Codevilla, Angelo. The Character of Nations. New York: Basic Books, [1997] 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02800-9.
As George Will famously observed, “statecraft is soulcraft”. This book, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present day, and from cultures all around the world, explores how the character, culture, and morals of a people shape the political institutions they create and how, in turn, those institutions cause the character of those living under them to evolve over time. This feedback loop provides important insights into the rise and fall of nations and empires, and is acutely important in an age where the all-encompassing administrative state appears triumphant in developed nations at the very time it reduces its citizens to subservient, ovine subjects who seek advancement not through productive work but by seeking favours from those in power, which in turn imperils the wealth creation upon which the state preys.

This has, of course, been the state of affairs in the vast majority of human societies over the long span of human history but, as the author notes, for most of that history the intrusiveness of authority upon the autonomy of the individual was limited by constraints on transportation, communication, and organisation, so the scope of effective control of even the most despotic ruler rarely extended far beyond the seat of power. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned whether self-government of any form could function on a scale beyond that of a city-state: there were no historical precedents for such a polity enduring beyond a generation or two. Thomas Jefferson and others who believed such a government could be established and survive in America based their optimism on the character of the American people: their independence, self-reliance, morality grounded in deep religious convictions, strong families, and willingness to take up arms to defend their liberty would guide them in building a government which would reflect and promote those foundations.

Indeed, for a century and a half, despite a disastrous Civil War and innumerable challenges and crises, the character of the U.S. continued to embody that present at the founding, and millions of immigrants from cultures fundamentally different from those of the founders were readily assimilated into an ever-evolving culture which nonetheless preserved its essential character. For much of American history, people in the U.S. were citizens in the classic sense of the word: participants in self-government, mostly at a local level, and in turn accepting the governance of their fellow citizens; living lives centred around family, faith, and work, with public affairs rarely intruding directly into their lives, yet willing to come to the defence of the nation with their very lives when it was threatened.

How quaint that all seems today. Statecraft is soulcraft, and the author illustrates with numerous examples spanning millennia how even the best-intentioned changes in the relationship of the individual to the state can, over a generation or two, fundamentally and often irreversibly alter the relationship between government and the governed, transforming the character of the nation—the nature of its population, into something very different which will, in turn, summon forth a different kind of government. To be specific, and to cite the case most common in the the last century, there is a pernicious positive feedback loop which is set into motion by the enactment of even the most apparently benign social welfare programs. Each program creates a dependent client class, whose political goals naturally become to increase their benefits at the expense of the productive classes taxed to fund them. The dependent classes become reliable voting blocs for politicians who support the programs that benefit them, which motivates those politicians to expand benefits and thus grow the dependent classes. Eventually, indeed almost inevitably, the society moves toward a tipping point where net taxpayers are outvoted by tax eaters, after which the business of the society is no longer creation of wealth but rather a zero sum competition for the proceeds of redistribution by the state.

Note that the client classes in a mature redistributive state go far beyond the “poor, weak, and infirm” the politicians who promote such programs purport to champion. They include defence contractors, financial institutions dependent upon government loan guarantees and bailouts, nationalised companies, subsidised industries and commodity prices, public employee unions, well-connected lobbying and law firms, and the swarm of parasites that darken the sky above any legislature which expends the public patrimony at its sole discretion, and of course the relatives and supporters of the politicians and bureaucrats dispensing favours from the public purse.

The author distinguishes “the nation” (the people who live in a country), “the regime” (its governing institutions), and “the establishment” (the ruling class, including politicians but also media, academia, and opinion makers). When these three bodies are largely aligned, the character of the nation will be reflected in its institutions and those institutions will reinforce that character. In many circumstances, for example despotic societies, there has never been an alignment and this has often been considered the natural order of things: rulers and ruled. It is the rarest of exceptions when this triple alignment occurs, and the sad lesson of history is that even when it does, it is likely to be a transient phenomenon: we are doomed!

This is, indeed, a deeply pessimistic view of the political landscape, perhaps better read on the beach in mid-summer than by the abbreviated and wan daylight of a northern hemisphere winter solstice. The author examines in detail how seventy years of communist rule transformed the character of the Soviet population in such a manner that the emergence of the authoritarian Russian gangster state was a near-inevitable consequence. Perhaps had double-domed “defence intellectuals” read this book when it was originally published in 1997 (the present edition is revised and updated based upon subsequent events), ill-conceived attempts at “nation building” might have been avoided and many lives and vast treasure not squandered in such futile endeavours.

December 2009 Permalink