For the past few hundred years Western Civilization has grown "nicer" as we've grown richer. It should be clear though: America isn't nicer now than in 1776 because we're more "enlightened" -- we can afford to be nicer because by historical standards we're so insanely wealthy. I'm not just talking about monetary wealth, but also social and institutional wealth. How much is the "rule of law" worth? How much are 43 consecutive peaceful transfers of power worth? Trillions of dollars.
Richard Fernandez points out that this social capital isn't unlimited, and that societies can experience their equivalents of "bank runs".
In one sense legitimacy is the fiction on which society is based. It is to government what confidence is to a bank. As long as everyone believes that the bank will pay the depositor no one will demand all his money back. As long as most believe that the King's justice is effectively invincible, no one will challenge it. But when a government behaves in a supine manner for an extended period -- or a bank refuses to pay out without a good reason -- then doubts begin to grow. Both legitimacy and confidence are more severely tested and once it is known that there isn't enough money in the bank to pay everyone nor enough cops in the station house to arrest everyone then the fiction is bust.
A deadly cycle begins to set in. Both the government -- or the bank -- have to make payouts in force or money more frequently than they otherwise would. There is a "run" on this key resource and their are bankrupted. Financially in the bank's case and politically in the case of government. When confidence finally dwindles to its last remaining levels the declining institution must either risk everything on the last throw to restore it or face collapse. ...
But whether the preferred term for this quantity is 'legitimacy', 'confidence', the 'strong horse' or 'design margin', the presumption on the political Left since the War has been that Western Society has an infinite or nearly infinite supply of it. It seemed impossible to them that a society with a Big Design Margin might eventually become one with a Small Design Margin. And even if it did, why do Design Margins matter anyway?
There's always another dollar to distribute or tax; another regulation to be imposed; another rule of war; another apology that can be made. We can play whatever the handicap. Haven't we always won despite? Religion and national myth can be denigrated to any extent desired, while hostile ideologies can be simultaneously exalted. We're so rich we shouldn't care.
The problem is that the Left doesn't realize that we can be nice because we're rich. If they squander the wealth on idealism for too long, eventually it will run out. When we can no longer afford to be nice, we'll stop.
It seems like a simple idea and you wonder why not everybody gets it. But you have to realize that the Left, in accomplishing the ruin of a society -- by debasing the coin of its culture if not its actual coin -- always starts and finishes by meaning well. That's the get out of jail card: idealism. They genuinely set out the improve the world and if you knew them you would have no reason to doubt the purity of their motives. In fact, they are genuinely just as surprised as anyone else when it doesn't work.
The catastrophe, when it comes, begins always for the children, the youths, the yoots, the utes. Then it fails. But don't worry. They'll try harder the next time and then they'll succeed. They're idealists after all.
Conservatives don't always realize that we are rich enough to be nice, but the Left needs to recognize that our wealth is not unlimited. Most Conservatives don't want to end up with a situation like the one below, but we're also not going to tolerate a situation like the one we're seeing in London.
(HT: Instapundit for the image.)