Many commentators have now answered U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s question, “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” But they have failed to point out why that is the wrong question – and why it reflects a profound change in the United States with far larger and more dangerous implications than some might think.
It is quite clear that American citizens have a profound interest in supporting Ukraine as a fellow democracy that has been invaded by a dictatorship that is dedicated to overthrowing the basic principles of the West – the rule of law, the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity and the right of nations to self-determination.
And while is also quite clear that Americans as taxpayers have an interest in supporting Ukraine because those basic political principles have contributed to the growth of the U.S. and the world economy, focusing on, or more precisely reducing, Americans and their interests from citizens to taxpayers reflects a dangerous habit of mind.
Not only does it detract attention from political questions that are central in the Ukrainian case, but it encourages a selfish and individualistic rather than generous and collective spirit that so often has informed American actions in the world at their best. And that shift, if it continues, makes such noble actions not just in support of Ukraine far more unlikely.
In 1939, Peter F. Drucker published his now classic study, “The End of Economic Man,” in which he argued that the rise of politics at the expense of economics in many countries carried with it the risk of totalitarianism – a diagnosis of the world of the 1930s with which no one can seriously disagree.
But now the pendulum has swung in the opposition direction and some scholar is likely to write a sequel with a title like “The End of Political Man” to capture the rise of economic man (consumer or taxpayer) at the expense of political man (citizen) – a development that undermines national cohesion and makes collective action less and less likely.
I support Ukraine and its fight against Russian aggression because I am an American citizen, someone informed by the values of this country as outlined in its founding documents and reaffirmed by so many leaders over the last two centuries. I do not want to be reduced to the far lesser status of a taxpayer alone.
That is not in my interest, the interest of my country, the interest of Ukraine, or the interest of the world. Secretary Tillerson asked the wrong question, because asking his question is to put the defense of these interests all at risk.