Dying By Entitlements

Janice Fiamengo is an author, editor, and Professor of English at the University of Ottawa.


Mark Steyn has done a spate of interviews recently on the occasion of the paperback release of his 2011 bestseller After America: Get Ready For Armageddon. A few weeks ago, he remarked to Canadian television host Michael Coren that, contrary to those who claimed his predictions about American collapse were alarmist, he now finds that, in the wake of American credit downgrades and the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi, his warnings were actually rather moderate. In hundreds of pages of outraging and depressing detail, Steyn shows how the United States of America has mortgaged its future, put ideological conformity above all other values—whether of knowledge, prosperity, national security, or cultural survival—and is declining into a state of moral lassitude that heralds catastrophe.

Such decline is not only an American story, as Steyn’s title indicates. The whole world will be affected by the loss of American influence, as aggressive yet unstable regimes step into the breach. When Britain ceased to be the dominant power following World War II, the transition of leadership to the United States was all but seamless, but that will not be the case when nations shaped by illiberal values assert their dominance. And unlike the gradual unraveling of countries such as France and Italy, the American collapse could well be swift and brutal. As the only great nation in the world founded on an idea, the United States is unlikely to stay together once that idea has died. With its strength sapped by intrusive bureaucracy, economic torpor, and loss of moral purpose, it could in a short time begin to break up. The ensuing leadership vacuum will, Steyn predicts, be disastrous for the world, producing not a new world order but world disorder, “a fractious planet of hostile forces.”

How did things come to such a pass? Simply put, America stopped being a nation founded on the ideals of freedom, self-reliance, and local government, with the self-confidence that came with those. Almost imperceptibly at times—and in dramatic, contentious lurches at others (the New Deal, ObamaCare)—it shifted towards collectivism, cradle-to-grave security, and control of its subjects’ lives; the shift has resulted in a precipitous decline in personal responsibility and productivity. Within a decade, as Steyn calculates, it will be “spending more of the federal budget on its interest payments than on its military,” and many in leadership positions will be glad to have it so, believing the exercise of power in the world to be a bad thing. But domestic spending in the name of “compassion” is not only unsustainable but fundamentally unreal, as Steyn points out: “There’s nothing virtuous about ‘caring,’ ‘compassionate’ ‘progressives’ demonstrating how caring and compassionate and progressive they are by spending money yet to be earned by generations yet to be born.” And the spending is not even the main issue—though certainly a pressing one—but is rather a symptom of a more profound societal sickness.

As such a summary suggests, After America is a disquieting book, an angry lament for a once-proud nation on a course to disaster. And no one is better equipped to write it than Steyn, syndicated journalist and well-known conservative commentator whose earlier book, America Alone, chronicled the problems of Western Europe and the increasing isolation of the United States. An articulate nay-sayer both admired and reviled for his willingness to explore unpopular subjects, he became the subject of a human rights complaint for his writing in Maclean’s, a Canadian magazine, about the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Although he was not found guilty, the incident illustrated the West’s current peril, in which Islamists use the tools of rights protection against those who seek to safeguard and exercise rights, and it consolidated Steyn’s credentials as a defender of free speech. What he has to say in After America has been said by others before him, but his version of the story is particularly robust and riveting.

The title notwithstanding, After America is most valuable not for its predictions about the imminent future but for its magisterial account of what has gone so wrong—and so suddenly—with America. After the extraordinary technological advances of the first half of the twentieth century, invention and innovation have now been largely replaced by government regulation. Almost all that remains of the American can-do spirit is “a memory of faded grandeur” in a country that no longer aims for the moon, literally, or has the will to secure its borders, prevent crime, or prosecute war against its enemies. In a dramatic symbol of its loss of purpose, it cannot even rebuild the World Trade Centre in a timely manner. In its dithering and defeatism, the once exceptional nation is following in Europe’s footsteps, for “The story of the western world since 1945,” Steyn laments, is that “invited to choose between freedom and government ‘security,’ large numbers of people voted to dump freedom.” In return for comfort, such people have been happy to relinquish their right to make their own decisions and to speak their minds on controversial issues. The more their government has grown, the more inexorable and irresistible has become its power and the more taken-for-granted the belief that individuals cannot manage their own lives. As Steyn explains:

Government health care is not about health care, it’s about government. That’s why the Democrats spent the first year of a brutal recession trying to ram ObamaCare down the throats of a nation that didn’t want it. Because the governmentalization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in fundamental ways that make small government all but impossible ever again. In most of the rest of the western world, it’s led to a kind of two-party one-party state: right-of-center parties will once in a while be in office, but never in power, merely presiding over vast left-wing bureaucracies that cruise on regardless. All such ‘technocratic’ societies slide left, into statism and stasis.

