Learning the Lessons of History

Originally posted on January 2nd of this year, I thought that I would bring this back to the top due to the recent references to Alexander Fraser Tytler in another post.

Just a little reminder from the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Drudge has had a link to a Dominic Sandbrook column in the Daily Mail up for a couple of days now. It is one of those things that is a haunting read – haunting from the aspect that once you read it, you can’t quite get it out of your head. It is an interesting and provocative thought piece, a “what if”, yet draws a profoundly disturbing historical parallel at the same time. It is titled: “The spectre of 1932: How a loss of faith in politicians and democracy could make 2012 the most frightening year in living memory.”

For the most chilling parallel, though, we should look back exactly 80 years, to the cold wintry days when 1931 gave way to 1932.

The ultimate warning from history: If our political leaders fail to provide adequate direction the results, as demonstrated 80 years ago, could be catastrophic

The ultimate warning from history: If our political leaders fail to provide adequate direction the results, as demonstrated 80 years ago, could be catastrophic

Then as now, few people saw much to mourn in the passing of the old year. It was in 1931 that the Great Depression really took hold in Europe, bringing governments to their knees and plunging tens of millions of people out of work.

Then as now, the crisis had taken years to gather momentum. After the Wall Street Crash in 1929 — just as after the banking crisis of 2008 — some observers even thought that the worst was over.

But in the summer of 1931, a wave of banking panics swept across central Europe. As the German and Austrian financial houses tottered, Britain’s Labour government came under fierce market pressure to slash spending and cut benefits.

With the politicians apparently impotent in the face of the economic blizzard, many people were losing faith in parliamentary democracy. Their despair was hardly surprising: in some industrial towns of the North, Wales and Scotland, unemployment in 1932 reached a staggering 70 per cent.

With thousands more being plunged out of work every week, even the National Government estimated that one in four people were making do on a mere subsistence diet. Scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis were rife; in the slag heaps of Wigan, George Orwell saw ‘several hundred women’ scrabbling ‘in the mud for hours’, searching for tiny chips of coal so they could heat their homes.

Feeling betrayed by mainstream politicians, many sought more extreme alternatives. Then as now, Britain was rocked by marches and demonstrations. In October 1932, a National Hunger March in Hyde Park saw bloody clashes between protesters and mounted policemen, with 75 people being badly injured.

And while Left-wing intellectuals were drawn to the supposedly utopian promise of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin — who turned out to be a brutal tyrant — thousands of ordinary people flocked to the banners of the British Union of Fascists, founded in the autumn of 1932 by the former Labour maverick Sir Oswald Mosley.

Never before or since has the far Right commanded greater British support — a worrying reminder of the potential for economic frustration to turn into demagogic resentment.

But the most compelling parallels between 1932 and 2012 lie overseas, where the economic and political situation was, if anything, even darker.

Eighty years ago, the world was struggling to come to terms with an entirely new financial landscape. In August 1931, the system by which currencies were pegged to the value of gold had fallen apart, with market pressure forcing Britain to pull the pound off the gold standard.

Almost overnight, the system that was supposed to ensure global economic stability was gone. And as international efforts to coordinate a response collapsed, so nations across the world fell back on self-interested economic protectionism.

Sandbrook continues:

And in the last days of 1932, after the technocrats and generals had failed to restore order, President Paul von Hindenburg began to contemplate the unthinkable — the prospect of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.

We all know what happened next. Indeed, by the end of 1932 the world was about to slide towards a new dark age, an age of barbarism and bloodshed on a scale that history had never known.

Eighty years on, it would be easy to sit back and reassure ourselves that the worst could never happen again. But that, of course, was what people told each other in 1932, too.

The lesson of history is that tough times often reward the desperate and dangerous, from angry demagogues to anarchists and nationalists, from seething mobs to expansionist empires.

Our world is poised on the edge of perhaps the most important 12 months for more than half a century. If our leaders provide the right leadership, then we may, perhaps, muddle through towards slow growth and gradual recovery.

But if the European elite continue to inflict needless hardship on their people; if the markets continue to erode faith in the euro; and if Western politicians waste their time in petty bickering, then we could easily slip further towards discontent and disaster.

