One of the most striking moments in this excellent book arrives on page 15, when Mitch Daniels notes that, in the early days of the American republic, currency often bore the Latin inscription Exitus in dubio est: “The outcome is in doubt.” The detail is telling for two reasons. It shows how the Founders were immersed in a classical culture to which most contemporary Americans pay absolutely no attention. And it proves that the founding generation did not believe their experiment in self-government was a sure shot.
The infant nation was threatened. For America to survive, it would have to avoid further conflict with the dominant superpower, the British Empire, not to mention the meddling Spanish and French. Nor was the fear of foreign invasion the only thing that worried Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution harbored grave doubts about the ability of mankind to control its passions and govern through “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” American democracy, in their view, would be a test of American character — one not graded on a curve.
The problems on this test have appeared in different forms. We’ve waged war against slavery, fascism, Communism, and Islamism. We’ve fought inequality, corruption, trusts, and big government. Yet the substance has always been the same: In each case, America has defended itself against those Daniels calls the “Skeptics,” who believe that “most human beings are not capable of disciplining their appetites, postponing gratification for the sake of the long term, or deciding for the common good, and therefore cannot be trusted with the ultimate political control of society.” In each case, America has vindicated the founders’ idea that human beings are born capable of self-rule.
What makes this book so compelling is the force with which Daniels argues that, despite our many successes, the outcome remains in doubt. The challenge of America’s massive debt and unfunded liabilities may prove too hard for this generation to solve. “For the first time in my life,” Daniels writes, “I am desperately alarmed about the condition and direction of the American republic”: America faces a new enemy, the “Red Menace,” just as dangerous as her previous foes. The debt we’ve accumulated through profligacy and wishful thinking is liable to wreak devastation around the world.
And generations of deficit spending have already had an effect beyond economics: They have inculcated an entitlement mentality in the citizenry. We’ve come to believe that government “owes” us things that were never the government’s to deliver in the first place. A dependent people is an unfree people, and Daniels describes well the remarkable inversion that has occurred over the last several decades: “The traditional concept of public service has been stood on its head. With almost no one noticing, government workers rose from underpaid public servants to the position of a privileged elite.” Interest groups, meanwhile, continue to attach themselves to Leviathan’s belly and seek constantly to feed the beast. Optimism about the future has been eclipsed in the public mind by a sense of foreboding and national decline. World-famous columnists fantasize about America’s becoming “China for a day.”
Daniels’s goal in writing this book is to “challenge the idea that a government of and by the people is incapable of dealing with such a crisis once it has gone this far.” As evidence that democracies can face down the red menace, he offers his experience making state and federal government more efficient in Indiana and Washington, D.C. The book contains many wonderful stories of penny-pinching and belt-tightening. I chuckled when Daniels ordered an Indiana “efficiency crew” to put pennies on the tires of state vehicles to see whether the coins would still be there after one month — then got rid of the cars that hadn’t moved.