The Crisis of Profligacy
Today, no less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America’s civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.
Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, they have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those "inalienable rights." Today, individual Americans use their freedom to do many worthy things. Some read, write, paint, sculpt, compose, and play music. Others build, restore, and preserve. Still others attend plays, concerts, and sporting events, visit their local multiplexes, IM each other incessantly, and join "communities" of the like- minded in an ever- growing array of virtual worlds. They also pursue innumerable hobbies, worship, tithe, and, in commendably large numbers, attend to the needs of the less fortunate. Yet none of these in themselves define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.
If one were to choose a single word to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. A bumper sticker, a sardonic motto, and a charge dating from the Age of Woodstock have recast the Jeffersonian trinity in modern vernacular: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins"; "Shop till you drop"; "If it feels good, do it."
It would be misleading to suggest that every American has surrendered to this ethic of self- gratification. Resistance to its demands persists and takes many forms. Yet dissenters, intent on curbing the American penchant for consumption and self- indulgence, are fighting a rear- guard action, valiant perhaps but unlikely to reverse the tide. The ethic of self- gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life. The point is neither to deplore nor to celebrate this fact, but simply to acknowledge it.
Others have described, dissected, and typically bemoaned the cultural—and even moral—implications of this development.1 Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with "more" has affected U.S. relations with rest of the world. Yet the foreign policy implications of our present- day penchant for consumption and self- indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound de pen den cy. The United States may still remain the mightiest power the world has ever seen, but the fact is that Americans are no longer masters of their own fate.
The ethic of self- gratification threatens the well- being of the United States. It does so not because Americans have lost touch with some mythical Puritan habits of hard work and self- abnegation, but because it saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill- equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means available to satisfy them. Americans of an earlier generation worried about bomber and missile gaps, both of which turned out to be fictitious. The present- day gap between requirements and the means available to satisfy those requirements is neither contrived nor imaginary. It is real and growing. This gap defines the crisis of American profligacy.
Power and Abundance
Placed in historical perspective, the triumph of this ethic of self- gratification hardly qualifies as a surprise. The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anyone—or anything—standing in the way of doing so have long been central to the American character. Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, astute observer of the young Republic, noted the "feverish ardor" of its citizens to accumulate. Yet, even as the typical American "clutches at everything," the Frenchman wrote, "he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications." However munificent his possessions, the American hungered for more, an obsession that filled him with "anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation."2
Even in de Tocqueville’s day, satisfying such yearnings as well as easing the anxieties and fears they evoked had important policy implications. To quench their ardor, Americans looked abroad, seeking to extend the reach of U.S. power. The pursuit of "fresh gratifications" expressed itself collectively in an urge to expand, territorially and commercially. This expansionist project was already well begun when de Tocqueville’s famed Democracy in America appeared, most notably through Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana territory in 1803 and through ongoing efforts to remove (or simply eliminate) Native Americans, an undertaking that continued throughout the nineteenth century.
Preferring to remember their collective story somewhat differently, Americans look to politicians to sanitize their past. When, in his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush identified the promulgation of freedom as "the mission that created our nation," neoconservative hearts certainly beat a little faster, as they undoubtedly did when he went on to declare that America’s "great liberating tradition" now required the United States to devote itself to "ending tyranny in our world." Yet Bush was simply putting his own gloss on a time- honored conviction ascribing to the United States a uniqueness of character and purpose. From its founding, America has expressed through its behavior and its evolution a providential purpose. Paying homage to, and therefore renewing, this tradition of American exceptionalism has long been one of the presidency’s primary extra constitutional obligations.
Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a "liberating tradition" is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a "tradition of artistic excellence." The movie business is just that—a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while a studio produces a .lm of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.
Something of the same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hardheaded lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to ensure that people like themselves enjoyed unencumbered access to the Jeffersonian trinity.
In the years that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during the course of America’s transformation from a small power to a great one did the United States exert itself to liberate others—absent an overriding perception that the nation had large security or economic interests at stake.
From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world’s unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did, for instance, produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861–65 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage at best in an immense oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941–45, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.
Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.
If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. "Of course," declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self- evident to the obtuse, "our whole national history has been one of expansion." TR spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and extend their commercial reach abroad.