It follows logically that the more people become dependent on government, whether through government jobs, government contracts, or government handouts, the less they will be inclined to vote to reduce its size.

Once in place, moreover, big government enforces a monopoly on ideas and seeks not only to marginalize but even to medicalize dissent. When Juan Williams was fired from National Public Radio for admitting that he felt nervous when Muslims in fundamentalist garb boarded an airplane, NPR executive Vivian Schiller suggested he should see a psychiatrist. In universities, in newsrooms, on government committees, many forms of diversity are touted except the only one that really matters: diversity of ideas. Moreover, the diversity mantra has become a thin cover for the mediocrity of intellect that now cripples America’s young people. Public schooling is largely about feeling good, while college education in the humanities and social sciences provides “a leisurely half-decade immersion in the manners and mores of American conformism.” Steyn’s analysis of Michelle Obama’s undergraduate thesis offers a sobering example of the diminishment of elite education since the 1970s: as he shows, her major project was a record of imprecisely expressed grievance, navel-gazing, and self-righteousness.

Steyn is particularly effective in emphasizing the moral impact of burgeoning government and its culture of dependence. Though conservatives are often damned for their supposed selfishness, he points out that government largesse itself tends to produce selfishness and anarchic violence, as the protests in Greece revealed. Far from enabling citizens to live well, as its proponents claim, welfare produces instead a lack of purpose and reduced life-satisfaction. As Steyn phrases it with his characteristic wit and concision, “Big Government means small citizens: it corrodes the integrity of a people, catastrophically.”

The only hope for America’s survival, Steyn contends, is to drastically reduce the size of government and return decision-making power to individuals at the local level. The United States is still different enough from Europe that this may be possible: it is the one place in the world where, after the 2008 economic collapse, crowds of citizens took to the streets demanding not that government do more for them—continue entitlements, borrow even more heavily—but that it get out of the way. According to Steyn, that’s the America that has a fighting chance, the one that stands for economic dynamism and individuality. It now faces the choice to live free or die of the nanny state.

Steyn’s feisty intelligence and panache are everywhere on display in this extraordinarily readable book. His riff on President Obama’s self-satisfied address to the German people on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall had me gasping with laughter, as did his response to a media pundit’s claim that Tea Party opposition to ObamaCare was merely an expression of redneck bigotry. His dissection of how political correctness enabled Nidal Hasan to kill thirteen men and women at Fort Hood—and how the mainstream media immediately attempted to deny he was motivated by Islam—is a masterly feat of analysis, the outrage perfectly calibrated with wit. One can only feel grateful that there exist political writers with Steyn’s ability, chutzpah, energy, and courage. Unfortunately, purveyors of serious warnings are rarely welcomed, and their difficult advice is almost never followed.

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  • Bamaguje

    The fortcoming presidential election is America's last chance to turn things around.
    If Obama wins America is finished!!

    • ddddd

      as if romoney win, then america is toasted

  • Paul in England

    A beautifully written review. Thanks Janice.

    • Matt Wookey

      And a top-notch book. Anyone who has any doubts about the long term effects of socialism should read it. Actually, everyone should read it, full stop.

  • https://www.facebook.com/mark.sobolewski.1 Mark Sobolewski

    One of the mistakes the reviewer makes (perhaps not Steyn) is to ignore the effects of feminism upon the notion of self-reliance and individual success and responsibility that made the USA great. The "provider" for women in the states 50 years had a name: husband. He was also the protector. Put women in the workplace, hold their hand, and provide them with welfare if they can't cut it and the state replaces men and this system worked great as men doubled not only as 1950's providers but also as vassals of the welfare state. Like the Roman baths of old with slaves toiling away underneath to keep the water hot, the average American man kept the system working pretty well in the 70's, 80's, and with less success in the 90's and present time.

    50 years ago, during the evil patriarchy, working class men (and their part-time working wives) owned their own homes within 20 years (that was a long term mortgage), vacationed at least a month a year, and these were the non-unionized workers. The negative contributions of feminism to the USA's economy cannot be understated. By the same token, it won't take much to reverse it. Collapse of the welfare state will return things within a matter of a year or two.

    • fayebeck

      Ditto and Amen. I would add also that buying a home was viewed as a place to raise a family and not an investment.

