At a recent library sale my wife happened to pick up a book entitled, Pioneer Life in Western Pennsylvania. It was published in 1940 and was part of a series written in conjunction with the Western Pennsylvania Historic Survey. My wife knows me well as I have always had a thing for old books; the poetry of the prose; the simple style of illustration; the colorful political incorrectness, all make them a pleasure to read. I have only gotten about a third of the way through this book, but I am already seeing some interesting touch points between the lives of the pioneers and the idealized image of early America that many in the Tea Party movement hold dear.
What the Pioneers Believed in
Americans have inherited from these pioneer men and women, who had been trained in the hard school of experience to win the rights of”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” an unusual sense of what is just in lawmaking. It was to establish these rights more firmly that pioneers struggled in the wilderness; they wanted personal liberty and economic freedom, the right to a full life. In pursuit of happiness these men and women sought the unsettled lands of the western country. And they defended their enterprise sturdily, whether they were threatened by poor living, Indians, illness and hunger, or by unjust officials and intruders.
This ideal sounds a lot like the rhetoric coming from many on the right today. Economic freedom, liberty, the space to make your own life- these are all part of the spirit that animates us. However, as I read through this time-capsule of a book I am struck by how much our forefathers suffered for the sake of their liberty. Near starvation, premature death, crippling poverty, and a work week that simply never ended. And they did this all without any of the safety net that our modern government provides. No medicare, no social security, no unemployment, no low interest home loans.
Could we, could I, approximate this lifestyle today? While we all speak of wanting government out of our lives- do we really? I’m so spoiled today I get upset when my town considers suspending trash pick up service, and yet I still call myself a conservative.
I think my answer would be: We may not have a choice. Before I explain, we need to go back in time a bit, peel back the layers of the nanny state to a time when people truly had liberty and truly had risk. Back to a time when a wrong economic or employment decision could lead to true hardship and even death.
Political Changes of The 20th Century
One has to look to pre-Great Depression America to find this type of life. Much of what we consider today to be the nanny state has its genesis in the policies of the early 20th century Progressives. The early 20th century was a time of progressivism, communism and fascism. As the United States entered World War I, President Wilson used it as an excuse to arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighborhood informers. He and others believed that the increase in state power was the same as the evolutionary process.
FDR softened, but continued the trend using The Great Depression to revive the idea of war socialism. This ideal continued through the 20th century: the radicalization of the 1960’s, Johnson’s “Great Society,” Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village,” and Obama’s business-like desire to control everything. This focus on the government as the ultimate answer to happiness, while well intentioned, has lead to debts that are spiraling out of control. We are currently watching Greece fall; Spain and Portugal will most likely be next. And as a video I posted just a couple days ago suggests, the U.S. is not far behind.
Western Civilization Today
Citizens of the Western world, and the U.S. in particular, are like spoiled children. Mom and Dad have been covering for us for the better part of a century, and we of course like it. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad can’t support us indefinitely and we are quickly emptying their reserves. We are metaphorically the 40-year-old still living in our parent’s basement and it is time to get out. The separation is going to be painful.What happens if we don’t leave the protective wing of the nanny state? Well, eventually it will run out of money. Social Security will be here one day and gone the next. Everyone will have government provided health care and then they won’t. The shock will be brutal. It would be much better if we weened ourselves off slowly, starting today. Grandfather in people who have always counted on the government to provide, but tell those coming up, clearly and honestly that we can not afford to do this forever. And while we may not need to resort to our pioneering forefathers, they do have some valuable lessons to teach.
- Life is hard, and not everyone wins.
- Hard work gives you a chance at a good life, not a guarantee.
- Freedom from risk, real risk, is servitude. And while it is security; it is certainly not liberty.