American decline is in the air. Fueled by massive, unsustainable debt, the United States is a jumbo jet overloaded with obligations, and short on the economic engines needed to propel it much further.
In such spirit, we can look forward to the country’s bleaker future and ask ourselves a number of questions as if just following a plane crash:
- Was the fault one of design? Did the engineers err in drafting the plane’s blueprints?
- Was the plane properly constructed? Was it built and maintained well, a matter of vigilant practices?
- Did a bird fly into the plane engine, choking it and causing it to catch fire, suggesting the role of chance and the vicissitudes of fortune?
- Or did the captains swig one too many bottles of gin from the drink cart, and crash the plane because they were too intoxicated to read the attitude indicator and to adjust their bearings?
From a perfunctory glance at the imagined wreckage, one gets the sense that it is far more likely the latter than any of the former. Perhaps the empty single-serving bottles of Tanqueray in the cockpit give it away: the steerers of this airship were high on their own supply – drunk on power and ideologically intoxicated by the idea of being ‘historic.’
We can take a page out of Arthur Conan Doyle and reach this conclusion through deduction.
Were our founders to blame for our demise? In many ways, America has done the opposite of what the founders proscribed, meaning that politicians have ceased crafting political affairs in a manner consistent with The Constitution. Americans have increasingly looked to government instead of to themselves and their communities for social welfare. James Madison warned about such a fatal turn of affairs.
Has the country been run poorly in practice? Are American citizens themselves to blame for the decline? If one considers the consistently unpopular government policies imposed on American citizens, such as high taxes, draconian regulations, and endless economic interference, it is hard to argue that the U.S. is going under because Americans are dead weight. Just five years ago, there was five percent or less unemployment. Now it is hovering around ten percent and joblessness is much higher. Are people suddenly lazier now? Or do they want to work and are being restrained mostly due to government mandates? Is there now such uncertainty because of politicization of the economy, that businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors don’t know up from down, or down from up? These being the case, how can those taking part in the economy be to blame?
Was it all just bad luck, a result of internal contradictions inherent to capitalism or human nature? Is it just our time to bite the bullet, go down with the ship, and go gently into that good night? If so, why have other empires, like the Romans, lasted so much longer? Is it because America’s radical commitment to freedom is so unstable that it has seen a meteoric rise and is about to flare out spectacularly?
But America is not suffering from a problem of freedom; it is being hobbled by a lack of it. Millions want to pursue the American Dream, and yield it to their children, but are growing more disaffected with the country precisely because they are being thwarted by politicians, whose illiberal policies are increasingly supported by state-funded educators and left-leaning media personalities. What we find is that our economic engines are failing to overcome the increasing drag, and instead of opening up the throttle, the political elites are choking it.
But we can jettison the airplane analogy, since we have successfully run it into the ground. Let’s take a look at why this narrative, if approximately accurate, shows that American decline is different.
Inspired by Mark Steyn’s After America, which I am in the process of placing in my hot little hands, I have decided to take a gander at the long view of civilizational rise and decline, with an eye to how America’s impending fiscal implosion compares and contrasts with the goldie oldies: Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire.
Given the quickest and dirtiest of reads, taking cues from Thucydides, Polybius, and Gibbon, among others, what I find is that the American empire’s imminent farewell to world supremacy is due foremost to a scheming intelligentsia with no vested interest in the nation’s fortunes, and displaying outright hostility to the foundational imperative of the nation-state: to maintain and defend liberty.
Compare this phenomenon of elite sabotage to the Greeks, who declined due to internecine strife among the Greek polei, cultural stasis (alternately, stagnation or revolution) due to the relativism of the sophists, and hubristically pursued warfare. The Romans declined due to a decrease in military valor and virtue resulting from overexpansion, exhaustion, cultural dissolution, corruption, and finally, invasion. The Chinese empire, founded by Qin Shi Huang, was diminished by a power-hungry despot who sought imperial glory, but whose repressive policies strangled the life out of the people. The Ottoman Empire collapsed largely due to bureaucratic stagnation and corruption (much like the Hapsburg monarchy, incidentally). The British Empire over-expanded and then found itself lacking the resources and the will to rule its colonies after long wars on continental Europe.
What is different about the decline of America is the role of elites in purposefully undermining the strength of the state. America most resembles the decline of the Greeks in that we are now experiencing a form of cultural stasis, largely wrought by our own forms of philosophical sophistry, and punctuated by self-destructive hubris.
