As human beings we tend to exaggerate the capacity or inclination of of institutions for change, something I have written about a fair bit  . Rather than repeat what I have already said, I would like to examine the widespread crisis of legitimacy in our contemporary world in light of the fact that people tend to behave in as they have in the past in such a way that is generally rigid and unimaginative, and that this can have deeply painful and tragic consequences. I’m not saying that everyone acts this way, but that people in power (or who seek even more power than they have), whatever their ideology, tend to use the same set of bad tricks.
For example, let us take the nation of Greece. Twice this year they have had elections. In the first election, no one had a large enough vote to set up a government, and so a second election followed within a month. This time a group of Euro-friendly parties has set up a government with the aim of renegotiating harsh austerity while panic reigns in the streets and people are taking out their money from banks at alarming rates. There is no trust, no faith at all between leaders and led, and neither side has anything new to offer but a demand for an unacceptable status quo of trying to spend your way out of debt without wrestling with deeper issues of corruption. No one has the right to demand anything from government where tax evasion and cheating are rampant. Clearly, we have some hard habits here–bribery, corruption, dependence on the money of others. These are all hard habits to break.
The nation of Egypt also has some very hard habits to break. Its secular military government has faced the formation of an Islamist government dominated by the Muslim brotherhood. To no one’s surprise, except perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood themselves, Egypt’s military government has acted in the habitual way that Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak acted before by not accepting real democracy and using the power of guns to enforce power on the streets in the absence of majority legitimacy. Again, this is not a new pattern (it goes back more than 50 years in fact) but it is a bad habit. Bad habits are very hard to break, because there is so much fear of the unknown when someone is threatened with losing power.
Generally, as we might expect, militaries are particularly bad at handling the threatened loss of power and influence. Generally militaries combine a fair degree of confidence in their own competence at rulership (even though history suggests this confidence is unwarranted), as well as a great degree of trust in their own strength. Naturally, therefore, once a nation gets into the habit of overthrowing its elected governments at the slightest whim, it can be a hard habit to break. When judges and other elements are a part of the same bad habit, a nation’s chances for stability and legitimacy of government are very low. Thailand is dealing with this problem, as this weekend is the 80th anniversary of its first successful 20th century coup, while rumors continue to fly that the corrupt royalist-dominated courts are looking to overthrow the current government on trumped up charges.
Plenty of nations have bad habits when it comes to debts. The European Union looks like one momma pig with not enough teats (Germany) and a bunch of piglets looking for free milk (right now Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and probably Cyprus, and tomorrow, who knows?). Cheap money is a hard habit to break, as is trying to borrow to make ends meet. This is a bad habit I know all too well, and what has happened to me will happen to all debt addicts in time. Eventually the gravy train runs out, and all one is left with is painful long-term austerity and the hope of enough future growth to allow you the chance to get out of the hole you have dug. It’s not pretty for people, and it’s not any prettier for nations. It’s a habit that many nations and people share, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bad habit, or a hard habit to break.
What all of these bad habits share in common is that they offer short term solutions at the expense of long-term problems. The fact that these solutions: coups and bailouts or the like are chosen, despite the fact that they signal the moral and economic bankruptcy of a political and military elite, signifies that the other options (including ceasing to rely on living beyond one’s means or grabbing power that you are not competent to use while antagonizing your population) are even less acceptable to such people. What a sad and tragic world we live in. How can we ever find a better way of getting along with others unless we have a vision of a better future along with some ideas of some stages along the way that need to be met?
There is no vision among leaders in general today. I would insult the class of elites mercilessly for this except for the fact that I see no solutions to the problems we face. I don’t see any way out by our own strength or power or wisdom, and that deeply troubles me. As a theist, I know that there is a way out with divine providence, but I don’t see our societies being in the mood to accept responsibility and blame for the way things are. I don’t see that among the leaders and I don’t see that among the people. If I did see at least a glimpse of repentance and a willingness to change ways I would have some hope of reformation; I see none.
And this represents both a problem and an opportunity. The opportunity is that by showing a willingness to wrestle with my own bad habits and deeply ingrained bad ways of thinking and behavior, that other people who are looking for a better way and are willing to endure some short-term pain might be willing to try out in the absence of any kind of short-term fix, as it is becoming increasingly obvious that the time to pay the piper is nigh. The problem is that with the situation of the world so troublesome, it is increasingly difficult to see a way for me to grow myself out of my difficulties, a problem that is deeply troublesome for others as well. It seems as if there is not enough to go around, probably in large part due to our lack of faith, our lack of love, and our lack of trust, and to the damage all of that does to our well-being. But fixing those problems requires something bigger than ourselves, something few people are willing to look for in these troubled times. Let us be among those who are so willing, for the options are growing increasingly dire.