As the edge of the fiscal cliff approaches and then recedes, like an imagined desert isle appearing and disappearing admit the waves, the process that has brought America into the tyranny of debt goes on. The national debt, like our annual deficits, is a symptom of the true problem.
Irresponsible behavior is a symptom of irresponsible thinking. Bad choices come from the failure to understand consequences. Power is not just an aphrodisiac, it numbs one to the understanding that there even are consequences.
The centers of people in a nation are the last to feel the cold and their decisions are insulated from their consequences by power and comfort. Even as they warn about the danger, they are too far away from it to truly feel it. It is a shadow to them. An idea. Not a reality.
To the powerful, power is the only reality. And the limits of their own power are unknown to them. The possession of power is a constraint that prevents the possessor from seeing its limits.
We live in a world that has lost touch with the very idea of hard choices. That even in the richest and most prosperous country in the world, you still have to choose one or the other. That you can’t have you cake and eat it too. But as the hard edges of reason have blurred into the haze of wishful thinking, the idea of mutually incompatible choices also fades away. Soon there are no choices, only options.
Our government has vanished into that haze. A haze in which our leaders actually believe that we can be tough and kind, strong and beloved and spending as much as we want without worrying about where it’s coming from. The haze extends to our policies which assume that we can win wars without offending anyone, and spend as much money as we want without recouping it in some way. In a system built on two party stalemates usually broken by compromises, it’s all too easy to believe that you can give and take, without ever having to choose. One or the other.
A country whose leadership does not understand the concept of mutually incompatible choices is doomed to have its political structure decay into tyranny and its economy stagnate and finally collapse. Without the understanding that some choices are hard and fast things, success becomes impossible. When you think that you can do everything, you end up being unable to do anything. When every option is on the table, then no option is on the table. And if the political leadership cannot make those choices, then it will be replaced by another form of leadership that will solve the problem with tyranny. This has happened before. And it will happen again.
The Middle East presents us with the troubling sight of an entire region run by people who are unable to make such absolute distinctions. Princes, sheiks and prime ministers pursue mutually incompatible policies at the same time, make contradictory assertions and often remain unaware that their actions are contradictory. In a region that is outside the territory of reason, everything is always on the table. There is no truth, only layers of lies. Push far enough down and you come away with nothing but hot air. The popularity of Islam as a political solution is due in part to the perception that it represents an absolute certainty. An anchor in a turbulent sandy sea. Not an intellectual anchor of reason, but of fanatical force. The comfort of the thoughtless tyranny of power.
But the West has been headed out of the territory of reason for some time now. Its truths have become ideological beliefs. Its goals have become the self-worship of its own symbols, size for the sake of size, and centralization for the sake of centralization. There is a mingled horror and longing for the savage and the barbaric, as civilization appears to have lost its meaning. The leadership cries “Onward to a united world” on the one hand, and “Back to the caves” on the other. That confused melange boils down to a cultural intelligence which has lost the awareness of its own contradictions. High tech environmentalism, soft wars and valueless money are all symptoms of that same intellectual degeneracy.