In Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, he attempts to explain the ongoing American participation in the “long war” or the war on terror. The average American understanding of the war on terror is that the purpose of US involvement in the Middle East is to mitigate terrorism and prevent malicious acts of leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (5). However, Bacevich argues that this understanding is faulty. He instead looks to American profligacy as the explanation for this “never-ending conflict.”
Bacevich uses the term profligacy, which is defined as “reckless extravagance, or a lack of moderation,” as a way to describe American consumerism (Oxford English Dictionary). He states that contemporary generations have transformed Jefferson’s trinity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into a “personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors” (16). Bacevich argues that Americans have completely and utterly surrendered to an “ethic of self-gratification.” We have transformed our definition of freedom to fit our gross need for indulgence.
As an example of this ethic in politics, Bacevich points to Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. In this speech, Carter brought forth the idea that the issue of inflation was derived from a greater problem within the American population. Carter stated that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns” (28). Carter motivated Americans to turn away from this self-destructive path and learn to conserve. Of course, this push to conserve and want less was lost on the American public and led to a tanking in Carter’s popularity.
While 9/11 was the immediate cause for American involvement in the Middle East, Bacevich exposes that profligacy was the root cause. A constant need for more pushes for expansion that will provide resources for the American lifestyle. In describing the Reagan Administration’s role in all of this, Bacevich writes that “each of Reagan’s successors relied increasingly on military power to sustain the way of life. The unspoken assumption has been that profligate spending on what politicians euphemistically refer to as ‘defense’ can sustain profligate domestic consumption of energy and imported manufactures” (53). Profligacy survives off expansion and expansion comes through military power.
Bacevich explains that ideas of freedom and empire are related because as Americans “worship” the idea of freedom, it gives “rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America’s image” (7). With America acting as “a city on a hill,” the idea of freedom gives reason behind the building of the American empire. I agree with Bacevich on the idea that the only solution to the “forever war” is through inward reflection of American citizens. As Bacevich writes “the onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens” (13). Profligacy is not something that can be solved through politics and policy but rather through a transformation of American identity. A cultural change is needed. While I believe (or more hope) that there is a way out, it would take a lot of time and effort that I don’t believe that people are currently willing to give.
One thought on “The Politics of Self-Indulgence”
Hi Abigail, great post! It is very well written and concise. I specifically like the part where you talk about how Americans have misrepresented the words of Thomas Jefferson in order to justify a philosophy of excessive consumption. I also like how you talk about how you agree with Bacevich that the only way out of forever wars is through self-reflection. I do want to add that it is exceedingly difficult to convince millions of Americans to look inward–so it might be important to ask whether or not there are other ways of getting out of these forever wars.