Published August 1, 1994
The social rot of American life, as Mahbubani perceives it, has had enormous political consequences, which are intensified by the harsh reality of an irresponsible press and pusillanimous politicians:
In the last 20 years, two parallel developments have occurred. First, American journalism has become much more aggressive. John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. president to be treated with kid gloves; his sexual peccadilloes were well known but never publicized. The parallel trend is this: the last 20 years have also seen increasingly bad government. President Lyndon Johnson felt that he could fight a war and create a good society without raising taxes. This unleashed fiscal indiscipline. No American politician, in the land of the free press, dares to utter any hard truths on the sacrifices needed to stop this rot. The consequence has been irresponsible government on a mind-boggling and historically unparalleled scale.
The result is governments that are unable, and perhaps unwilling, to govern:
The dramatic inability of either the American or European democratic systems to persuade their respective populations that the long-term interests of the nation can only be protected by painful immediate sacrifices (whether by French farmers or U.S. auto workers) reveals the trap that democratic systems can create. Perhaps this is only a short-term problem… . But in a world that is changing rapidly, especially with the emergence of billions of workers from China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere, ready to compete with American workers on the level playing field of a global marketplace, the failure of the American political system to engineer change through short-term sacrifices could lead to catastrophic consequences later.
Which, in turn, makes for calamities elsewhere:
Seduced by TV pictures of a few courageous western individuals struggling against great odds to help starving people in desperate societies like Somalia or Ethiopia, many Americans and Europeans have come to believe that they represent the most compassionate members of the human race. Unfortunately, the truth may be closer to the opposite. Billions of lives in poor countries could have been made easier as far back as 1989 if the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade had been successfully concluded on schedule. The inability of the most affluent societies of the globe to make relatively painless sacrifices to help the whole world (and their own societies too) shows, however, that democracy can result not in compassion for but cruelty to the vast majority of mankind. A few thousand French farmers, using the democratic system to their selfish ends, have effectively damaged the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers in poor societies. But because this connection could not be captured on TV, their cruelty was not displayed for all to see. This example alone should have provided an American philosopher sufficient grounds to raise questions about the moral worth of democratic systems. The fact that such questions do not surface demonstrates the ideological blinders that grip the minds of western thinkers when they discuss democracy.
The net result? The Singaporean diplomat finds an eerie parallel between the contemporary West and the corrupt and brittle Asian societies of centuries past. Mahbubani remembers learning, as a Hindu youngster in colonial Singapore, that the vast sub-continent of India had collapsed before a few thousand British soldiers “because Indian culture and civilization had become ossified.” He asks how it is that “the American mind has become, in its own way, equally ossified”:
The founding fathers are treated with almost the same reverence as Hindu gods. Just as Hindu society cannot contemplate the slaughter of millions of sacred cows, so too American society cannot conceive of creating any new set of social arrangements that might offer less freedom and liberty. The concepts of democracy, human rights, freedom, equality, justice—to name a few—are to be worshipped, not challenged.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.