The experience of 1932 provides a desperately valuable lesson. As a result of the decisions taken in those 12 short months, millions of people later lost their lives.

Today, on the brink of a new year that could well prove the most frightening in living memory, we can only pray that our history takes a very different path.

One can only nod in agreement with the parallels that Sandbrook notes.

There is no doubt that these are perilous times. History has proven time and again that times like these expose the rot and weakness in great civilizations and that most of them fall from the internal rot, not external conquerors. Rome is postulated to have fallen this way by Edward Gibbon in his classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hitler rose to power in situations eerily similar to the institutional rot we see in the US and UK today. Perilous times…

Perhaps the greatest danger during times of uncertainty like these is weakness. Weaknesses in leadership, in fiscal and financial matters and in social fiber lead to a loss of faith in our guiding institutions – we have all of the symptoms of a decaying civilization. The people of our country are grasping for something solid in the wake of the failures of promises from a political class that are as thin and wispy as the morning mist.

Something that I wrote a year ago still stands up:

It is clear that America faces a cultural crisis. There are those that seem to dislike America, primarily those on the political left. They don’t like our culture or capitalism and prefer the concepts of “progressivism” and “social justice”. They view America as essentially evil and exploitative – no wonder they see that perspective, this has been a theme taught since the 60’s. Soldiers are portrayed in modern movies as imperialist tools – merchants of death, destruction and evil instead of liberators. Leftists, many of them young people labeling themselves “modern progressives”, see us as old, selfish, ignorant and arrogant. In fact, they believe in a quasi “we-are-the-world” Utopianism that elevates third world despots to the moral equivalents of America.

We face an identity crisis. Do we still believe in American exceptionalism? Will we strive to lead the world or are we just another country willing to cede leadership to others? Foreign policy during the Age of Obama belies a need by the intelligentsia to knock the US down a peg. How many times have we given away negotiating positions and got nothing in return? How many times have we insulted our greatest friend an ally, the United Kingdom? While we may not have technically lost our global leadership, it is clear that the rest of the world sees our weakness. It is clear that China thinks it is poised to take over as the world’s economic engine…and it is also clear that there are those in Washington who think that is a good idea. If you don’t believe that America is exceptional, that America is a force for good and that an American lead world is economically and morally superior to one where we are just one of many, you would feel right at home in Washington right now.

We face a crisis of relativism. There are those who argue that the very ideals of our founding as voiced in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are irrelevant in these “sophisticated” modern times. Those ideals and our own history of global leadership are parsed and perverted to support a twisted definition of what America is.

We also have segments of our society who have received awards just for participation; they are rewarded for pseudo-talent while true talent goes unrecognized or is equivocated so everyone appears the same. There is a cultural revulsion against the very notion of greatness itself. Competition, capitalism, leadership, merit and excellence have been replaced by participation, redistribution, deference, concern for self-esteem and simply trying. The Pentagon proposes a military award for “courageous restraint”. Trying is equivocated as doing. Have we lost the drive to compete and more importantly, to win? Life keeps score even if our society doesn’t.

We face a crisis of morality. As we condemn our religious institutions for the failings of man, we drift farther away from the moral laws and concepts that a belief in God gives. What is right and what is wrong? Without a moral compass, humans can rationalize anything from abortion to becoming a homicide bomber as “just another lifestyle choice”. We increasingly cede our individual moral mandate to care for our fellow man to a faceless government that cares not for the individual but lusts for power over that individual.

Our foundational institutions are crumbling. We have lost our faith and trust in the very institutional foundations of our society. The very operating framework of our country is failing under its own weight. Our governmental and financial systems are wracked with cronyism, graft, corruption and fraud. Our scientific community allows political influence to creep in and suffers major scandal in what appears to be fraud related to anthropogenic global warming. Religious institutions have been wracked with child sexual abuse crimes. Our government has failed in several major events from the Challenger disaster to Katrina/Rita to the Deepwater Horizon incident. The venerable and Constitutionally protected “fifth estate”, the mainstream ”free” press, has been revealed by the advent of citizen journalism to be a biased, sycophantic, partisan organ that fewer and fewer people trust.

