During the last six decades of the 20th century, a simple idea animated the American psyche. It was the idea that the American people could do anything.
It originated as the Great Depression came to an end and American men and women went to work and went to war to defeat fascism. American blood hallowed battlefields across Europe and Asia. And the United States emerged as the most magnanimous victor in history, turning enemies into friends and allies.
The American people bequeathed the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Americans then shouldered a decades-long global burden to confront and contain the spread of communism. They challenged the injustices in their own society. They put a man on the moon. They achieved scientific breakthroughs that saved millions of lives and vanquished much of the primeval pestilence that has afflicted mankind. And they constructed an economic system that created unprecedented prosperity for billions of people around the world.
America's leaders captured the essence of this can-do spirit. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously spoke of the burdens the American people are willing to bear. He said that the final success or failure of the American experiment rested in the hands of the nation's citizens, not its leaders. "Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country."
Ronald Reagan delivered his first inaugural address under circumstances not so different from today. "The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom."
The cure for America's problems and the hope for the future was not government, he said, it was the elixir that had unleashed the individual talents and energy of the American people in the past.
All these words, all these deeds reflected a generation of Americans whom Kennedy described as being "tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage." Over time, this group earned the distinction of being called the Greatest Generation.
What we have witnessed in recent years, what we are especially witnessing now, is the great undoing of the optimism and resourcefulness of the six decades that preceded it. Call it the greatest degeneration.
That degeneration is the result of the abandonment of principle, the politics of expediency, situational ethics and irresponsibility. It is the consequence of leaders who turned the revolutionary concept of government for the people into people as instruments for government. And now those people are demanding to know what the country will do for them.
The current economic crisis is called a failure of private markets. In fact, it's a crisis that began with the failure of government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac compounded by the failure of government regulators and congressional overseers who distorted free markets and encouraged irresponsible behavior.
The problem is not that government is the enemy. Government must do some things. Too often, though, a government with good intentions produces bad results. And a grave danger of the current degeneration into record bailouts is that Americans will abandon their ancient heritage of freedom and limited government.
President Obama acknowledged that danger in his inaugural address. "It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things ... who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom," he said. "For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."
Those could be the words of Kennedy or Reagan. Let's hope that as the priests of government salvation call for more burnt offerings, Obama can restore his predecessors' faith in the American people.