The Wisconsin showdown between a determined Republican governor and spoiled public unions is shaping up as a crucial test of state and municipal solvency. But the financial stakes represent only part of the much larger conflict engulfing America.
The real war is over the entitlement culture itself. And while government spending is the most visible part, the ultimate issues are the character and fate of our nation.
Any serious conversation about American decline must start with the fact that too many of our countrymen have lost the plot about how the United States became the beacon of the free world, the world's largest economy, and the lone superpower.
For those who have no sense or interest in how we got here, it is easy to believe we are immune from the laws of history that inevitably reduce empires to dust.
From that willful ignorance, it's perfectly acceptable to demand pay without work, or, almost as insidious, pay and pensions that dwarf those of your neighbors who foot the bill.
It is also perfectly acceptable to assume that, if you have a house you can't afford, the government -- again, your neighbors -- should be dunned to help you keep it. If your business is failing, the government's deep pockets are there to bail you out, no?
Or if your child can't read, it's not your fault. It's the teacher or the school system or the mayor. Any scapegoat will do, as long as it's not you.
This is the noise of the entitlement culture as it plays out every day. It is contagious and so ingrained in how we live and think -- somebody else is to blame and must pay -- that we no longer think twice before demanding total satisfaction and expressing outrage when we don't get it.
We are entitled to it now because we want it, whatever it is. If somebody else has it first, then we have been cheated and are doubly furious.
As for giving it back, or taking less, what are you, a sucker? This is America, man, a free country.
Indeed it is, and that's the problem. We are free to be endlessly selfish, and nobody dares to tell us no.
Certainly, politicians won't do it. The entitlement scam has dominated public life for the better part of 50 years. John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural line of "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" turns out to have been the high-water mark of self-restraint.
Pretty much ever since, the "tax eaters" have been multiplying faster than the taxpayers. The balance has tilted so far that the great liberal lights of yesteryear, from FDR to JFK to LBJ, might well look at the Wisconsin unions and wonder what planet they're from. They certainly wouldn't recognize them as Democrats.
How dare the teachers skip school to protest? How dare they get fake doctor's notes to avoid consequences?
Easy -- they're entitled.
Soon, other states will be facing the same choice and, as voters made clear in last year's election, the war over Big Government will be settled in Washington.
It's not a comforting thought. The best politicians have been unable to stop the entitlement culture. Most are happy to stoke the demands for more, more, more as the easiest path to power.
We can't say we weren't warned. Thomas Jefferson, naturally, foresaw the consequences of unchecked entitlement. "The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."
Michael Goodwin is a Fox News contributor and New York Post columnist.