Consider just one example of how flagrantly the duty of honesty has been violated. In what literature has called “the noble lie”, Americans have been willfully misled about not just the unsustainability but also the very nature of the Social Security and Medicare systems. “There’s plenty of money in the trust funds.” “You’re just getting back what you put in.” These are not matters of opinion or philosophy, they are arithmetic falsehoods. Repeating them constitutes willful misrepresentation of the sort that would send a leader of a public company to jail. But, more dispiriting, it assumes an impregnable incapacity of Americans to see through the fraud and figure out the math for themselves – or it assumes they have a capacity to grasp it but an incapacity to put their own interests ahead of the nation’s, and their own children’s.
The worst facet of the “noble lie” is the insistence that safety-net programs must forever cover every American, even the richest billionaire, because otherwise the necessary political support will disappear. Stop and think how cynical this view is, and how contemptuous of our fellow Americans. The idea that, if there’s “nothing in it for them”, Americans will abandon revered programs that protect their neighbors against destitution is an unwarranted insult to the most provably generous population on the planet.
Mitch Daniels is the governor of Indiana and author of the forthcoming book “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans”.
True leadership incorporates a degree of selflessness. But in this stunningly affluent society – even post-recession, the poorest 5 percent of Americans are wealthier than two-thirds of the world’s population – selfless leadership will be less about accepting financial sacrifice and more about accepting psychic sacrifice. It will be require our political leaders to value results and action over philosophical purity and power.
Leadership typically requires courage. But in our debt situation, really, how much and of what kind? This isn’t Philadelphia in 1776 or London in 1940. No one is risking life, liberty or sacred honor, let alone all three. The worst that could happen is one loses an election.
It was said of Churchill that, by so relentlessly viewing his fellow Englishmen as heroic, “he transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour.” If our leaders wish to draw out the best in us, they will have to start by assuming the best about us.
Expressing and acting on this faith is, of course, an act of faith in itself. Maybe today’s Americans really will reject even trivial “sacrifice” and refuse to authorize the necessary changes to keep us from drifting over our Niagara Falls of debt. If so, we might as well find out now. If it turns out the cynics were right after all, then school’s out on our self-governance anyway.
But much more likely is that, not for the first time, Americans will surprise on the positive side of the ledger. Warren Buffett has said that it never makes sense to bet against America. I would concur, and add “or the American people.”