What Happened to America

My previous article identified the Enlightenment ideas, centered on reason, as the root of individual rights and therefore of America. But America has largely abandoned the principles on which it was founded. Instead of limited government dedicated to protecting the rights of each citizen, we have an intrusive government that uses coercion to impose their view of the beautiful society on those citizens.

America has abandoned individualism for collectivism – the theory that the unit of reality and standard of value is the group (be it society, the nation, the community, the race etc.). The result being that the country is splintered into warring gangs vying for government handouts and favors. And it has produced an army of politicians vying for votes by making contradictory promises that can never be fulfilled.

So what happened? What caused this fundamental change in the country from the ideas of the Enlightenment to their opposite? Briefly, the Enlightenment thinkers could not establish a credible view of the nature of reason, and it wasn’t long before the attacks from anti-reason proponents undercut the Enlightenment and starting moving the western world in the opposite direction.

And concomitant with this failure to defend reason properly was the failure of the Enlightenment thinkers to formulate a rational view of ethics. Implicit in and underlying individual rights is an ethical code of self-interest. From the beginning America was torn between the conflict of self-interest and the dominant ethical code of the time; that of self-sacrifice as a moral ideal (i.e. altruism).

Reason and individualism lead to the principle that everyone is an end in himself, not a means to an allegedly higher end. On the other hand, mysticism (acceptance of allegations apart from or against the evidence of the senses and reason) and collectivism state the opposite. With collectivism, since the unit of consideration is the group, individuals are expected to sacrifice for the “common good” as determined by the group leaders. And if any individual refuses to sacrifice, the collectivists hold that the government should properly step in and force that individual to sacrifice. What followed was the ascendancy of the ideas of thinkers such as Karl Marx into western civilization, the view of an all-powerful government controlling every aspect of an individual’s life (Marx was revered by the political left in the early part of the last century).

The attempts to defend the original American system (i.e. Capitalism) were flawed from the start. They were flawed because the defenders could not abandon the ethics of altruism, of self-sacrifice. They did not recognize the inherent contradiction between altruism and freedom, between self-sacrifice and individualism.

One example of this is John Stuart Mill. He tried to defend Capitalism on the premise of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. As to an individual’s own happiness, Mill makes his view on this clear in his book Utilitarianism when he states “All honor to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world . . . .”

Another example of the futile attempt to defend Capitalism is the religious right. Noting the secularism of the political left (i.e. the ideas of Marx), some of the defenders of Capitalism concluded that the way to combat the statism of the political left was to embrace religion. But religion is antagonistic to the pro-reason and pro-individualism that defined the Enlightenment movement.

For over a century now the combatants for America have shared the same basic premises; an anti-reason approach to knowledge, and an anti-self approach to ethics. And it is the liberal’s advocacy of a strong centralized government that is the consistent and inevitable result of these premises. The conservatives, sharing these same premises, cannot stop this trend and often support or accelerate it.

Anti-reason societies produce mentally lethargic thugs who support a “follow the leader” authoritarianism and who believe that ideas should be forced on people. Opportunistic power lusters who relish the notion of dictatorial control over people will eventually rise to rule such societies. While America has not sunk to the level of dictatorship yet, the anti-reason trend is unmistakable.

This trend is what is really ominous about Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. (It should be noted that the “follow the leader” mentality is not limited to Trump supporters; a similar attitude can be seen among both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters). Trump’s brazenly anti-intellectual approach to ideas in the form of off-the-cuff statements with no foundation, and his ad hominem and blatantly childish attacks against his opponents during his campaign did not deter any of his supporters – they welcomed them.

And a number of his supporters are examples of the mentally lethargic thugs mentioned above, the supporters who threaten violence upon hearing ideas they don’t agree with. At one rally during his campaign one report stated of his supporters: “And if Trump doesn’t win, some are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem.”

This is the real danger of the anti-intellectual trend in modern culture. When reason is abandoned the rule of brute force takes over. It always has. Donald Trump is an ominous step in that direction.

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