world has caught up to Steyn with a vengeance in 2011: the incapacity of America’s political class to deal with its astonishing debt; the apparently annual bailouts of the eurozone’s weak sisters; the humiliation of American, Canadian and allied foreign policy in the Arab Spring, unequal to the task in Libya and bystanders in Syria; and, just in time for the publication date, the London riots.
As with all things Steyn, the book is hilarious, but no less sober for being funny. One can either laugh or weep as he chronicles how advanced the decay is. The pages on the Fort Hood massacre alone prove the point, in which he details how the American military first ignored, then indulged and eventually enabled a mass murderer in its own midst, solely because nobody had the courage to say aloud that this particular officer – a Muslim – was likely a homicidal maniac.
Steyn’s basic argument is that the gargantuan state has squashed a free citizenry’s capacity to act responsibly. In a stunningly prescient chapter on Britain called “The Depraved City,” Steyn deepens his argument that the enormous welfare state lays waste to the culture.
“When William Beveridge laid out his blueprint for the modern British welfare state in 1942, his goal was the ‘abolition of want,’ to be accomplished by ‘cooperation between the State and the individual.’ In attempting to insulate the citizenry from the vicissitudes of fate, Sir William succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons want to work, want to marry, want to raise children, want to lead a life of any purpose of dignity. ‘Cooperation between the State and the individual’ has resulted in a huge expansion of the former and the ceaseless withering of the latter.”
That the state is huge and the citizen has withered is evident enough, but Steyn also asserts causality – big governments corrupt the virtues and values a healthy culture is supposed to transmit, one generation to the next. Might it not be though the other way around? That the rot enters the culture and an enfeebled citizenry turns to the state for what it lacks the virtue to accomplish for itself?
Social phenomena are caused by multiple factors, and directions of causality can run both ways, causing a true vicious circle. So it is not a case of only one or the other, but rather of emphasis. Steyn puts the emphasis on the enervating effects of big government. I am inclined to put the emphasis on culture first, public policy second.
The diagnosis determines the remedy. Correcting the big government problem is not easy, but relatively easier than changing a culture. Economics tell us that if you subsidize irresponsible indolence you will get more of it. The open question is whether, once the subsidy is removed, the atrophied cultural muscles regain their strength, or whether the citizen is left an invalid.
The option of cultural renewal is more difficult. Steyn would argue it near-impossible on a large scale when many of the instruments of culture have been long bought and paid for (or at least borrowed for) by the state. It may be that regardless of what came first – cultural collapse or big government – that healing the former cannot happen without correcting the latter. And if the latter is not possible?
It’s a bleak thing, civilizational decline. All the better then to have Steyn laughing amid the tears.