Commentary Magazine


Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Peter Lawler

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?


Any modern country is about narratives of change. Our conservative view, found everywhere from the Tea Party to professors of political philosophy, is that our country’s recent history has been a turn away from the limited government based on the natural rights of free individuals toward bigger and bigger government based on a progressive devotion to History. From this view, our country has been getting worse as it slouches toward the serfdom Friedrich von Hayek described or the soft despotism Alexis de Tocqueville imagined.

This narrative contains some truth, of course, but it’s clearly becoming less true. Big government is now in retreat on two fronts, national and state. The entitlements that have structured our welfare state are eroding or even imploding. The movement is fromdefined benefits to defined contributions, with risk being transferred from the government or the employer to the individual. The good news is that free people are going to have more opportunity to exercise personal responsibility. The bad might be that elderly Americans will have less reason than ever to believe that their money will last as long as they will. The Tea Party is wrong to believe that what its members regard as a new birth of freedom will ever actually be popular.

As every reader of Commentary knows, our country’s always ambiguous and now seemingly temporary use of big government as a way of redistributing income and eradicating poverty started to fade in the late 1960s. Big government has continued to gradually get bigger, but more because of inertia than any ideological enthusiasm. (What about the Progressive Obama? His vision for change is already discredited, and ObamaCare just won’t work.) Today, most Americans know that a bigger nanny state can’t provide any effective remedy for what really ails them.

In the same 1960s, the Supreme Court began its very successful war against big government understood as the moral regulator of the state. Our Court now thinks it’s adhering to the Founders’ view that the single word liberty in the 14th Amendment is a weapon every generation of Americans can wield to achieve unprecedented individual liberty. It makes a strange kind of sense, from this view, to say that same-sex marriage didn’t used to be an individual right, but it’s become one over time. Soon enough the Court might discover it makes sense to say that the entitlement of marriage itself is unjustified oppression, because it arbitrarily privileges what married people do at the expense of the dignified autonomy of single individuals.

So change over the last generation has been progress in the individualistic sense of John Locke. But some of it has been change Locke himself didn’t anticipate. It didn’t occur to Locke, it seems, that so many free persons would become so self-absorbed—or that contraceptive technology would work so well—that we’d be stuck with a “birth dearth.” Sophisticated Americans have not so much transferred their dependence from family to government as they have chosen to thwart nature’s intention for them by staying around as individuals for an indefinitely long time. If I’m not planning on going anywhere, there’s no need for me to generate any replacements.

If it weren’t for our demographic crisis, nobody would be talking much about reforming or eliminating Social Security and Medicare. We’re going to be stuck more and more with too many old and unproductive people and not enough young and productive ones. That change can be accounted for as a product—both good and bad—of our creeping (and sometimes creepy) individualism or libertarianism. The change has wrecked the progressive dream of an expanding social democracy humanely enveloping us all.

There are some reasons to be confident about America’s future. The road to serfdom, it turns out, never gets to serfdom. The downsizing of the welfare state and the accelerating progress of technology demanded by free individuals will likely be good for prosperity. There is, of course, also reason to worry about people so unwilling to think of themselves as parts belonging to wholes greater than themselves—as parents, children, citizens, friends, and creatures.


Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and executive editor of the scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, is the author, most recently, of Modern and American Dignity(Intercollegiate Studies Institute).