  • Schlomotion

    I think it's funny that yet another ince.stuous review of an inside book issues forth the day after David Horowitz republishes his jealous screed against Eric Hobsbawm, and must include the word "magisterial" to describe Mark Steyn. Mr. Horowitz took great displeasure at the repeated use of this word and the apparent cross-plagiarism and spoonfed accolades it signified… and then copied the technique.

    That's almost as amusing as Mark Steyn posing pensively in outdated Brooks Brothers' suits and scrying "magisterially" into the American Collapse.

    • Omar

      Schlomotion, you just keep on showing your ignorance, don't you? David Horowitz is not jealous of Eric Hobsbawm. Mr. Horowitz was posting accurate information on the truth about Hobsbawm, who was an apologist for Communist totalitarianism. The truth is that Hobsbawm hated democracy and freedom, and advocated for Soviet style totalitarianism. You happen to support Hobsbawm and the other radical Communists' dangerous agenda. You also happen to support Islamist totalitarianism. Keep your ignorance to yourself.

      • Schlomotion

        They are separate. Mr. Horowitz tries to append the term "Moral Felon" upon the late Mr. Hobsbawm and thereby deprive him of his "right" to be a historian, posthumously. The man issued 30 publications on just a partial list, many of them tomes. In truth, a man can be a moral felon, (whatever that highly subjective insult means) and also be a historian. Josephus and Cotton Mather are good examples. Gilad Atzmon can be an amazing saxophonist and a Jew and also an anti-Zionist. Mr. Horowitz can be a cogent author and also a political fruitcake. I don't know where all of this purported mutual exclusivity comes from. In that light, Mark Steyn can be a dandy and an incisive political analyst. He just isn't, not based on this particular book review. Anyone can append the demise of freedom to the failure of adhering to neoconservative values. It just isn't factual.

        • Omar

          Well, Mr. Horowitz is telling the truth. Eric Hobsbawm was a "moral felon", considering the fact that he was an apologist for one of the worst political ideologies on this planet. Throughout his life, Hobsbawm has never once criticized any aggression committed by Communist regimes. Hobsbawm doesn't deserve to be honored at all.

          • Schlomotion

            And yet it is not the case that he is not being honored. It is the case that some people are honoring him for his writing career, and some other people are vilifying him for his opinions.

          • Omar

            His writing career means nothing. He was an apologist for totalitarianism and that is a fact. You can deny it all you want Schlomotion, bu the fact remains that Hobsbawn supported totalitarianism and hated democracy.

          • Schlomotion

            His writing career means nothing? 30 history books? That's a lot of nothing. Like the nothing they burned down at the Library of Alexandria, and the nothing they burned in Nazi Germany.

          • Omar

            Schlomotion, Hobsbawn was an apologist for Communist totalitarianism. The fact remains that Hobsbawn was a totally biased "historian" who supported dictatorships if they supported his far-left agenda. You should read Richard Pipes' books to learn the real truth about Communism. Unlike Hobsbawn, Pipes is a legitimate historian who tells facts instead of bias.

          • Schlomotion

            "Hobsbawn was a totally biased 'historian' who supported dictatorships"

            Yes. So did Josephus. So did Cotton Mather.

            Richard Pipes is a sleight of hand magician who wanted to take the fact that Communism was a coup by an intelligentsia but make the intelligentsia look exclusively Russian and not predominantly Germano-Jewish, even in amazing and erroneous contradiction to Winston Churchill. One could not possibly read Pipes without reading Solzhenitsyn, but one could easily do the opposite. Richard Pipes is a Vincent Bugliosi for Communism. Daniel Pipes is an even dimmer star.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Did Josephus? He believed in law and order. But foremost he was a historian that learned to survive so his work could continue.

            You sure never cease to amaze, what will you make up next?

          • Schlomotion

            Hmmm. Sounds like a George Soros argument. Jews surviving at the expense of other Jews is evil. That's the rule here.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Would rather all Jews climbed up the mountain to the Masada enclave?

          • Schlomotion

            Don't be inane. I would not want my Jewish friends to do that.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            What about your Israeli friends?

          • Schlomotion

            Even more inane. Mass beachings are unfortunate no matter what kind of mammal is involved.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Then you understand why I am opposed to militant islam.

          • Laine

            30 "history" books written by a communist propagandist are not worth the paper they are written on.

        • Advocatus

          Be that as it may, Schlo-Flippo, Mark Steyn is an excellent prose stylist with superb insights whereas you can barely string a couple of coherent sentences together, much less fashion even a semblence of a coherent thought.

