Robert Samuelson yesterday offered his take on Charles Murray's headline making book, Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.
While agreeing with many of the trends that Murray highlights—the problems created by lack of family formation among lower-income communities, and the existence of an increasingly insular educated elite—Samuelson suggests that such class differences aren't as new or unique as Murray suggests. More importantly, he remains hopeful that America's attitudes and founding values endure. He notes:
There is such a thing as the American character and, though not immutable, it is durable. In 2011, only 36 percent of Americans believed that "success in life is determined by outside forces," reports the Pew Global Attitudes survey. In France and Germany, the responses were 57 and 72 percent, respectively. America is different, even exceptional, and it is likely to stay that way.
I very much want to agree with Samuelson's take.
The real question facing our country today, it seems, isn't whether we will ever be able to wrestle control of runaway government spending and balance the budget. It isn't whether our economy will be able to regain steam to not only put the millions of unemployed to work, but to create opportunities to draw back in the millions of others who have dejectedly left the workforce.
The real question is whether a fundamental shift is occurring in how citizens view their role in society, and their expectations for the state. Are we still a country that believes in the fundamental idea of “give me liberty or give me death,” or are we willing to sell core liberties for free health care services and food stamps? Do we think that we have a “right” to life's basic essentials—and therefore that some other person owes us those things—or do we just have the right to have the opportunity to work to provide those things for ourselves and our families?
I fear the jury is still out on that question. Certainly, among many Americans, core values linger. The most inspiring, hopeful event of the past several years has been the creation of the Tea Party movement. What is important isn't the Tea Party's political impact. It's the simple fact that in the wake of a massive financial and economic crisis, millions of Americans' instinct was to join together to fight for less government.
So much has been written about the Tea Party movement and there have been countless attempts to recast it as a movement dedicated to a multitude of different goals. But at its core the Tea Party movement was a rejection of the idea that bigger government—more government spending and more government control of the economy—was the path to prosperity. In Europe riots and protests are held to demand more from bankrupt government. Americans, at least a significant portion of Americans, see government as the problem and want government to get out of the way of free people.
Yet how long can this last? As Mark Steyn warns, cultural change can come quickly. A generation or two more of Americans who see government as the natural source of cradle-to-grave care—the source of our school lunches, health insurance, housing vouchers, elder care, etc—and it will be easy to lose for Americans to lose any sense that our destiny is in our own hands. It would be very easy for Americans to end up where too much of the rest of the world already is, and to see the path to a better life as demanding the government places more in your tin cup.
The American ideal may still endure, but we should recognize that it is fragile and, if neglected, could disappear.