Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Four Greatest Mistakes of America's Twentieth Century

How did we come to live in a world where the United States of America, which should have been the millenial beacon of individual liberty to the world, has, instead, become a vicious police state at the hub of a global military empire? I believe the causes can be traced, mostly,* to a few simple but fundamental mistakes strewn across the twentieth century. Understand what was, or went, wrong with the American people's collective psyche in making these mistakes, and you will understand most of what there is to understand of the cosmic "why" of how such a travesty could have come to be.
#0: Allowing Military Conscription
A brief treatment here, as this mistake was actually made back in the nineteenth century. (Hence, the number "0.") However, as a historical accident, it actually did little damage to American society until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it lay there all the time between the Civil War and the turn of the century, like the proverbial "ticking time bomb," finally unleashing its full destructive fury on both America and the wider world in the 1960s and 70s. Had mid-nineteenth century Americans and American jurists had the good sense to emulate their early nineteenth century counterparts, when Daniel Webster's eloquent but calm notation that the Constitution contained to authority for conscription was enough to turn the Congress aside from the proposal, tendered at the time, to use such a method to build an army to fight the War of 1812, it is possible that the course of twentieth century would have been very substantially different, and much for the better. But they didn't, and that figured considerably in the carnage, and the destruction of the Constitution, which marked the second half of the twentieth century. But on to the actual twentieth century...
#1 The Income Tax (1916)
This mistake has two different, but related, political parts. First, it is the economic basis for the insane and unlimited expansion of the size and power of the federal government. Without it, it would never have been possible for the federal government to grow anywhere as near as large as it did in the remainder of the twentieth century. The people who engineered its creation knew this full well, and did it for the explicit purpose of enabling just such an expansion of size--and power. In the Sixteenth Amendment,** we see a theme which will be replicated over and over again as the mistakes of the twentieth century accumulated: The spare but trenchant practical wisdom of the Founding Fathers rejected by a large segment of the population in favor of a "practical" argument for some sort of short-term (and short-sighted) gain.
That "gain," of course, was the unabashedly covetous wish of many to bleed money from "the rich" in the hope that this would, somehow, lead to a more equitably structured society. That it did no such thing is now unarguable, but for some reason this never seems to come up in the few discussions that actually occur about whether this was really a wise change to make or not. But, as with most bad "devil's bargains," the negative consequences came to pass (and rather quickly!), while the promised benefits (equity of some sort) never did.
Those negative results can be broken down into two sub-categories, which can be labeled as "mission creep," and "bracket creep." Taking them in reverse order: While the income tax was originally sold to the American public as a "small" tax on "the rich," it only took a couple of decades (not much time, when you think about it) before a huge percentage of the population was required to file income tax "returns," and was paying a significant percentage of their incomes to the federal government. By the end of the century, 99% of the population had been added to this category. As of 2014, one had to have an annual income of less than $3,900 in order not to be required to file a federal income tax return. Does anyone really believe that anyone could survive in modern America on an annual income of $3,900? That's the "bracket creep." So much for "taxing the rich."
Then there's the "mission creep." Flush with the truly unprecedented amount of money that flowed into the federal treasury from the new income tax, the federal government quickly embarked on an expansion of the qualitative nature of its powers and activities unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Again, this was envisioned in advance by its advocates, and profoundly contrary to what the Founding Fathers had intended. The Founding Fathers tried deliberately to keep the federal government on a short fiscal leash for the explicit purpose of severely limited the sorts of activities in which that government could engage. This, too, would not see its real fruition until the second half of the century, but the seeds were well planted in the century's second decade.
Even casting aside all of that (a dubious plan at best), there remains the other horrid consequence of the income tax: the routine collection of detailed information about the affairs of virtually every American by the federal government. It is impossible to overstate the mischief, and the evil, which has proceeded (predictably) from this.
Through the single instrumentality of the income tax, the American people were converted from a truly free people, who could move about, deal with one another, build their personal fortunes and pursue their personal dreams in safety and privacy, into a captive population of government serfs, continually forced to inform on themselves to their own oppressors, and to justify the actions and their possessions to those same oppressors, as a continuing condition of being left alone (for the time being).
#2: Failing to Repeal Alcohol Prohibition (1932)
Yes, you read that right: failing to repeal. One could reasonably argue that the real mistake was enacting prohibition in the first place, but that was actually a more forgivable error than what happened when it was "repealed."  It only took the American public a bit over one decade to realize that alcohol prohibition had been, well, a mistake, and to do something definitive about it. But, unfortunately, they did not really repeal it. Instead, weary from a decade of being forcibly "dried," they settled for merely replacing blanket, nationwide prohibition with a crazy quilt of state-by-state regulatory schemes. Even though most people couldn't see it at the time, this was a political mistake of massive proportions, a classic case of putting short-term gain ahead of real long-term interests. The tragic result was that, even though the liquor started flowing again in the 30s (in most places), the states were explicitly empowered by the 21st Amendment to make up whatever statutory and regulatory schemes they liked regarding alcohol--something which had never before happened in America. And some states took the opportunity up with great enthusiasm. Even the states which didn't enact blanket prohibition of their own both allowed smaller jurisdictions to do so if they wished (and quite a few died), and began imposing hefty taxes on every phase of alcohol production, distribution, and consumption. Plus, of course, the federal government continued to collect its own very considerable taxes.