We face an educational crisis. This is perhaps the most significant crisis facing America. Public education has become regimented and systematized to the point that it has become dogmatic. We even refer to our educational services as school “systems”. Socratic learning has been largely replaced with regimented indoctrination, free thinking is not encouraged, and following the “system” is valued over critical thinking.

Value is placed on the simple command of facts and not the critical “why’s” behind them. We also appear to lack important overarching historical context, preventing us from viewing modern issues in proper context and facilitating understanding. We do appear to be more focused on teaching what to think and not how to think. Objective truths and established facts are dismissed as “your opinion”. Direct, vigorous debate and defending a position seem to be alien, just “sharing” opinions or presenting a list of facts is good enough. Knowledge is substituted for wisdom. It makes for an intense interest in politesse but leads to arrogant, undisciplined, unorganized thought, resulting in overt hostility to any challenge or correction.

People, when faced with an ineffective governance, will turn to alternatives no matter the current system. The Russians turned to democracy (except they got an oligarchy due to the old Soviet party structure) and the Germans of the late 1930’s turned to the National Socialists of Adolph Hitler. Democracies seem to give way to alternatives that are not always the best for the people in the long run. Often in times of political and social stress, societies, desperate to the point of panic after being stoked by the alarmist and accusatory rhetoric of a political class bent on achieving or retaining power, will turn to the source of the most promises. Again, the words of the 18th century history professor at the University of Edinburgh, Alexander Fraser Tytler do ring true:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The sad truth is that people, in choosing a path forward, continue to base that choice on promises from people seeking to govern, the very same pattern that got them in quicksand to begin with. They seek any relief from the stresses placed on them, and since societies do not have a strong sense of irony, seek them from the very people and institutions that caused the stress in the first place. They too soon forget that promises easily given are worthless and the attempts to fulfill those promises often lead to Marxist or totalitarian governments.

The temptation in these trying times is to throw out the system of government and go to something “better”. We need to recognize why our government is functioning the way that it is before deciding to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

Let’s look at what our government is actually charged with doing.

Our Constitution is designed for doing a very limited number of things and doing them well:

  • to form a more perfect Union [more effective than the Articles of Confederation],
  • establish Justice [via assuring that each person is treated equally by government],
  • insure domestic Tranquility [provide a platform for a stable society],
  • provide for the common defence [protect the sovereignty of the nation],
  • promote the general Welfare [PROMOTE, not provide], and
  • secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity [assure the longevity of our nation]…

It is not designed to be the arbiter of success or to redistribute income and wealth in the Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

America doesn’t need a new governmental system. What we absolutely don’t need is the socialism of the Obama administration, the Marxism of the Occupy Wall Street “movement” or the communism of the columnists of the New York Times. Our Constitution (and the governance that flows from it) was never designed to operate under such circumstances. What we are doing today just as ineffective as trying to change a flat tire with a frying pan or to fry an egg with a lug wrench. Our government isn’t working, not because it isn’t the right system, it is because the things that it is being driven to do were never part of its scope. It didn’t leave us, we left it.

If we can herd the cats back to what the Constitution actually is designed to do (and that is a BIG “if”), return the power to the states that has been usurped by the federal government and have the states governed by the will of their people, we can save America. If not, we may start looking more like the Weimar Republic in its dying days.

16 thoughts on “Learning the Lessons of History

  1. “If we can herd the cats back to what the Constitution actually is designed to do (and that is a BIG “if”), return the power to the states that has been usurped by the federal government and have the states governed by the will of their people, we can save America.”

    I agree, but then, the Constitution – as we’ve seen elsewhere on this very blog – cannot be properly understood so long as it is viewed independently of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is merely the map, the Declaration points to the destination. Unless this nation revisits the ideals and principles in the Declaration, the Constitution will continue to be perverted by those who’s designs are on power and not the preservation of individual rights and liberty. And the ideals and principles as declared in the Declaration are an anathema to these same people who have and even now seek to undermine the protections provided by our Constitution precisely because they understand that the Declaration is steeped in the principles of the Christian faith. In short, if America wants to remain free and prosperous, it had best understand the meaning of these words – and understand them NOW!

