This weekend, I am thousands of miles from home in a remote and isolated part of the world with erratic communications and lack of basic services. No, not Washington, D.C. Things aren’t that primitive, thank God. I’m in a rude Highland croft way up a far Scottish brae, enjoying the simple life by choice, rather than because the capital region of the global superpower is incapable of turning the lights back on within a week.
Which is by way of saying that news from the imperial metropolis has reached me in fits and starts. The other morning it was the intriguing tidbit that Chief Justice John Roberts had written both the majority opinion in the Obamacare decision and the dissent. He is literally his own worst enemy. He’s apparently the Mike Myers of the Supreme Court, able to play both Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, although it has to be said that he seems rather more at home as the bumbling swinger. If I understand correctly, the chief justice wrote the dissent back when it was the 5–4 majority opinion, and then, after switching sides, wrote the new majority opinion, and the four guys left holding the old majority opinion decided to leave it as is, presumably as a way of not so subtly underlining their total contempt for their squishy chief. Fascinating stuff, I’m sure. An enterprising legal scholar should pitch it to Paramount as a high-school musical or a particularly dysfunctional reality show.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, East Coast municipalities were canceling Fourth of July celebrations because of lack of electricity. In a novel, this would be rather too obviously symbolic of the hyperpower at twilight, but truth is crasser than art. So we had the spectacle of Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland, turning up on CBS’s Face the Nation last Sunday as part of his not-so-subtle campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Across Montgomery County, his delirious constituents would have cheered, “President O’Malley? There’s the answer to our nation’s woes!” — except that their TVs weren’t working, so they never saw him. Unless they jumped in their Chevy Volts and drove to . . . oh, no, wait.
I live in the North Country, so in a light breeze our power goes out. As I tell bewildered foreign visitors, “Think of rural New Hampshire as Baghdad outside the Green Zone.” But suburban Maryland is inside the Green Zone, and still the power goes out. America’s dysfunctional utility companies have a zillion explanations for this, but years ago I rode through the outskirts of D.C. with a Dutch tourist who marveled at the men digging up the sidewalk in densely populated neighborhoods to bury the new cable-TV wires while the sagging electric lines overhead continued to string their way from pole to pole dodging tree branches across town. It’s a very American sight: “Telegraph cables sing down the highway, and travel each bend in the road . . . ” (“Moonlight in Vermont”). “I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine . . . ” (“Wichita Lineman”). In the rural hinterlands, power lines are a sign of civilization. A stone’s throw from the imperial metropolis, they’re an emblem of civilizational decay.
In recent years, speaking to audiences hither and yon, I’m wont to say something on the lines of “The lamps are going out on liberty all over the world.” It’s my update on a famous observation by Edward Grey, British foreign secretary on the eve of the Great War. In August 1914, Sir Edward stood at his window in the summer dusk, and said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.” He was speaking metaphorically. After all, his remark was prompted by the sight of London’s lamplighters going about their evening routine lighting the lamps in Whitehall. Metaphorically speaking, the lights of liberty were certainly dimmed by Roberts’s hideously convoluted Supreme Court decision: I don’t see why I should be fined $695 for declining to participate in an overpriced and dysfunctional “insurance” “market.”
But that’s a philosophical argument, and most folks just want to get on with their lives. And in that sense last week’s power outages are more relevant to where the U.S. is headed than what passes for John Roberts’s thinking in his Obamacare opinion. It was a reminder, as if you needed one, that in the American twilight the lights will be going out literally. Last week, as the East Coast was fading to black, the West Coast was sinking deeper into the red: Stockton, Calif., became the largest U.S. city to date to file for bankruptcy. America is seizing up before our eyes, and the action necessary to reverse the sclerosis is stymied at every turn by rapacious unions, government micro-regulators, dependency-spreading social engineers, and crony capitalists who know how to weave their way through the bureaucracy.
Insofar as it works at all, Big Government works best in small, highly developed, northern Continental nation-states with a sufficiently homogeneous population to have sufficiently common interests. You can get by with it for a while in Mediterranean Europe, mainly because of a somewhat desultory attitude to the rule of law: In Italy and Greece, there are prohibitions against everything, but nobody obeys them and so, after a fashion, life goes on. Anglophone nations are generally disposed to abide by the law, and so, if there are a bazillion regulations, the average citizen will make a sincere effort to comply. But if you’re, say, Australia and you’re attempting to design a health-care system for 20 million people across an entire continent, it’s just about doable.
But no advanced society has ever attempted Big Government for a third of a billion people — for the simple reason that it cannot be done without creating a nation with the black-hole finances of Stockton, Calif., and the Black-Hole-of-Calcutta fetid, airless, sweatbox utility services of Rockville, Md. Thanks to Obamacare, in matters of health provision, whether you’re in favor of socialized medicine or truly private health care, Swedes and Italians are now freer than Americans: They have a state system and a private system, and both are relatively simple. What’s simple in micro-regulated America? In health care, we now have what’s nominally a private system encrusted with so many statist barnacles that it no longer functions as either a private or a state system. Thus, Obamacare embodies the strange no-man’s-land of statism American-style: The U.S. is no longer a land of republican virtue and self-reliant citizens but it’s not headed for the sunlit uplands of Scandinavia, either.
In their book The Size of Nations, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore argue that, if America were as centrally governed as France, it would have broken up long ago. But hey, that’s no reason not to try it! In a land where everything else is supersized, why not government? Obituaries for the late Andy Griffith generally glossed over his career finale as a pitchman for Obamacare. But he was a canny choice to sell the unsellable, for is not “health” “care” “reform” the communitarian virtues of beloved small-town Mayberry writ large? The problem is you can’t write Mayberry large. And, if you attempt it, it leads not to Mayberry but to Stockton, Calif., and to a corrupt, dysfunctional swamp. A large Sweden is a contradiction in terms. It cannot be done, and the more determinedly you try to do it, the more you will preside over a ruined wasteland. The road to hell isn’t paved at all, and the street lamps went out long ago.