Multiculturalism, relativism, diversity, equality – these are the watchwords of a country that has no cultural confidence. Pursuit of these ethics in practice, especially when no higher culture is held aloft, is destructive. Patriotism fades when liberty is a tributary byword, effectively the admonition to “mind one’s own business,” instead of an imperative to preserve our government and our way of life.
A passion for freedom was the source of cultural vitality that propelled our nation forward for two centuries. And while conservatives and progressives disagreed on specific policies, a fundamental consensus on the necessity to advance freedom ensured that differences between the two parties were slight. But now the Democrat Party is radicalized and no such freedom consensus exists.
The interrelationship of economy and morality has often been pointed to as the cause of the decline of empires and civilizations. The most succinct synopsis is perhaps to be found in Robert Gilpin’s War & Change in World Politics:
Finally, the expansion of a state is limited by internal transformations in society. […] The notion that the growth of a society is regulated by some type of internal feedback mechanism was common among classical writings. In the words of a distinguished classicist the ancient historians searched for “the reason why the rise of a state turns into its downfall.” […] They found the answer in the idea that when a society extends its control and dominion over others, increased power and wealth lead to moral decay and the corruption of the original virtues that enabled society to grow in the first place. (153)
Though Gilpin’s analysis holds true in the main, what is different is that America’s demise is not so much due to moral decay, but to deliberate moral undermining. This cannot be said of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Ottomans, or British during the eclipse of their imperial heydays.
The United States is singularly the product of The Enlightenment in that it was founded to promote liberty. In this way, it was the first anti-statist state. Freedom from government was part of the operating rationale for government.
That is, until the radical generation exploded with discontent under the pressure of the Cold War, and engaged in mass disruptive behavior. While purportedly seeking extreme liberty, the radicals instead became libertine. Social chaos ensued, in tandem with statist-welfare programs. So how did hippies come to be such domineering statists? It is an irony that personal irresponsibility strengthens state power.
What we find with the rise of the radicals is a segment of the population hell-bent on changing America and thus displaying endless hubris. We find narcissists perennially discontent with the status quo, no matter how good; busybodies forever toiling in existential writhing and spoiled from being economically sheltered their whole lives.
Such earthbound concerns as national debt are trivial to those who live in an economic bubble; usually one adorned with a hardwood desk, a picture of Nietzsche, and a relaxation fountain. The goal of progressives is to be ‘historic,’ if only for the sake of being ‘historic.’ Any marker of ‘progress’ is a personal triumph, no matter how trivial in reality.
What has taken place in our universities is that they have been transformed into socialist think tanks, and have churned out graduates with market-worthless degrees. In other words, they have produced what Johan Galtung referred to as an intellectual proletariat. Disillusioned with the market and ideologically impervious to reason, these are the people rooting hardest for America’s self-immolation.
These elites’ attraction to Cultural Marxism can be demystified a bit. The relatively arcane and esoteric ideology is a justification for intellectuals to elevate themselves to pre-eminent stature in the culture using mass media. It reflects leftists’ urge to control resources presently in the hands of the rich, in order to satisfy the wants of the presumably helpless masses (including themselves), and thus exalt themselves to the role of national and aspirationally, world benefactors. At the deepest level, leftists’ crusader-like fanaticism is a vain attempt to give their lives meaning in order to fill a void in their hearts ensuing from the ‘death of god’; and psychologically, their reception to radical ideas springs from confronting a perilous, ‘godless’ world seemingly on the precipice of self-destruction.
In such an unjust world, the most powerful country itself must be to blame, so reasons today’s leftists. That America has fought and prevailed against despotism both at home and abroad is no longer celebrated by the left; the country’s successes are not seen as a sign of the founders’ enlightened vision, but instead as something the progressives overcame. The leftists’ arrogance prevents them from adopting any conservative view of history, which would force them to acknowledge the wisdom of those who founded the country, and thus detract from their own self-imagined significance.
The growth of centralized state power as a signature of decline is nothing new; but statists intentionally undermining national power is new. Such policies as energy restrictions, leading intentionally to higher energy prices, and subsidizing inefficient green jobs testify to the intellectual trend of animus towards the people and self-defeating policy by design.
To American leftists, their own nation is just one more obstacle to overcome on the road to glory. Their intentional sabotage of the country as a sacrifice to a future world utopia is a novel and dangerous development that warrants severely critical treatment by sane, self-interested citizens.