Was having lunch with a friend today, who mentioned a couple of “declinist” commentators, who are exceptionally gloomy and doomy. I raised my hand and said that I’m in the strange position of being a declinist, but one who is perhaps unaccountably cheerful despite it all. I can’t explain it. If I really believed the country was going to hell in a handbasket, why am I not po-faced all the time? Well, I do believe this, pretty much, but I also believe that the hand of divine providence is in all things, and that is possible to live well (which is not a synonym for live luxuriously) in all kinds of circumstances. To paraphrase Wilde, we’ll all be living in the gutter before it’s all over with, but some of us will be looking up at the stars. Anyway, Piers Brendon is not worried that the American Empire will decline as Rome’s and Britain’s did, and explains why — but he also says that America is going to have to change if it is to continue from a position of strength. Niall Ferguson, however, is much less sanguine about U.S. prospects, saying that history rarely follows predictable narrative patterns, and that the fall of the American Empire could come as a thief in the night. Excerpt:
If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time — it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $1.5 trillion — about 11% of GDP, the biggest since World War II.These numbers are bad, but in the realm of political entities, the role of perception is just as crucial. In imperial crises, it is not the material underpinnings of power that really matter but expectations about future power. The fiscal numbers cited above cannot erode U.S. strength on their own, but they can work to weaken a long-assumed faith in the United States’ ability to weather any crisis.One day, a seemingly random piece of bad news — perhaps a negative report by a rating agency — will make the headlines during an otherwise quiet news cycle. Suddenly, it will be not just a few policy wonks who worry about the sustainability of U.S. fiscal policy but the public at large, not to mention investors abroad. It is this shift that is crucial: A complex adaptive system is in big trouble when its component parts lose faith in its viability.Over the last three years, the complex system of the global economy flipped from boom to bust — all because a bunch of Americans started to default on their subprime mortgages, thereby blowing huge holes in the business models of thousands of highly leveraged financial institutions. The next phase of the current crisis may begin when the public begins to reassess the credibility of the radical monetary and fiscal steps that were taken in response.
A complex adaptive system is in big trouble when its component parts lose faith in its viability. It seems to me that the country is in far better shape than it was from say, 1967 to 1980, when it must really have seemed that the wheels were coming off. On the other hand, social capital has been drawn down greatly as well since then (more on which tomorrow), so perhaps there are real weaknesses in our social fabric that have been patched over by money. When that disappears, what comes next? Anyway, that line of Ferguson’s put me in mind of Alasdair MacIntyre’s line in “After Virtue” about how the Roman Empire passed a point of no return:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.
It is hard for me to imagine a state of affairs in which ordinary decent people quit having faith in the U.S. government. I’m not talking about people who are quick to proclaim their lack of faith in the U.S. government, but who don’t mean it. It’s a pose. They trust the government to defend the country, to make sure checks roll out on time, and so forth. But what happens when ordinary people — not just fringe hotheads — lose faith in the government? Thoughts?Meanwhile, look at this magnificent Soviet performance from 1976 (thanks Boing Boing). How in the world did they lose the Cold War with such cultural ammunition?