And, as if that weren't enough, the states also launched on a course, which continues to this day, of creating an ever expanding and ever more complicated and Byzantine web of regulations about alcohol. The sad fact is that a much larger percentage of our population is today being harassed, persecuted, prosecuted, fined and imprisoned due to "charges" related to alcohol than was true one hundred years ago, before national prohibition was instituted. Prohibition may have been watered down (pun intended), but it wasn't repealed. And from that massive mistake has proceeded a huge increase of the arbitrary power of government over the lives of private individuals at all levels, from the federal right down to the local. 
#3: Failing to demand demobilization after WWII (1945)
At various times, I have considered this the foremost mistake of the century. Maybe yes; maybe no. But a BIG mistake in any case.
During WWII, the federal government launched a whole suite of secret actions aimed at countering the (equally) secretive actions of the Japanese and German governments whose clear and real purpose was to wage war against us. It made sense at the time, or at least it seemed to. But when the war ended, the American people should have demanded immediate and total demobilization from the war-waging status and activities of their government. In particular, they should have demanded the total abolition of all the secret agencies--starting but not ending with the OSS, which quickly became the CIA--which had been cobbled together to fight the enemies' espionage and conduct espionage of our own against them. But they didn't. When those agencies continued to exist, they quickly realized that their very secrecy would enable them to expand their powers and the scope of their operations virtually without limit. And that's exactly what they did. The sad truth is that, perhaps as early as 1950, with the Cold War well underway and the fear of Soviet expansion firmly drummed into the consciousness of most Americans, it may already have been too late to stop these people from completely taking over the federal government.
While most Americans, quite understandably, simply enjoyed the post-war prosperity, the spooks, spies, and control freaks were working diligently, behind the scenes and totally out of view of the public, to construct an entire secret government, over which the processes of democracy would never again have any control. Bottom line: They succeeded. Today, the secret government is the government.
#4: Failing to repeal cannabis prohibition (ca. 1975)
It could, of course, be argued that this is only a reprise of #2, but, while the underlying political issue is actually the same, it is also true that that the cultural/political dynamics of it worked out quite differently, so it deserves to be listed as a separate mistake.
Indeed, a great deal more than the potential end of cannabis prohibition was on the table in the early 70s. This was when the whole "hippie" counterculture movement stood on the threshold of de-militarizing American society, with its opposition to the Vietnam War and the conscription which fed it (see #0), and accomplishing the actual completion of the civil rights movement of the late 50s and the 60s. But again, they simply didn't. Personally, I feel most responsible for this one, because, simply, I was there. What happened? Quite simply, we quit too soon. After most of a decade (remember, this struggle actually went back to the early 60s) of waging cultural war against the Establishment, we, unaccustomed to our new role as political activists and to the whole landscape of political activism, made a crucial mistake. We came to believe that there was such a thing as "momentum," and that that momentum would continue to advance our cause if we relaxed a bit, went back to living our normal lives, and stopped actively pressuring our enemies. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Within just a few years, all the nice-sounding reductions of penalties which we had achieved in various cities, counties and states had been wiped out. Indeed, by about 1980, when the conservative backlash put Ronald Reagan in the White House, the legal landscape for cannabis prohibition (and the massively multi-faceted prohibition of other things engineered by the Controlled Substances Act) was actually much worse than it had been in 1960, when the opposition movement had first surfaced. We lost because we failed to understand the massive cultural staying power of bad ideas. America is still paying the political and cultural price of that loss today.
Indeed, America is still paying the political and cultural price of all of the mistakes listed above today. Taken together, those mistakes, I believe, are the core of how we got to the horrible state in which we are today.
I know, of course, what the stock response of defenders of the status quo to all of this is: It's "just my opinion." And, of course, my personal preference for being free to direct and manage my own life--and you yours--is "just my opinion." You're free to prefer control by someone else if you like. But--and this is a very important "but"--the historical facts I have cited above are most definitely not a matter of  opinion. They are facts. Interpret them how you will.

*As with all things, there are many more influences on our current condition than what I detail here. History is a complex web of interlocking causes and effects. All the same, what's laid out here can reasonably be said to constitute the main body of the causes which led us to where we are now. Those with insight into what other events or tendencies contributed to our present problems are quite welcome to respond and contribute.

**In addition to the horrible effects of the income tax, there has long been real uncertainty over whether or not the Sixteenth Amendment was really legally adopted. While no incontrovertible proof exists, it would be perfectly consistent with the known actions of the financial manipulators who foisted the income tax off on the American people if the apparent adoption of this amendment turned out to be one of their first totally illegal actions.

Long life and many peaks!