    “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”

    — Robert Winthrop
    (Source: Robert Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1852), p. 172 from his “Either by the Bible or the Bayonet.”)

    NICE PIECE, Utah. Very nice essay, in deed 🙂

  2. I believe we are at a place far worse than 1932, in that Americans have changed, and our culture is openly embracing evil. I know the use of the word “evil” is overused and usually used in a self-righteous manner, but we are facing losing everything our Founders gave us with their blood, sweat, treasure and tears. It comes down to evil, in my opinion. We were handed freedom and are willing to give it up on almost every level, with those in power greedily looking on as the people barely notice.

    Another great essay on RioNorteLine.

    • You know, Miss Maggie, these boys are very funny, too. They’ve got great timing and, well, sadly, they just stay so serious most of the time….pity….cause when they play, they’re really quite adept at comedy.

      Just out of curiousity, is your second to youngest brother from San Rafael?

    • Maggie,

      Evil is the appropriate term, and in every sense of the word. Mind you, this is a paraphrase more than a direct quote, but it does convey the man’s conclusions:

      “America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good it will cease to be great.”

      –Alexis de Tocqueville

      We ceased to be a “good” people some time ago. If we cannot reverse this, when the light goes out on America, this time, it goes out on the world. Pray, as this is the last chance for Mankind.

      • Are you crazy? For the love of Pete, don’t ask B. to explicate!

        Personally, I think anyone getting my money aught to be doing those jobs you mentioned. Yep. Either they work or they go to Rick Perry’s Hobo Camp.We’re nearin on Hobo season……

  3. Leaving aside all that might be said from other perspectives (e.g., mine) about your take on the “culture crisis” and the parallels you draw between that what Sandbrook had in mind, I’m intrigued by one aspect internal to your own view. Central to your comment is your idea of the legitimate purview of the federal government. In this regard, you describe what the Constitution has designed the government to do and, in particular, you carefully distinguish government action to “promote” the general welfare from government action to “provide” the general welfare. The former you regard as legitimate, I gather, and the latter as illegitimate. Yet you do not explain the distinction. Perhaps you would explicate where and how you would draw the line between the two and why you would draw it where you do.

    If, for instance, the government collects taxes and uses them to build and maintain an interstate highway system, (setting aside any policy views you may have about the wisdom of that action and focusing only on whether it is a legitimate exercise of government power) is the government legitimately acting to “promote” the general welfare or overstepping its bounds and illegitimately acting to “provide” the general welfare?

    Or if the government adopts and enforces rules to prevent and cleanup pollution of the nation’s rivers, lakes, and other waters, is the government “promoting” or “providing” the general welfare?

    Or if the government provides tax credits or subsidies to producers of particular forms of energy or fuels, is the government “promoting” or “providing” the general welfare?

    Or if the government implements a program to help build and operate more schools for children or increase the quality of the education children receive in existing schools, is the government “promoting” or “providing” the general welfare? (Again, the question is not whether you think this is a good idea or the government does a good job in this regard, but whether government action toward this end is a legitimate exercise of power under the Constitution.)

    Or if the government collects payroll taxes from workers to fund a program that pays those workers benefits after they reach retirement age, is the government “promoting” or “providing” the general welfare?

    • Utah,

      Me thinks our progressive lawyer friend here seems to have somehow missed both the enumerated powers as well as the Federalists explanation as to how restrictive they were actually considered to be at the time of ratification. In fact, I think it was Madison, himself, who said to take the general welfare clause in the manner doug seems to have taken it and which has become the predominant view in our nation today would be to totally undermine everything in the COnstitution intended to restrict such abuses (gee, isn’t that EXACTLY what Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives said they were trying to do – and what Obama has inferred he still wants to do?). My last comment — for now — would be that there are many things in Doug’s list which are nowhere to be found in the enumerated powers nor the purview of a govt. established to govern the States – NOT the nation.

      I think Patrick Henry was correct when he hit the roof over the use of the phrase “We the People:” it should have been “We the Several States.”

  4. Pingback: Are We Just Too Stupid To Live? | The Rio Norte Line

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