Friday, June 1, 2012

“Are We, or Are We Not, in Decline?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Are We, or Are We Not, in Decline?”
June 1, 2012

Articles and books abound declaring that America, and in fact the entire West, is in decline. There isn’t much new in this. In the aftermath of World War I, Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher and historian published The Decline of the West. Spengler wrote of Western culture as being the last of eight “high” cultures, each lasting about 1000 years.

Eleven years ago our nation was attacked by terrorists. In a terrifying few moments, three hi-jacked planes laden with innocent passengers flew into buildings and killed thousands of innocent people. A fourth plane, thanks to the extraordinary bravery of its passengers, crashed into a Pennsylvania field, killing all on board, but preventing what would have been a far worse catastrophe. Subsequently, we found ourselves at war with an enemy without a country, who had no stake in the modern world, and whose religious mania was beyond comprehension. We were warned that eradicating this enemy would take years, if not generations. But an absence of attacks has caused our guard to be lowered and an impatience to return to the past. However, Islamic terrorists are like the mythological Hydra, when one head is severed two grow in its place. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a great achievement, but it would be a mistake to think that risk of attack is no more. The proper response lies less in trying to kill all our enemies and more in showing the world resolve to remain strong and conviction of our beliefs in the “American Way.”

We were attacked, not because of wrongs we had committed, but because of what we represent – a free and independent people. Americans are tolerant and generous. The streets of our cities and small stores in countless villages are comprised of and owned by millions of people from myriad places. In that respect, ours is a world very different from every other nation on earth. We are more integrated and dynamic.

As a people, our innate optimism has been tested, not only in the attacks, but also by ten years of flat equity markets, a global credit crisis that emanated from the U.S. and which almost brought the world’s financial system to its knees, and by the success of the BRIC nations. These events have caused people to wonder if America’s best days are behind it. In 2008, Fareed Zakaria wrote The Post-American World, which is less about the decline of America and more about the rise of developing countries. Last year, Niall Ferguson published Civilization: The West and the Rest. In his book he worries that policies that allowed Western dominance – education, free markets, individual rights, competition – are being subsumed by governments more interested in social welfare than in empowering the individual. Professor Ferguson sees the financial crisis as “an accelerator of an already well established trend of relative decline.”

Noam Chomsky, the influential critic of American “imperialism”, believes we are in decline. Earlier this year he wrote a piece for The Guardian, entitled “’Losing’ the world: American Decline in Perspective.” While he acknowledges that the U.S. remains the world’s “dominant power”, he adds that “American decline is real.” He then cynically and enigmatically adds that “the apocalyptic vision reflects the familiar ruling-class perception that anything short of total control amounts to total disaster.” That is an unfair characterization of a nation whose men and women have fought around the world on behalf of those who prized freedom, and then helped build war-ruined nations into prosperous, modern countries. One need look no further than Germany, Japan and South Korea. Vietnam is today emerging as a successful example of capitalism. In ten years, Iraq could well do the same.

A couple of weeks ago columnist Martin Wolf published an article in the Financial Times entitled “Era of a diminished superpower.” He joined a chorus of those writing of America’s current or imminent decline. (If one Googles ‘America, a diminished superpower’ 2,520,000 results pop up. In contrast, Googling ‘US, still a superpower,’ a mere 190,000 results appear.) In proving his point that we exist as a “diminished superpower,” Mr. Wolf writes of our “dwindling natural resources,” “xenophobia,” “hostility to science,” “the highest rate of incarceration in the world” and “the intransigence of the Republican party.” He does however acknowledge, somewhat superciliously, that America’s “democratic system has proved sufficiently legitimate and flexible to cope with the many challenges history has thrown up.” Faint praise indeed!

I am not so sure we are in decline. But we may be. If we are, it is a result of political correctness and the unintended consequences from an ever-expanding ‘nanny state.’ It has nothing to do with “imperialism”, nor does the fault lie with an “intransigent” Republican Party. It has nothing to do with how we are “perceived” by the rest of the world. It also has nothing to do with a rising China. In fact, most Americans see improving living standards in nations like China as a vindication of the American democratic capitalist system. It is not just chance that former Soviet satellite nations and communist countries like China have swapped collectivism for capitalism. It is because America is proof that our system works better than others.

The biggest risk we face is of a government growing in omnipotence, with flagging rights for individuals – a sense that dependency is preferable to responsibility, that equality of opportunity is less important than fairness of outcomes. When Congress mandates that everyone buy health insurance, or when New York’s mayor decides that any non-diet soft drink in a container larger than 16 ounces will be illegal to sell, the intent might be compassion, but the consequence is a diminished individual. Another risk is crony capitalism, which relies on a linkage between government, big banks/business and union management. This is perhaps the biggest threat to American exceptionalism. The best responses are to impose Congressional term limits, to reform and simplify regulation and taxation, and to encourage free enterprise. It is the incentives for cronyism that must be removed, and it is incentives for individual initiative that must be encouraged.

As a nation, from the start we were fortunate. To the east and the west we have oceans. To the north and the south we have smaller, friendly neighbors. Immigrants, from the beginning, came to this country seeking freedom and opportunity, not safety and handouts. They were imbued with an indomitable spirit that saw all things as possible – neither entitled nor probable, but possible. Referencing Mr. Bloomberg’s latest attempt to curtail freedom, the Pakistani owner of the newsstand where I buy my papers told me that he came to this country for opportunity and freedom, and that limits on both were why he had fled the land of his birth. To the extent we chase people like this entrepreneur away, we will surely decline as a nation.

America began as an experiment. Benjamin Franklin was supposedly asked when leaving Independence Hall in 1787, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Our government was deliberately made inefficient, so that too much power would never accrue to any one branch or one person. Power lay with the people, except when, with the consent of the governed, powers were specifically delegated to the government. And the people reserved the right to take back those powers should they be abused.

Interestingly, most all immigrants still see the United States as a land of opportunity. Equally interestingly, the left claims that is no longer the case. Like Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institute writing last year, they cite statistics showing that mobility is greater in the social democracies of Europe than in the U.S. Sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, but that does not explain why it is the United States that remains a beacon of hope – not France, Italy or Spain. There is much that still needs to be done in the U.S., especially in education. We remain a work-in-progress. We are still experimenting, trying to refine and better the future. But the overriding issue separating the Right from the Left is whether one believes in the omniscience of the state, or does one have faith in the good judgment of the people. One path, in my opinion, leads to decline; the other toward a better and stronger future.

If we can maintain a sense of optimism, understand that our system remains an experiment, not a finished product, and know that power resides with the people there will be no decline. Other countries will rise, as they should, and whose rise we should applaud, but if we can adhere to the principles that gave birth to this nation – individual rights and a limited government – there will be no decline.

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