Heinlein, Graham, and Our Impending Doom

While I’ve expected to be accused of many things in my 44 years, political correctness was not among them. However, it’s happened.

My college has engaged in a change, that while purely symbolic, has stirred up strong emotions in people (alums and others) with an emotional stake in the way things had previously been. I was quoted in a newspaper article about the change, and observed that while we had the right not to make the change, the nice thing to do was go ahead, and as I live in a region with strong investments in both self-determination and politeness, occasionally those things may come into conflict, and we chose to be polite. As I’ve noted previously, just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

I looked at the article in the online edition of my local daily, and discovered from the comments that I had evidently assisted in an ongoing handbasket-conveyed descent as part of my “politically correct agenda,” which good (read, old or dead) professors never would have done. That’s fine, and I realize Mensa doesn’t typically recruit from the comment sections of metro newspapers, but after I thought about it a bit, I realized it fits in to some larger ideas I’ve been thinking about.

As I said, I supported this symbolic change, even though I personally didn’t have a problem with the status quo ante, and even though we could have fought it and engaged in various dilatory tactics, because it struck me as a harmless way to be pleasant to more people. It was a kind accommodation. Had I thought it would do real harm, I would have opposed it. In short, I chose to look beyond my immediate self-interest (or more accurately, lack of interest) and support what I saw as best in the big picture.

And that brings me to Robert Heinlein, as many things do. In one of his books he offers the following thoughts on democracy and society:

The America of my time line is a laboratory example of what can happen to democracies, what has eventually happened to all perfect democracies throughout all histories. A perfect democracy, a ‘warm body’ democracy in which every adult may vote and all votes count equally, has no internal feedback for self-correction. It depends solely on the wisdom and self-restraint of citizens… which is opposed by the folly and lack of self-restraint of other citizens. What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it… which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’

‘Bread and Circuses’ is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader—the barbarians enter Rome.

I think Adam Graham might agree. In an essay at Pajamas Media, he argues that our culture has in fact wholly embraced the “bread and circuses” idea, and that efforts like mine to oppose the welfare/nanny statism we see around us are doomed without cultural change. The basic problem is that a large portion of the population has decided that self-support is for suckers, and are more than happy to let government “take care” of them and theirs,  from the births of their children to their old age. Our respose to this? Graham observes:

Two tactics for dealing with this are popular. The first, the rationalistic approach, tries to challenge people with a debate about numbers and the effectiveness of government solutions. The second, the pragmatic approach, avoids taking on any popular program, other than fleeting attempts to reform Social Security. The last administration chose the latter tactic.

The pragmatic approach fails because the areas most in need of the reform are politically difficult to address. The rationalistic approach fails because it doesn’t address the culture. For example, many elderly Americans rely on Medicaid to take care of their long-term-care expenses once their net worth has dropped to nothing. The key problem here, however, is the culture that considers it acceptable for us to allow our parents to go into poverty so the government can step in.

Conservatives talk about the church and the community returning to its proper role of caring for the poor, but this effort is easier said than done. Pastors complain about the poor viewing churches as welfare agencies. Judging by donation reports, churches would be overwhelmed if they had to take on all the people dependent on the government. We cannot effect a permanent reduction in the size and scope of government, or meaningful government reform, unless we change our culture’s demand for the government to provide our every need.

In short, it appears that Heinlein’s prediction is once more destined to come to pass. But the reason that’s so is that the people that Heinlein predicted and that Graham sees have decided for license rather than liberty, choosing to abandon responsibility for themselves because it’s the easier thing to do on a daily basis.

This takes lots of forms, from corporations cutting moral corners because they’ve decided their only moral responsibility is to the share price, to the epidemic of bastardy that results from the divorce of physical pleasure from its consequences. Over and over again, we use our freedom to choose in order to choose poorly, culminating in the choice to surrender our freedoms altogether.

I accept this and defend that right to choose because the alternative is to be something less than human. In that regard, I suspect I’m fighting a losing battle either way. Maybe Heinlein’s right and doom is in democracy’s DNA. Entropy always wins. However, I have to struggle against it anyway, and I urge you to do likewise. In that spirit, I’ll share a joke I shared over at TEI:

A man walks outside and sees an ant lying on its back with its six little legs waving frantically. He asks the ant why it is in the position it’s in, and the ant replies, “I have to be ready to catch the sky if it falls.”

The man says, “That’s ridiculous! The sky is enormous. If it were to fall, you’d be crushed… well, like an ant. Why bother?”

The ant shrugs its first set of legs and says, “I do what I can.”

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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