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A Nation of Nihilists

Americans are losing hope that anything can be improved.

By Will Offensicht  |  July 3, 2013

It's taken longer to build the monument to the 9-11 victims than it took to build the original World Trade Center in the first place.  More and more Americans are realizing that it's simply impossible for our government to get anything done any more.

We see this all the time in articles about infrastructure.  For example, the New York Times described a Colorado highway project:

U.S. 36, which opened as a toll road in 1952 at a cost of $6.3 million, was designed with expectations that it would carry 3,000 cars a day by 1980. In fact, nearly 14,000 cars a day were rolling down the highway by 1966, and these days the average is between 80,000 and 124,000.

Those early engineers did a good job - the highway handled more than 40 times the traffic they thought it could.  The cost, of course, was that traffic moved painfully slowly at times.

They're upgrading the highway, but it took a long time to get started.  36 Commuting Solutions, an organization formed to promote upgrading the highway, is 14 years old.  It took more than a decade from the time that enough people got disgusted with the road to join together to push for an upgrade and the time work started.  Even Mr. Obama admitted that there's no such thing as a "shovel ready" project, what with all the planning that's required by law.

The first phase of the upgrade will cost $312 million, and no one wants to talk about the cost of the second phase.

Assuming that there's no budget creep and the first phase really can be done for $312 million, compare that with the $3.6 million the original road cost.

Our handy Internet inflation calculator says that the value of a dollar has gone down by a factor of 8.1 since 1952.  If the highway were built today, it ought to cost a bit over $51 million in today's dollars.

Instead, the first phase alone will cost at least $312 million.  They've bloated the cost by a factor of 6!  The first phase of this upgrade is going to cost six times what the original highway cost, even though the replacement is shorter.

The Times says that the organization which promoted the upgrade has been fighting for 14 years.  That's even longer than it took to build the 9-11 monument.  When the upgrade finally came along, the first phase alone had been gold-plated to cost six times more than the original road - but we'll be truly astounded if it's six times better, which would mean that it could carry 240 times as much traffic as the original design specs.

Is This the New Normal?

Time after time, we read of infrastructure projects which take forever and cost the earth.  It gets discouraging.

We know it doesn't have to be that way.  After a disastrous accident in California that destroyed a major interchange, the governor suspended the paperwork and the engineers put the highways back as rapidly as in former days.

We know it's possible to get the work done effectively, but the bureaucracy won't let us.  They get paid for getting in the way.  The more obstacles they can put up, the more they get paid - and as long as we're willing to tolerate them, they'll happily collect their paychecks and waste more and more of our money.

The Road to Nihilism

What has this to do with nihilism?

Nihilism argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.  Some nihilists state that morality is arbitrary, that knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.

This is a philosophy of despair.  People who're steeped in nihilism feel that there's no point to life, or to striving, or even to working.  Why bother?  Nothing works anyway, and even if it did, what's the point of spending decades beating your head against an irrelevant and uncaring world?

The original nihilists were anti-God humanists who reached the logical conclusion that, if there is no God, there is no genuine meaning to Life, the Universe, and Everything.  In our super-bureaucratised modern world, though, you don't have to be an atheist to be a nihilist: our impenetrable bureaucracy would try the patience of a saint.

Nihilism Versus Americanism

The American Dream, which is sometimes called "Americanism," is about as far from nihilism as it's possible to get.  The American Dream asserted that anyone could prosper through hard work and a bit of luck.  Everybody's earnest contribution made a huge difference to society.

Alexis de Tocqueville published "Democracy in America" in 1833.  He marveled at the way Americans preferred voluntary association to government regulation:

"The inhabitant of the United States has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to it . . . only when he cannot do without it."

He was astounded by the range and variety of non-government organizations Americans created to better their lives:

"Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations . . . but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools."

de Tocqueville had the advantage of understanding the highly-centralized French system of government.  He warned that the American government could become

"an immense tutelary power . . . absolute, detailed, regular . . . cover[ing] [society's] surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way."  [emphasis added]

He predicted that the regulatory state would suffocate innovation and economic growth:

"It rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."  [emphasis added]

The Wisdom of de Tocqueville

De Tocqueville's warning has been ignored.  In 1995, Robert Puttnam wrote Bowling Alone which described the decline of America's voluntary associations.  Instead of bettering society through their own efforts, Americans have turned elsewhere:

"We gradually moved from an era in which people did not want to use government for anything to today when people use government for almost everything."

 Robert Samuelson, Newsweek, Feb 1, 1993 p. 51

In 2012, the Federal Register which lists government regulations had 78,961 pages.  In 1986 it had 44,812 pages.  In 1936 it had just 2,620.  During President Reagen's terms, the number of pages declined by 31%, the only time it's ever gone down.  By some strange coincidence, the economy grew 30% during his time.

Stagnation and Nihilism

36 Commuting Solutions, the group which was formed to help rebuild Highway 36, started out in the grand tradition of American activism.  Due to the choking nature of regulation, however, it took 14 years to get construction started, and it will be many years before traffic flow improves.

What's that going to do to the group members?  Will they volunteer the next time someone suggests a project, or will they stand down?  Regulatory stagnation is killing the spirit of Americanism.

If people feel they can't contribute to the solution, they become disengaged.  Disengagement leads to selfishness - "I don't make a difference, might as well look out for #1!"  The attitude that nothing will get better leads straight to nihilism which leads many to complete selfishness or even to suicide.  If nothing you do makes a difference, why not either grab everything you can or punch out?  Haven't we seen those attitudes working at all levels of our society?

We see welfare recipients riot against budget cuts in Greece, London, Spain.  We see it in anti-corruption riots in Brazil.  We see growing suicide rates all over the industrialized world.

We were confident that the Japanese would fix their tsunami damage, but we were wrong - they haven't recovered.  They've lost so much faith in their government, they've given up so much hope for the future, that although they've cleaned up most of the immediate mess, rebuilding is stalled.

Nihilism and Population

By promoting an attitude of nihilism, the regulatory state persuades people not to have children.  Choosing to give birth is the opposite of self-centered nihilism - raising a child requires immense amounts of unselfish labor, which implies hope for the future.  Killing hope makes people unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to raise kids.

Parents don't want to raise children into slavery.  If you see the government taking so much of your income and liberty that you can barely afford to raise the child, and you see the government trying to take more every year, how much worse will things be for your descendants?  For the first time, Americans believe that their children will be worse off than they were, on pretty persuasive evidence.  If you could barely make it and your children will struggle even worse, why bear children only to watch them suffer?  Add in the natural tendency toward selfishness which comes from feeling that nothing you can do makes a difference, and is it any surprise that births are down?

Some years ago, a farsighted engineer married.  The bride's grandmother asked when she could expect her first great grandchild.

The groom was bitterly opposed to the ever-increasing welfare spending of LBJ's "Great Society."  He believed that once government decides that everyone should be given A and B, what about C?  Once you're started, why not give A, B, and C to more and more people, particularly if that makes them more likely to vote for you?

"Why should I go to the trouble of raising hard-working kids so the government can steal their work and give it to people who don't work?" he asked.

Having been raised in an era when it was thought disgracefully irresponsible to accept welfare, the grandmother didn't know what he was talking about.  Unfortunately, his fears were understated.

Our regulatory state has not only destroyed the American spirit of volunteerism and investment in economic growth, it's pushed up infrastructure costs so much that we can't afford to fix our roads or bridges.  There's nothing more corrosive to Americanism than the growing conviction that nothing can be accomplished and that we have no future.

But that's what the Times is telling us.