Until I read this book, I fondly thought that I was a pessimist; but now, having read it, I realize that on the Cassandra scale of one to ten I am at about five or six. Mark Steyn scores ten on the same scale, but only because no higher score is possible.
In his last book, America Alone, Mr. Steyn certified the death of Europe, with America as the last bastion of Western civilization; in his latest book, he certifies the death of America, and hence of Western civilization altogether. The game is not so much afoot as already up and lost; an orgy of living on the never-never has sapped America’s will or ability to retain its position as the preeminent power on earth. Whatever comes after American preeminence will not be pretty, and it certainly will not be peaceful; it will make even French intellectuals nostalgic for the days of the American hyperpuissance.
Pessimists, on the whole, have a better sense of humor than optimists; and, as all readers of Mr. Steyn know, he is the wittiest of men. I am not generally a great laugher-out-loud, but several times during this book I found myself chuckling audibly, causing my wife to wonder what it was all about.
Since the book deals with forthcoming political, economic, and civilizational collapse, its humor is of the gallows variety. The author is a master of using a small example to deflate a large pretension. Here he is on the mayor of New York: According to Michael Grunwald of Time, Michael Bloomberg is “an action hero” who “does big things,” for example by “enacting America’s most draconian smoking ban and the first big-city trans-fat ban.” Steyn comments:
Back in the real world, a couple days after Christmas 2010, a snow storm descended on New York, and the action-hero mayor, relentless in his pursuit of trans-fats, was unable, for more than three days, to fulfill as basic a municipal responsibility as clearing the streets. His Big Nanny administration can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger, but he can’t regulate it on to Seventh Avenue. Perhaps, if New Yorkers had appeared to be enjoying the snow by engaging in unregulated sledding or snowballing without safety helmets, Nanny Bloomberg could have scraped the boulevards bare in nothing flat. But, lacking that incentive, he let it sit there.
Like all the best humor — or, at any rate, the humor that appeals to me, which perhaps is not quite the same thing — this has a serious point. It takes a particular example of folly and mocks it. The seriousness is in the choice of target, which is emblematic. In this case, the folly is not confined to New York or even to the United States. Recently in Manchester, England, I discovered that the city council there failed completely to keep the streets clean, while at the same time being able to produce a 49-page document on its “equalities” policy that includes monthly monitoring of the ethnic composition of its staff. Not coincidentally, the number of Manchester-area town-hall officials earning more than $80,000 a year had increased in ten years by 2,500 percent, to more than 1,700: precisely the kind of inflation that Mr. Steyn, who has a very beady eye for the telling detail, draws our attention to. The Nomenklatura is not unique to the old Soviet Union: One has developed in the U.S. and in most Western countries as well.
This development is not unrelated to the current economic crisis, of course. The members of the Nomenklatura are the warriors who come in the Trojan horse of sweet-sounding government promises: those of universal protection of the population from the vicissitudes of life, from flood to marital argument and toothache, a protectionism that, as Steyn points out, is antithetical to the founding principles of the United States, or even to the notion of the free-born Englishman. The protection offered is like insurance in reverse: The payouts come first, while the premiums are left strictly to the future. Only a Nobel prize–winning economist is capable of failing to see that this is not viable long-term, that it is in fact a Madoff scheme with powers of coercion. Such schemes are liable to alarmingly sudden collapse, and Steyn even foresees the breakup of the United States as a result, as the more provident parts of the country repudiate the debts of the improvident parts (the Greece and Germany problem).
Why do public servants have such overweening ambition? Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, who had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” the modern bureaucrat, dull as he might be, is ambitious to change the very fiber of our being. Since human problems arise from human behavior, it is obvious to him that our behavior must be changed. Moreover, to clear the streets of snow is dull and intellectually unexacting: We’ve been doing it for a hundred years at least, even if the technology has changed a little. But to boldly prohibit where no bureaucrat has prohibited before — that is pioneering, that is the free exercise of the bureaucratic imagination. And, by happy chance, such prohibition coincides with the sectional, rent-seeking interest of the bureaucracy itself. It also helps to absorb many young people who have received a college education that is neither intellectually nor vocationally valuable, and who would otherwise be unemployed. And, as everyone knows, there is no class so dangerous as the idle educated.
All this would merely impoverish us unnecessarily if we lived in complete autarky, but we do not live in complete autarky. In a world of international competition, such frivolity without gaiety also endangers us. We have turned après nous le déluge from a cynical bon mot into the whole basis of our policy. It is perhaps a weakness of our democracies that increasingly professionalized politicians dare not speak uncomfortable truths, let alone pursue unpopular but necessary policies. They prefer to respond to catastrophe rather than to avert it. When Winston Churchill offered the population nothing but blood, sweat, and tears, he was not facing an imminent election; besides, confirmatory evidence of his offer was all around.
There is a pleasure to be had from the contemplation of apocalypse, as climate-change enthusiasts know full well. Ninety-foot waves, winds of 300 miles an hour, an apocalypse is never boring; and the avoidance of boredom is, after all, one of the principal motives of modern man (not that he is always successful in the quest, far from it). Sometimes one senses that Steyn is a little too keen on the end of the world, for no Jeremiah wants to warn his fellows that the future will be so-so rather than absolutely appalling.
For example, Steyn tells us that the age of dramatic advances in medicine is over; that it took only two years from the time that insulin was first isolated to its commercial distribution, a speed of progress impossible to imagine now, thanks to undue regulation. But insulin and penicillin — the two examples he gives of unencumbered progress — were discovered in very different circumstances from ours today; and actually it took quite a long time for the potential of the latter to be recognized and for it to become generally available. More important, it is not true that the age of advance has ended; the operations for peptic ulceration that nearly killed my father are no longer performed, thanks to the discovery of Helicobacter pylori. Progress in life expectancy has been more or less continuous and has not ceased. It is possible that this progress will not continue, because a continuing trend is not destiny; but there are no grounds for pessimism either, from the record of the recent past.
But the author’s main contention, that the economic crisis faced by the whole of the Western world in general, and by the U.S. in particular, is not merely economic but, in a loose sense, spiritual, cultural, and philosophical, is surely correct. Where we were once inclined to believe that we needed protection from the government, many of us are now inclined to believe that we need the protection of the government, even its protection from ourselves. It is hardly surprising that where victims are heroes, everyone should glory in his own vulnerability and come to think of himself as an endangered species, in need of conservation. In such an environment, a once-cardinal virtue, fortitude, seems like foolishness or improvidence at best, false pride at worst. Many bureaucratic empires have been built in recent years on the supposed vulnerability of the population, but bureaucracy (if it is not openly corrupt) stops the world, or at least the economy, from going round. Men become timid and fearful on one hand, and savage and unscrupulous in the preservation of their small privileges on the other.
There is a contradiction in this book. Most of it suggests that it is already past midnight, that is to say too late; the last chapter suggests (perhaps because publishers always like to end on an upbeat note) that it is still one minute to midnight. But it is a very changed world in which the message that it is one minute to midnight counts as optimism, and Steyn dissects this world brilliantly.
– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.