A Civilization That No Longer Plants Trees Under Whose Shade It Shall Never Sit Is Doomed to Destruction
Western Decline as Seen by High Time Preference Decisions
“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” — Greek Proverb
There are many variations of the above quotation, all with the same message and generally attributed to the Greeks or Romans. “A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit” goes one variation of the supposed Greek proverb,1 “Blessed is he who plants trees under whose shade he will never sit” is what “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London claimed was the Indian variation in 1868,2 and “he plants trees, which will be of use to another age” is a quote that Marcus Tullius Cicero attributed to the poet Caecilius Statius.3 Perhaps the version that gets closest to the basic truth of the statement is what the “Newcastle Weekly Courant” of England printed in 1837: “He who plants trees upon his paternal estate, repays a debt to his posterity which he owes to his ancestors.”4
Regardless of the variation, however, the basic truth is easy to discern: the motive power of civilization is the idea that building a legacy and leaving something great for your heirs, even if you’re only to reap the dirty hands of planting those trees in the shade of which your great-grandson will sit, both is a good thing in itself and fulfills the duty you owe to your ancestors.
That root truth is why we sneer in disgust at Caligula, Commodus, and Caracalla fecklessly throwing away the incredible imperial legacy left them. It’s why we reel with horror when hearing tales of a local ne'er-do-well losing the house in a poker game or of a spendthrift squire in the days of yore losing the family patrimony to drink and cards. It’s why Tolkien has Theoden refer to himself as “the lesser son of greater sires”5 when filled with shame, and why King John’s shamefully bad kingship, which included his loss of the Angevin Empire,6 was immortalized to his eternal dishonor in the legend of Robin Hood.7
The problem, however, is that America now much more lends itself to being the feckless spendthrift chopping down centuries-old trees to pay for drink than the Grosvenors of Eaton8 coming across the channel with William and building a fortune for the next millennium.9 Indeed, the West generally, with perhaps the exception of Viktor Orban’s beauty-focused and anti-immigrant Hungary,10 resembles the despicable character that casts away the hard work of centuries for a bit of temporary fun and should expect the consequences that history shows will follow: penury and the permanent loss of an ancient patrimony.
The American Tribune is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Debt Disaster
Take America’s dire fiscal situation, for example. Our nation is now in debt to the unthinkable tune of $34 trillion and counting.11 In fact, the sclerotic Senate and fink-filled House are unable to stop cutting checks that Elon Musk had the doubtful honor of paying the largest tax bill in history12 and realizing that the government had spent it all by the time he finished tweeting about it.13
That crushing burden, one which Andrew Jackson’s presidency shows could have been avoided with even a small level of prudence and basic sense of responsibility,14 will either be defaulted on and spiral the financial system into chaos or remain a millstone around the taxpayer’s neck for generations.15 At worst, we have Weimar Germany16 or Russia in the 90s17 to look forward to, depending on whether the solution is inflating the debt away or defaulting on it. At best, we have the stagflation of the 70s.
And on what is that money being spent? The vast majority is on transfer payments to Americans older than 65,18 meaning it is entirely unproductive spending (as opposed to an investment in industry or infrastructure that could theoretically pay for itself far in the future). Much of the remainder is spent on similarly wasteful welfare programs for the benefit of the worst among us.19 And the currency has been inflated away since 1971,20 as the government decided to throw-off the responsibility-inducing shackles of the gold standard to spend in as licentious a manner as it wants, with devastating effects for the average American.21
Rather than planting trees in the shade of which we’ll never sit, America is taking out debt to set the woods on fire and sticking its grandkids with the bill as Europe rushes to follow in our feckless footsteps.
The Mass Migration Millstone
Unfortunately, the bad debt of their ancestors isn’t the only stump of a chopped-down tree on which the next generations have the misfortune of sitting. That, at least, is a perennial vice of the privileged and can be combated with retrenchment and prudence.22
But far from simply spending money they don’t have, those currently in power are attempting to keep asset bubbles inflated by filling their nations with foreigners. Ignoring that immigrants tend to withdraw far more from the public coffer than they put in,23 the mass migration crisis is creating political instability for reasons obvious to anyone with a brain.
For example, as Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean political leader who dragged his city-state from “third world to first,”24 noted, "In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion." Perhaps not coincidentally, he saw where the migration crisis would lead. “Multiculturalism will destroy America,” Lee warned. “There is a danger that large numbers of Mexicans and others from South and Central America will continue to come to the US and spread their culture across the whole of the country. If they breed faster than the WASPs [white Anglo-Saxon Protestants] and are living with them, whose culture will prevail? . . . It would be sad for American culture to be changed even partially.”25
Now that is coming to pass, not just in America, where our elites have invited in the Golden Horde from the south, but in everywhere across the West. Sweden is one of the most dangerous nations in Europe and is now better known for bombings than its beautiful women and pagan past.26 Britain is ruled by foreigners,27 overrun with rape gangs in which Pakistani men target British girls,28 and its once charming towns are now no-go zones for Anglo-Saxons.29 Germany’s Christmas markets are no longer safe for Christians,30 France’s cities are surrounded by suburbs full of foreigners ready to burn them,31 and the continent shudders as it awaits its next terror attack.
And for what purpose were those foreign millions imported? To theoretically keep stock prices high and pump up pension schemes.32 Rather than nudge fertility rates among the native-born higher with tax cuts or cut pension schemes to a more manageable and reasonable level, the West’s elites filled their nations with the very hostile armies their ancestors fought,33 from the Reconquista of Spain34 to the Gates of Vienna35 to the Crusader castles in Outremer. Meanwhile, those hostile armies are not only burning churches while raping and murdering citizens, but aren’t even contributing to the public coffers, the supposed reason for the allowance of their migration into the West.
