THE END IS NEAR AND IT'S GOING TO BE AWESOME
By Kevin Williamson
Broadside Books, $27.99, 240 pages
On one point, Kevin Williamson is almost certainly right: We are headed over the cliff. But halfway through the National Review correspondent's new book, "The End Is Near and It's Going to be Awesome," I began to wonder what the final word of his title is supposed to mean.
Decades ago, stoned hippies and weather-beaten surfers corrupted the word awesome, which now translates roughly into a thousand different shades of enthusiasm. Midlevel managers at prestigious accounting firms can be caught saying things such as "Awesome work on that PowerPoint presentation, Dylan!" — which is as much of a harbinger of our impending doom as anything, if you ask me. But there's an older meaning of the word, too, one that connotes dreadfulness and fear. Not for nothing did the translators of the New International Version of the Bible employ awesome where the King James had used terrible.
One might be forgiven for asking whether this is the meaning Mr. Williamson intends. Midway through his book on America's coming reckoning, readers have learned that the future obligations of federal, state and local governments total something like $150 trillion or $200 trillion, depending on who's counting. That's about twice the global gross domestic product. Thus, the question for entitlement programs such as Social Security, as Mr. Williamson puts it, "is not 'How do we go about paying these benefits?' but 'How do we go about not paying these benefits?'" Regardless of what we collectively choose — to default on our debt, debase our currency or break the entitlement social contract — the result will not be pretty. "It is impossible to predict with any precision what the outcome of this will be, but a long and deep recession — perhaps lasting decades — is a real possibility," he writes.
Even better, as we spiral downward, politicians and bureaucrats will instinctively defend their monopoly on power, killing in the crib private currencies such as bitcoin, new privacy technologies and other democratic (with a lowercase d) innovations that could shift the balance between the individual and the state. "The federal government has been reduced to a thrashing and infantile thing," Mr. Williamson writes, "and the violence implicit in the system has risen to the surface."
To be clear, Mr. Williamson does hold out hope for a brighter future. He foresees technological, communitarian and voluntary solutions to many of today's most pressing problems, and he does a good job of suggesting how some of them might work. Disputes over contracts and patents would be settled in what are essentially private courts, such as the Silicon Valley Arbitration Center. Instead of submitting to a government monopoly on education, parents and students would choose between competing providers specifically tailored to different tasks — for instance, teaching children to read, or teenagers to use network computers. Churches and civic groups would offer health insurance plans to their members, bringing private charity and community ties to bear on the problem of the uninsured.
Wealthy Americans would obviate the need for transfer payments to the elderly by building a massive trust fund to seed retirement accounts for every child. Mr. Williamson calculates that if Americans making more than $100,000 per year pledged 5 percent of their incomes annually, the pool would, after three decades with a reasonable rate of return, grow to $20 trillion.
But he doesn't necessarily argue that such a future is inevitable, or even likely. Nor does he address the suspicions of many of us who see the arguments for a coming conservative heaven, but who still suspect that this handbasket is taking us elsewhere.
Mr. Williamson is an astute observer and a talented stylist, and his book is full of vivid images and sharp phrases. Fans of his work in National Review will find much to enjoy here. However, traditionalists might blanch when he lets loose his inner libertarian. ("Politics is violence." Government "is structurally indistinguishable from organized crime." The taxpayer is "the man who writes a check with a gun to his head.") Pessimists and misanthropes, though, will probably enjoy the ride, will walk away gloomier than ever, convinced of the drop ahead, but doubtful of a soft landing.
In his conclusion, Mr. Williamson points out that humanity's great leaps — the Industrial Revolution, for instance — were never foreordained, no matter how much the history books make it seem that way: "We talk about technological progress as though Moore's law were an immutable law of thermodynamics, as though technological development just happened, a force of nature like a flood or a tadpole becoming a frog."
The same goes for governments. No rule requires successive leaders to be more respectful of our rights, forces citizens to act rationally in the face of economic depression and societal upheaval, or compels politicians to release their grip on our liberties willingly and politely.
Yes, the future is going to be awesome — in at least some sense of the word.
Kyle Peterson is managing editor of the American Spectator.