Affluent societies are inherently irresponsible. They duck even the most challenging issues rather than confronting them. People with many possessions have many attachments, and cling to them for as long as they can while closing their eyes to real dangers. The behavior seems irrational: why not deal with the problem, remove the threat, and return to enjoying one’s possessions? The answer is, cowardice is contagious. Once people are afraid of something, they will be afraid of everything. They hysterically embrace worthless solutions if only the solutions will make them safe in the short run. Americans thus eagerly sent their army to remote Afghanistan to fight an imaginary threat rather than to Mexico to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Enter the proliferation of proxy wars. American society clung to its affluence and the Soviet gerontocracy clung to its power. Too cowardly for an open war, the two societies clashed on the periphery. The United States fought in Vietnam for a single reason, to stop Soviet expansion. An honest and manly way of deciding such a conflict would be to attack the Soviet Union. Instead, the Americans killed millions of Vietnamese who had little to do with Soviet imperial ambitions. The USSR responded in kind by arming the Arab states against their American client, Israel.
Today, Syria arms Hamas and achieves its aim of fighting Israel while remaining safe. Why does not Israel retaliate against Iran, the Hezbollah state of Lebanon, and Syria for the terrorist attacks? Fifty years ago, Israel routinely retaliated against Egypt for fellaheen attacks from Gaza. Nothing has changed legally or geopolitically: the Jews are in the same state of ceasefire with Lebanon as we have been with Egypt. The real change came from affluence; having matured, the society grew cowardly.
The trend toward irresponsibility is all-encompassing. Take bankruptcy, a legal way to steal and defraud. Or corporate limited liability: any number of people can form a company, damage others through defaulted loans or factory pollution, and close down the company with no harm to themselves.
Governments are happy with this irresponsibility. Democratic politicians want their short terms of office to be marked by welfare. They have no problem with the unfortunate fact that welfare now often comes at the cost of delaying solutions, making them much more painful later. What happens later is not the incumbent politicians’ problem.
Having irresponsible subjects is still better. They shirk personal responsibility and pass all their responsibilities onto the government. Just think of it: the state took upon itself such a basic responsibility as that of an individual to care for his family. A wife knows that she depends for her income not on her husband but on the welfare office. Retirees depend for their livelihood on social security rather than on their children. In only a century, states totally changed the societal framework: they cut family ties and short-circuited what used to be family connections with government institutions. Attachment is a matter of dependence; people used to depend on family members, but now they depend on politicians and bureaucrats.
Who can imagine such a state will persist?