          Now, while you're busy putting other people down, pray tell what are your singular achievements beyond rapping inanely about the usual tropes of gangsta culta?

          • Schlomotion

            I prefer that you do not know. It makes me look more at a disadvantage.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            Go ahead, do your normal. Make things up.

    • Neils60

      Schlomo, As always, you go off on a tangent, this time, you don't wish to address Steyn's book. Instead, you criticize Horowitz, a particular word, and the man's clothing. But, regarding the contents of Steyn's book, you wouldn't touch it with a 10 foot poll. Why, because you know that what he states is true, and there's no way for you to refute. Schlomo, Does the word obfuscation sound familar? If not, I can assure you that it definitely does to those who follow your illogical obfuscatory responses to fact(s).

      • Schlomotion

        What I have here is the avid review of the book by someone within the inner circle of the publication of the book. When I get the book, I'll review the facts of the book. Nothing of substance was really laid out in this glowing review. I do go get them from the library, but it's hard to keep up with all the pisseurs. And may I remind you that this online magazine just dismissed all of Eric Hobsbawm's work because of his purported lack of morals.

        • Omar

          Well, Hobsbawn had no morals because he never criticized Communist regimes at all, even as those regimes had committed mass atrocities around the world during the 20th century (and some continuing into the 21st century). That's the reality.

          • Schlomotion

            That's true. But you also said his writing doesn't matter. That's just boorish.

          • Omar

            Well, it didn't. Hobsbawn's writings were almost pure Communist propaganda. You can't deny that.

          • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

            You forget, making sense isn't his goal here.

  • Eric Carrig

    Corporations and governments monopolize ideas when they are to strong. We see corporations using policy not innovation to compete just as we see government seeking to expand. In fact, innovation is under serious pressure in the United States because of the gridlock created by two-party competition. It is important to note that both sides create entitlements — people want to work for corporations to get healthcare and retirement benefits. Wages tend to be higher than at small businesses. Our entire society is entitled, narcissistic, and government programs are just part of it. I agree that governments trend left because too little government makes people riot. In an ideal world, we'd focus on solutions to problems, rather than how to preserve entitlements or crush the "big government" or "free-market" opponent. @10, http://www.at10us.com has a modest, local approach to organizing a middle ground around solutions instead of fighting with ideology about the problems.

  • NMR

    This review is an excellent précis. It doesn't cover all of the book's themes, but that is not a reviewer's mistake, as claimed by a commenter here, it is a reviewer's prerogative, and well exercised.

    As for Steyn's Brook's Bros. suits, I suggest the simile that judging the contents of a book is least effective when one concentrates only on the book's cover. But it does satisfy one's prejudices.

  • Marshall Gill

    This site still exists? I assumed that is would die once David declared all questions regarding Obama's birth certificate, "racists". He even went so far as to post a video of none other than Arriana Huffington and Keith Olberman making the same claims. Curiosity about Mark Steyn is the ONLY reason I would come here.

  • Steve D

    When the twin towers were overturned; I said. "everything depends upon what America builds in its place."

  • barry

    like nearly everyone else I supported the US response to the Twin Towers tragedy. In retrospect I now think it would have been better to encourage the overwhelming sympathy and support it generated around the world, while quietly focusing on pinpointing the perpetrators; and then maybe months or a year later zapped them. Going in boots and all with what looked like military overkill has in retrospect been terribly expensive both in life and treasure and over time given the opposition opportunity to highlight the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ and recruit even more nut cases to Jihad.
    Now the original reason for ME involvement has just about been forgotten; the US has horrendous debts, people are becoming war weary and the nut cases continue their idiotic campaign against the ‘infidel’.
    Another factor is the rampant secularism that has overtaken the ‘West’ with most of its opinion makers unable to understand an ideology posing as a religion.
    I’ll bet that as a reaction was being prepared very few if anybody consulted organisations such as ME Christian churches with over 2000 years of ME history or even the more sensible elements of the Jews with millenia of ME experience.
    America is brilliantly prepared for fighting large scale set piece battles but doesn’t seem anywhere near as well prepared for the dirty campaign currently waged by the Jihadists. Its good to remember that the crusades began in about the 6th century and didn’t conclude until the Battle of Lepanto in about 1560; nearly 1000 years of intermitent fighting and battles and campaigns.
    It’s also interesting how the Islamist rhetoric is laced with references to the crusader. We’ve forgotten but they haven’t. Its going to be a long dirty war and maybe planners should go back to some of the writings during the Crusades.