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The Can't Do Society

By Victor Davis Hanson

We have become a nation of second-guessing Hamlets.

Shakespeare warned us about the dangers of "thinking too precisely." His poor Danish prince lost "the name of action," as he dithered and sighed that "conscience does make cowards of us all."

With gas over $4 a gallon, the public is finally waking up to the fact that for decades the United States has not been developing known petroleum reserves in Alaska, in our coastal waters or off the continental shelf. Jittery Hamlets apparently forgot that gas comes from oil -- and that before you can fill your tank, you must take risks to fill a tanker.

Building things is a good indication of the relative confidence of a society. But the last American gasoline refinery was built almost three decades ago. As "cowards of our conscious," we've come up with countless mitigating reasons not to build a new one. Our inaction has meant that our nation's gasoline facilities have grown old, out of date and dangerous.

Maybe Americans can instead substitute plug-in, next-generation electric cars that can be charged at night on the nation's grid powered by nuclear power plants? Wrong again. We haven't issued a single new license that actually led to the building of a nuclear power plant in over 30 years.

Shakespeare's Hamlet again would warn second-guessing Americans that, "A thought, which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom/And ever three parts coward."

But the problem of inaction extends far beyond the present energy crisis.

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of a border fence with Mexico, President George Bush signed into law a bill passed by both houses of Congress authorizing over 700 miles of fencing at key junctures. This was back in 2006.

Environmentalists and private property owners tried to legally challenge the fence. And the Mexican government -- the same government that publishes comic books instructing its citizens on how to sneak across illegally into the United States -- cried foul. As a result, nearly two years later, the fence is barely half finished.

We are nearing the seventh anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Its replacement -- the Freedom Tower -- should have been a sign of our determination and grit right after September 11.

But it is only now reaching street level. Owners, renters, builders and government have all fought endlessly over the design, the cost and the liability.

In contrast, in the midst of the Great Depression, our far poorer grandparents built the Empire State Building in 410 days -- not a perfect design, but one good enough to withstand a fuel-laden World War II-era bomber that once crashed into it.

Despite unsophisticated 19th-century architectural and engineering science, not to mention legions of snooty French art critics, the Eiffel Tower in Paris was finished in a little over two years and is as popular as ever well over a century later.

In my home state of California, we spent a decade arguing over the replacement for portions of the aging and earthquake-susceptible San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Now that the design has finally been agreed to, it will be several years before it is finished. That's quite a contrast to the original bridge that was completed in just over three years.

California is also in yet another predictable drought and ensuing water shortage. Despite strict conservation and new water-saving technology, we simply don't have enough water for households, recreation, industry and agriculture. Building new dams, reservoirs and canals, you see, would apparently be considered unimaginative and relics of the 20th century.

The causes of this paralysis are clear. Action entails risks and consequences. Mere thinking doesn't. In our litigious society, as soon as someone finally does something, someone else can become wealthy by finding some fault in it. Meanwhile a less fussy, more confident world abroad drills, and builds nuclear plants, refineries, dams and canals to feed and fuel millions who want what we take for granted.

In our present comfort, Americans don't seem to understand nature. We believe that our climate-controlled homes, comfortable offices and easy air and car travel are just like grass or trees; apparently they should sprout up on their own for our benefit.

Americans also harp about the faults of prior generations. We would never make their blunders -- even as we don't seem to mind using the power plants, bridges and buildings that they handed down to us.

Finally, high technology and the good life have turned us into utopians, fussy perfectionists who demand heaven on earth. Anytime a sound proposal seems short of perfect, we consider it not good, rather than good enough.

Hamlet asked, "To be, or not to be: that is the question." In our growing shortages of infrastructure, food, fuel and water, we've already answered that: "Not to be!"

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War." You can reach him by e-mailing

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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