How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full- scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned solemn agreements that had outlived their usefulness.
As the methods employed varied, so too did the rationales offered to justify action. We touted our status as God’s new Chosen People, erecting a "city upon a hill" destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance or responded to the urgings of our "manifest destiny." We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ or to "uplift little brown brother." With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to "show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty."3 Critics who derided these claims as bunkum—the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after the imperial adventures of 1898,Senator Robert La Follette amid "the war to end all wars"— scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, American exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) only gained greater currency.
When it came to action rather than talk, even the policy makers viewed as most idealistic remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power. The record of U.S. foreign relations from the earliest colonial encounters with Native Americans to the end of the Cold War is neither uniquely high- minded nor uniquely hypocritical and exploitive. In this sense, the interpretations of America’s past offered by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden fall equally wide of the mark. As a rising power, the United States adhered to the iron laws of international politics, which allow little space for altruism. If the tale of American expansion contains a moral theme at all, that theme is necessarily one of ambiguity.
To be sure, the ascent of the United States did not occur without missteps: opéra bouffe incursions into Canada; William McKinley’s ill- advised annexation of the Philippines; complicity in China’s "century of humiliation"; disastrous post–World War I economic policies that paved the way for the Great Depression; Harry Truman’s decision in 1950 to send U.S. forces north of Korea’s Thirty- eighth Parallel; among others. Most of these blunders and bonehead moves Americans have long since shrugged off. Some, like Vietnam, we find impossible to forget even as we persistently disregard their implications.
However embarrassing, these missteps pale in significance when compared to the masterstrokes of American presidential statecraft. In purchasing Louisiana from the French, Thomas Jefferson may have overstepped the bounds of his authority and in seizing California from Mexico, James Polk may have perpetrated a war of conquest, but their actions ensured that the United States would one day become a great power. To secure the isthmus of Panama, Theodore Roosevelt orchestrated an outrageous swindle. The canal he built there affirmed America’s hemispheric dominion. In collaborating with Joseph Stalin, FDR made common cause with an indisputably evil figure. Yet this pact with the devil destroyed the murderous Hitler while vaulting the United States to a position of unquestioned global economic supremacy. A similar collaboration—forged by Richard Nixon with the murderous Mao Zedong—helped bring down the Soviet empire, thereby elevating the United States to the self- proclaimed status of "sole superpower."
The achievements of these preeminent American statesmen derived not from their common devotion to a liberating tradition but from boldness unburdened by excessive scruples. Notwithstanding the high- sounding pronouncements that routinely emanate from the White House and the State Department, the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy at its most successful has not been idealism, but pragmatism, frequently laced with pragmatism’s first cousin, opportunism.
What self- congratulatory textbooks once referred to as America’s "rise to power" did not unfold according to some preconceived strategy for global preeminence. There was never a secret blueprint or master plan. A keen eye for the main chance, rather than fixed principles, guided policy. If the means employed were not always pretty, the results achieved were often stunning and paid enormous dividends for the American people.
Expansion made the United States the "land of opportunity." From expansion came abundance. Out of abundance came substantive freedom. Documents drafted in Philadelphia promised liberty. Making good on those promises required a political economy that facilitated the creation of wealth on an enormous scale.
Writing over a century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. "Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a .t people," he wrote, made American democracy possible.4 A half century later, the historian David Potter discovered a similar symbiosis between affluence and liberty. "A politics
of abundance," he claimed, had created the American way of life, "a politics which smiled both on those who valued abundance as a means to safeguard freedom and those who valued freedom as an aid in securing abundance."5 William Apple man Williams, another historian, found an even tighter correlation. For Americans, he observed, "abundance was freedom and freedom was abundance."6
In short, expansion fostered prosperity, which in turn created the environment within which Americans pursued their dreams of freedom even as they argued with one another about just who deserved to share in that dream. The promise—and reality—of ever-increasing material abundance kept that argument within bounds. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, Americans came to count on an ever-larger economic pie to anesthetize the unruly and ameliorate tensions related to class, race, religion, and ethnicity. Money became the preferred lubricant for keeping social and political friction within tolerable limits. Americans, Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, "seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms," certain that more is better.7
This reciprocal relationship between ex...