(‘76 Contributor) The impermanence of political systems and political glory has never been better portrayed than in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias.” It depicts a toppled, broken statue in the desert, on whose base some long-forgotten tyrant had inscribed his title as “king of kings” and boasted: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
What the poet dramatized in 14 ironic lines, the writer of Ecclesiastes had earlier captured in a single word: vanity. Fidelity in our trust and firmness in our stewardship are never in vain, however. Keeping faith is its own reward and breaking faith its own dishonor, regardless of the outcome.
I believe this is no less true in our civic lives as Americans than in our personal lives as individuals – and if you agree, you will enjoy as much as I did a small book from a couple of years ago called Responsibility Reborn: A Citizen’s Guide to the Next American Century. Its author is a freedom fighter and a friend of mine of some 25 years — John K. Andrews, the founder of the Independence Institute, a former Colorado state senator, and presently the director of the Centennial Institute on the campus of Colorado Christian University in Denver.
Will the United States of America last forever? Of course not. No one who has studied history and human nature could think otherwise. But is our constitutional republic with its core of character and its relatively free, wondrously productive economy worth preserving and protecting, reforming and renewing for as long we possibly can, in order that “the blessings of liberty” may be secured to our posterity for a few generations more, God willing? Of course again. Indeed so.
This daunting task of keeping the republic (in Benjamin Franklin’s phrase), and combating the cultural entropy that brought down Ozymandias and undid mighty empires from Rome to the present day, is what Andrews explores in Responsibility Reborn.
His book resonated with me because of its congruence with a lot of thinking I have done about the importance of individual character and civic virtue in sustaining a free society. Much of it squares with my longtime concern that the very forces which led to the fall of ancient Rome are at work in America now. The erosion of character led to the rise of the Roman welfare/warfare state (and its eventual collapse) and we ignore that lesson at our peril.
Andrews cites the warnings of historians that the life span of great nations tends to be about 200 to 250 years, which he says grimly will put the United States as we approach our 237th birthday “right in the kill zone, unless you and I act to change things.” He frames the book around a look backward to the U. S. bicentennial in 1976, when elite opinion was already saying the country’s best days were behind us, and a look ahead to our next centennial in 2076 when John’s grandson Ian would be a grandfather himself.
The simple but compelling argument of Responsibility Reborn is that personal responsibility, “doing the right thing by choice,” is the one factor most decisive in America’s success story for centuries past, America’s comeback from being written off in the 1970s, and America’s prospects for reaching another centennial against the odds, freer and more prosperous, stronger and more vital than ever at age 300.
It’s a truism that personal responsibility is the flip side of individual liberty. They are inseparable, and the practice of each is indispensable to the enjoyment of the other, not only in the life of any man or woman but also in our life together as social beings. But think about how the freedom side of the coin, often perverted as entitlement or ease, dominates today’s political discourse and cultural climate.
Responsibility and self-discipline are too often disparaged these days, replaced by claims on others and excuses for one’s own poor judgments. John Andrews identifies what he calls “the paradox of success,” whereby the qualities of rigor, dedication, and deferred gratification that make achievement possible are weakened if that achievement is taken for granted or if we lose our character in the process.
In another author’s hands this message, worthy as it is, could blur into platitudes and preachments on the personal level or grand theorizing on the historical and political level. Andrews never lets this happen because he offers, in the middle section of the book, an unsparing “responsibility report card” on pivotal episodes in his own life, from the public protest resignation he made as a Nixon speechwriter during Watergate to the painful divorce from Donna, his college sweetheart, that he blames himself for. (They later remarried and remain so today.)
Responsibility Reborn derives its title from Andrews’ contention that America’s recovery of self-confidence, purpose, and constitutional conscience (imperfect as the latter was and remains) from 1980 onward – after the worsening statism from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter and the shattered morale of the ‘70s – resulted not so much from a resurgent political conservatism as from a broader-based and in some ways bipartisan cultural realization that responsibility is the price of freedom after all. (Personally, though I’m optimistic for the long run, I wonder if the recovery Andrews speaks of hasn’t been nipped in the bud.)
Writing his book soon after Barack Obama swept into office with a compliant Democratic Congress and set about his project of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” Andrews ruefully admitted the lessons he hoped we had learned for good a generation ago have already faded and must be learned anew if there is to be a next American century.
How slow that process will necessarily be, and how deeply moral – not merely political – it must be to mean anything, was plain to many of us long before the 2012 election. Andrews foresaw as much by setting forth, in his concluding chapter on what must be done, a responsibility agenda measured in decades. He argues for civil society solutions, for a personal commitment (not a government-mandated one) to strengthening families and culture through such underappreciated things as character, learning, self-improvement and private charity.
I look around America these days and I see mounting wreckage from the abandonment of policies and practices rooted in the verities of personal character, responsibility in particular. Our government spends the next generation’s earnings for present graft and gratifications. Its welfare/warfare state tramples on cherished liberties as it extends its reach into not just every corner of the lives of Americans but also into the lives of millions of others in dozens of countries. John may not agree with me on everything (I admit to being a radical noninterventionist at home and abroad), but there is no doubt in my mind that the world would be an infinitely better place if his advice were heeded.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. This article first appeared on the FEE website, Oct. 20, 2012.