An old friend came to visit this weekend. After dinner and probably way too much wine – including a remarkable 1997 Cardinale cabernet blend, I should add – we got into a heated debate about politics, the media and all that stuff.

My friend declared that the mainstream media is totally corrupt, the government is completely f—-d up, America is heading for an epic fall of Roman Empire proportions and he’s pretty much had it with the place. Never mind that he seemed perfectly happy living in South Korea, which, in my experience, is far more corrupt than the U.S.

Anyhow, while some of my friend’s views may very well resonate, the problem isn’t so much the conclusion he reached but how he reached it. You see, the guy has had a bit too much time on his hands in recent years, and spent way too much of it — in my view — steeped in conspiracy theories promulgated by certain websites that are into that sort of thing.

Interestingly, my friend isn’t aware of terms like click-bate, fake news and groupthink. That aside, the conspiracy theorists see everything wrong with this nation as a top-down problem brought about by powerful forces that control the media, big business and pretty much every branch and agency of government.

What makes otherwise intelligent people go down that rat hole is beyond me, but the result is nevertheless an abdication of responsibility. And I can tell you with great certainty that not a tweet or a post of that shadow government nonsense is even remotely true, at least not to the extent that it’s the cause of our situation.

Nobody did this to us, folks. We did this to ourselves.

You see, I’ve seen once-great companies unravel when they get too bureaucratic and complacent and take their eye off the ball. That happens to nations too. Left to their own devices, bureaucracies will always keep spending and growing themselves into oblivion. Like a cancer, they end up destroying the body and themselves in the process.

When government gets too big and exerts too much power over its constituents, even free-market systems are ultimately corrupted as corporations and special interest groups attempt to influence lawmakers and regulators. That creates a dysfunctional crony alliance that favors the wealthy and powerful elite at the expense of the masses.

While that may sound remarkably like a top-down conspiracy, it’s not. It’s just what happens when bureaucracy is left more or less unchecked. Which brings us to the question of what has failed in a federal government that’s supposed to have checks and balances to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

It’s simple, really. We vote the wrong people into office. Rather than accept that simple fact and the awesome responsibility it places on each of us, many, if not most, of us choose to throw tantrums about how voting doesn’t matter, the whole system is corrupt and the big bad boogeymen are destroying our great nation.

In terms of a few popular phrases, rather than drain the swamp, we choose to throw the baby out with the bathwater, wash our hands of the whole mess, and binge on Game of Thrones, fantasy football, social media and what have you. That disengagement from what matters and lack of personal accountability accelerates the downward spiral.

I often quote one of the most powerful statements I’ve heard in a long lifetime (in bold italics below), but this is the context from which it came, an interview with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Women’s Own magazine, c. 1987:

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Here’s the thing. It’s also true that, when people believe government is the problem, they often see themselves as victims of powerful forces. In reality, as Thatcher says, “no government can do anything except through the people.” We the people are responsible for the government we elect and the laws and rules it enacts on our behalf. It’s our obligation — not society’s obligation, but the obligation of “individual mean and women.” That means you and me.

The nation is only doomed if we continue to abdicate responsibility, succumb to groupthink and listen to silly conspiracy theories. As with all organizations created by man, the nation is only doomed if individual men and women let it happen. That’s mostly true of democratic governments and free-market economies where the power really does rest with the people. Ironically, abdication of personal responsibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Image credit Gerry Lauzon via Flickr. 

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  • Tom

    Yes, I too am guilty of washing my hands of the whole mess and not voting last time.

    Reform must come from the grass roots – stable families that teach kids personal responsibility and delayed gratification through fiscal restraint. When the people live within their means, they will demand it of the government.

    • Steve Tobak

      Consider the reverse: why should people live within their means when government leaders don’t? It’s up to the leaders to lead on this. That’s why they’re leaders.

  • Brad

    Many succeed in spite of the government (Californians like us are a prime example). Speaking specifically to jobs and success: A friend defined a job as: “A task you want done that you can’t or don’t want to do and you have the means to pay someone to do for you.” By that very definition, the gov’t cannot nor will it ever create a job other than a gov’t job. If people want success, freedom, health, wealth, a pair of neon boxer shorts – go create value, get a job, start a company, help a company, stand for something, choose wisely, take risk, practice restraint, CREATE and above all else…..stop whining and do something about it. After all, we get what we tolerate.

  • James T

    Until we the people demand election campaign reform, we’re in for a world of hurt as the politician at this point in time is always accountable to the money and not the voter

  • BigGameHunter

    I lived and worked in UK during the Thatcher years. She was a change agent up against a seemingly immovable object — a culture immersed, anticipating and dependent on government policy and programs. In our country, there was a time when Wall Street, big business and the media used to quiver when Washington made regulatory noises and poked its nose in free enterprise, free speech, and the American lifestyle. Now this same gang hangs on every syllable uttered and policy introduced by government before interpreting or agenda-izing the course forward. That indicates that government is too heavy-handed, and, yes, we have elected many of the wrong people who can’t manage a checkbook owned by the people who entrusted them to lead and act responsibly. How else could USA be $20 trillion in debt? Entitlements took on new meaning with LBJ and have accelerated to the point where many politicians fear backlash from reining in uncontrolled spending. Many voters are largely self-absorbed, vote with style points, and do not understand the ramifications of bad policies — just because they can’t “feel” them so directly in their daily lives. It wasn’t that long ago that former Ambassador Alan Keyes said we needed to purge Congress and start over using a very fine filter in selecting their replacements. It’s the right idea, but likely the impossible dream until we stop being lemmings, and re-set the rules and agenda ourselves — the very point of the blog. It should be required reading.

  • Anurodh Sharma

    Well said Steve, its he responsibility of each of us to keep our house in order instead of blaming the Country or the society or the Government !!!