Once upon a time, when civic society flourished in Britain, it was uncontroversial to observe that to demur at government involvement in the achievement of an end was not necessarily to consider that end undesirable. Under Leviathan, such distinctions draw blank stares. In 2010, on the BBC’s Question Time — a British current-affairs show on which the guests trip over one other to display the appropriate degree of fealty to whichever orthodoxy is in the news that week whilst the audience tries to be as clever as one can be without doing any reading — the question of impending government spending cuts was raised. One audience member stood up and, waving her hands around, asked who would mow her elderly mother’s lawn if the government no longer did it. The audience clapped. The host looked serious. Not a single person on the panel said, “You!” Neither of the putatively Conservative guests even raised an eyebrow. A particularly oleaginous MP proceeded to tell her that it was a “good question.” I threw a coffee cup at my television.
“In August 1914,” wrote the historian A. J. P. Taylor, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card.” A century later, he does not even expect to have to tend to his own family’s garden. That’s some shift in the Overton window.
I quite earnestly believe in all of the stuff that I’m not supposed to. I believe that America is exceptional; that it is an objectively better nation than any other that has ever existed; and that it is, as it was explicitly designed always to be, the last, best hope for mankind. As Winthrop’s sermon poetically put it, America is the “Shining City upon a Hill,” there so that men without liberty have somewhere to turn and a light that they might follow. I followed that light — 3,500 miles from my friends and my family — because I believed that my life would be better here, because I wanted to be free, and because I felt that under American liberty I would be able to be myself more honestly and more fully. There is nowhere else I could have gone.
Alas, there is nothing written in the stars that says that America will always be America. “Rome,” as Joseph Heller brutally reminded us, “was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in 25 million years or so.” There will be little virtue in America if it becomes a larger version of Britain, but with free speech and the right to bear arms.
On Tuesday, America took another giant leap away both from its revolutionary mission and from the classical liberalism that it has successfully incubated for so long. This is a rotten thing for America, and also — though it might not realize it — for the world; for, like Anthony Blanche, Evelyn Waugh’s “aesthete par excellence,” should the United States descend into the mire, it will“take something away with it.” If America ceases to be America, it will “[lock] a door and hang the key on a chain.” And then? “All [its] friends, among whom [it] had always been a stranger,” will realize they need it. I know I do.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.