There is something deeply ingrained in the American character — something evident not only in how we vote but in how we use credit cards and take out mortgages — that simply can’t accept that one can take on too much debt. We have faith that the bill will never come due, or that if it does someone other than us should pay it.
Although I appreciate the argument, I think it’s quite wrong.
Up until St. Ronald, American fiscal policy was quite responsible. There were deficits during World War II, but even during Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson imposed a surtax on very high incomes to pay for it.
Getting something for nothing, then, isn’t deeply ingrained in the American character: it’s deeply ingrained in the political strategy of the Conservative Movement, and now the Republican Party. “We’ll eliminate waste, fraud and abuse” has been the GOP mantra since Reagan: don’t worry about your programs, the Republicans have always said. We’ll make those people — and you know who they are — start working like “real Americans” (and you know who they are).
This strategy was pioneered in California under Proposition 13, when Howard Jarvis denied that slashing property taxes wouldn’t lead to any cuts in services. “Scare tactics,” he screamed. And when it was shown that libraries might have to cut back their hours, he replied “who the hell wants to go to a library in the morning anyway”? (He obviously never met a child in school). That’s why the best history of the Proposition 13 campaign is subtitled, “Something For Nothing in California”. The GOP took this strategy and ran with it; we’ve been living with the results ever since.
I am completely unpersuaded by Bagehot’s citation of one British poll saying that Britons believe that the current government’s cuts aren’t deep enough. Americans believe that the “government: should cut “spending” too — until they learn what those cuts are, and then they reject them. The Economist has essentially turned into a vehicle for right-wing agitprop: its current editor, John Micklethwait, is essentially a Movement Conservative. Micklethwait loudly proclaimed in 2004, parroting Karl Rove’s talking points, that the GOP would become a hegemonic party. So much for that.
Americans may be less responsible than other electorates, but given a good bit of European fiscal problems over the last several decades, I would need to see a lot more evidence for it. That said, what America has that other countries don’t is a major political party devoted to plutocracy, and committed to intellectual dishonesty in order to foster it. That means that the United States has powerful interests that are more irresponsible than other countries. That’s not about the American character, whatever that is: it is very much, however, about American political economy.