Once again, the elites chose to chop down the trees their ancestors planted rather than do the hard work of planting new ones under which they would never rest. They forgot that civilization has a cost, one that is often immense, and now their nations are bearing the burden.
The Credibility Calamity and the Destruction of Everything
Meanwhile, those in charge of the West haven’t just squandered the future they could have left their heirs (though perhaps their childlessness36 and lack of such heirs is why they were so willing to squander the future for the present). They’ve also set a torch to their own legitimacy.
Trust in Congress is at rock bottom.37 Everyone knows the media is full of scoundrels and propagandists. The military is regarded by those who used to be warfighters as a woke jobs program rather than a means for keeping the American people safe.38 Public leaders are widely regarded as corrupt . . . because they don’t even bother to hide their corruption at this point.39 All of the rotten rouges in “leadership” across America’s government and centers of higher education were friends with Epstein.40 Those colleges and universities that took Epstein’s money have busied themselves with diversity programs and woke indoctrination rather than real scholarship.41
Again, again, and again, the same story repeats itself. Those “elites” in charge took the path most traveled and chose to do what was easy rather than right, with the obvious consequence being that no one trusts them and most sense the obvious hostility of our pedophilic patricians for the country’s common stock.
And so the regime has lost the Mandate of Heaven.42 Even if it manages to hold on to power and somehow keep the economic top spinning for a bit longer, the consequence is irreversible: trust in institutions it took generations to build is gone with the wind. The last shattered limbs of society’s trees were chopped to bits and tossed in the furnace to advance such goals as: lying about the bad orange man in the wake of 2016, going to war in Iraq over non-existent WMDs,43 and making congressional stock jobbers small fortunes at the public’s expense.44 As with everything, such disasters are only worth it to the high-time preference, generally childless elites.
A World with the Trees Chopped Down
Charles Emmerson, in his fabulous 1913: In Search of the World before the Great War, wrote, “A European could survey the world in 1913 as the Greek gods might have surveyed it from the snowy heights of Mount Olympus: themselves above, the teeming earth below.” Continuing, he wrote, “To be a European, from this perspective, was to inhabit the highest stage of human development. Past civilisations might have built great cities, invented algebra or discovered gunpowder, but none could compare to the material and technological culture to which Europe had given rise, made manifest in the continent’s unprecedented wealth and power.”45
That was the West at its height. It was a world of growth and building, one where physics were conquered by steel structures taller than the Tower of Babel and the tyranny of distance was conquered by railroads and steamships and men of all levels dressed to impress, and the women and buildings were made as beautiful as possible.
The sad fact is that all that is gone. With the exception of a few bright spots, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX46 and Palmer Lucky’s Anduril,47 the innovation has faded and been replaced by bureaucratic scleroticism. Material science has made no great leaps since the mid-60s, transportation is stuck in the incremental improvement of pre-war ideas, and our household appliances get uglier and less reliable by the year.
The question then becomes, “Well, why is it gone? What happened to the beautiful cities and people? Where went the bright light of innovation? Why can we no longer stand astride the world and look down as gods?”
The answer is that civilization has a cost, being willing to plant trees in the shade of which one’s heirs will be the first to sit, and our elites aren’t willing to pay it at a micro or macro level.
The Victorian triumph to which Emmerson refers, for example, only occurred because of centuries of steely determination and resolve over which Britain built the financial system that powered its industrial behemoths,48 sent legions of redcoats to conquer lands where settlers could grow fortunes out of once barren wildernesses and adventurers could open markets for English commercialists. The nobles had to spend fortunes enclosing and improving the land49 so that Wellington’s troops could be fed and clothed, then they had to have the prudence, taste, and foresight to spend the proceeds on dazzling country estates50 and securing their family fortunes instead of drink and cards. Debt could be raised, but it was spent on productive enterprises, not handouts to the elderly and criminals. Speaking of, criminals were hanged en masse51 or shipped to Australia52 instead of kept around to terrorize communities out of a sick sense of “mercy” for the guilty.53
That is the cost of civilization. Each of those things, perhaps with the exception of raising the country estates, was unpleasant in the present. Sweating in the jungles of Burma to stick another jewel in Victoria’s crown, fending off tsetse flies in Africa to build the railroads54 and open markets, and fighting off Boer snipers55 or hordes of Zulu spearmen56 to seize the goldfields of the Rand57 and farmland of the Transvaal were the hard things to do. Standing in a thin red line against the Cossacks at Balaclava58 to constrain a rival, firing from behind cracker boxes at Rorke’s Drift to fight off the Zulus,59 securing the Raj when outnumbered a million to one in the Mutiny60 or when in the windswept hills of Malakand to fight off the Mad Mullah,61 all that was an expensive challenge. Financial prudence and remaining committed to the gold standard was more difficult than being a spendthrift. Running the mills and mines wasn’t for the weak of heart, and working them was not for the weak of back.
But in the end, it was worth it. When the generations that sacrificed everywhere from the Cape to Cornwall were long gone, those who followed them could bask in the glory of what they built before the Great War destroyed it. And what those on the Edwardian promenade62 found was that they were resting in the shade of what their ancestors planted. That the cost of civilization had been borne and paid, and they were better for it.
Now? Mitch McConnell can’t even be convinced to divest himself of his Red Chinese shipping line.63 Nancy Pelosi and Dan Crenshaw make vast fortunes off trading stocks, presumably by using insider information.64 The debt burden is gargantuan, the mass migration invasion encouraged by the elites, and the legitimacy of the institutions on which our system sits has been ripped to shreds by a feckless elite focused on the present instead of the future. All the trees have been chopped down because the ruling class is no longer to bear the cost of civilization. And so, like other nations where the crown of civilization lies in the gutter,65 America and her Western sisters are on the dark path downward.
The American Tribune is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.