It has often been observed that one cannot understand the modern world without understanding the First World War and all that it dismantled and introduced. Among other things, it ushered in what Walter Lippmann and others dubbed “The American Century”, but tragically, with a lot of help from an intellectual class that failed us miserably, it also introduced totalitarianisms of the like never before seen. As the last century came to a close, it became clear that, finally, the success of pluralism and liberalism (classically understood) means that there are limits to sovereignty, limits to what politicians and governments can do within their own borders to their own people. Much of the statism of the 20th century was dictated and justified by war and depression, but with the fall of Soviet Communism and the Berlin Wall, this collectivism was discredited once and for all. We’re now struggling to define the new paradigm of governance and the debate reaches into every area of public policy. “One size fits all”, top down, hierarchical governance is on the way out. Individual empowerment and responsibility are the waves of this century for health care, education, social security, the environment, and a host of functions formerly the exclusive purview of the state—it’s a matter of time. The question is, will our habits of personal governance accommodate the new paradigm?
In his new book, Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe writes that The Great Relearning will be the theme of 21st century America. After reversing most of the pipe dreams of the intellectuals of the previous century that involved the sweeping away of the old social and moral norms, he believes that the relearning will include a hangover from the arrogance and brass of the previous century. Let’s hope that this relearning also brings with it a restoration of personal virtue and self-governance, as well as some well-deserved humility from our intellectual class.