"The simple thesis of this essay is that American society could also fail if it does not force itself to conceive of failure. The massive crises that American society is experiencing now are partly the product of just such a blindness to potential catastrophe. That is not a diagnosis I deliver with rancor. Nations, like individuals, languish when they only have uncritical lovers or unloving critics. I consider myself a loving critic of the United States, a critic who wants American society to succeed. America, I wrote in 2005 in Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World, “has done more good for the rest of the world than any other society.” If the United States fails, the world will suffer too.
The first systemic failure America has suffered is groupthink. Looking back at the origins of the current financial crisis, it is amazing that American society accepted the incredible assumptions of economic gurus such as Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin that unregulated financial markets would naturally deliver economic growth and serve the public good. In 2003, Greenspan posed this question: “The vast increase in the size of the over-the-counter derivatives markets is the result of the market finding them a very useful vehicle. And the question is, should these be regulated?” His own answer was that the state should not go beyond regular banking regulation because “these derivative transactions are transactions among professionals.” In short, the financial players would regulate themselves.
This is manifest nonsense. The goal of these financial professionals was always to enhance their personal wealth, not to serve the public interest. So why was Greenspan’s nonsense accepted by American society? The simple and amazing answer is that most Americans assumed that their country has a rich and vibrant “marketplace of ideas” in which all ideas are challenged. Certainly, America has the freest media in the world. No subject is taboo. No sacred cow is immune from criticism. But the paradox here is that the belief that American society allows every idea to be challenged has led Americans to assume that every idea is challenged. They have failed to notice when their minds have been enveloped in groupthink. Again, failure occurs when you do not conceive of failure.
The second systemic failure has been the erosion of the notion of individual responsibility. Here, too, an illusion is at work. Because they so firmly believe that their society rests on a culture of individual responsibility—rather than a culture of entitlement, like the social welfare states of Europe—Americans cannot see how their individual actions have undermined, rather than strengthened, their society. In their heart of hearts, many Americans believe that they are living up to the famous challenge of President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” They believe that they give more than they take back from their own society.
There is a simple empirical test to see whether this is true: Do Americans pay more in taxes to the government than they receive in government services? The answer is clear. Apart from a few years during the Clinton administration, the United States has had many more federal budget deficits than surpluses—and the ostensibly more fiscally responsible Republicans are even guiltier of deficit financing than the Democrats. "