Is the United States in decline? Are we destined to become a shell of the country we once were? This underlying thought, the concern that somehow our country’s best days are behind it, I think drives the intensity of the political debate we are having. Tea Partiers and Progressives might disagree on the causes and cures but both have the sense that somehow our country is slipping. The anger, I think, is because neither side can really enunciate a compelling explanation of how our country got off track or more importantly what we need to do to get back on track. The decline, for many, is starting to feel inevitable, beyond our power to reverse.
This blog will be my own personal explanation of what happened, of what it is that makes our country great, how we have strayed from our path and eventually what we will need to do as a country to reclaim our future. Yes, it is my own special arrogance to think that I have a unique understanding of the history of the United States, a compelling narrative currently missing from the political debate, and that this narrative provides an understanding of what the United States must do to reverse its decline.
There is an academic thought that decline is in fact inevitable, that it is part of the natural life cycle of nations. History supports this idea – every great nation that has risen to prominence has eventually declined. The United States might not have reached the point of decline yet, but it is inevitable that we will eventually do so – we can no more stop the process than we could stop the Sun from setting.
While no country has ever managed to stop the cycle, the cycle itself is largely understandable. Luck and timing are certainly factors, but those nations that rise are able to do so because a fluid class structure allows them to tap into the potential of the population as a whole to take advantage of luck and timing – simplistically, a fluid class structure allows poor people to get rich, and this drives the nation as a whole upward. Nations eventually fall because of calcification of the class structure – at some point the poor are no longer able to get rich and the nation loses its dynamism. This, really is the part that seems inevitable – history suggests that all nations that rise eventually calcify and lose their dynamism and so decline.
The United States was and probably still is the most fluid nation on Earth. Part of this, certainly, is because we were a new nation without centuries of accumulated social structure. But part of the fluidity was derived from the founding idea of our nation, the belief that all men and women were created equal. This is a grand sounding phrase, the first Truth in the Declaration of Independence, but really it is a simple, even plain idea – each individual is equal in their able to know what is best for themselves, what will make he or she happy. The norm throughout history has been to assume that most people can’t actually choose for themselves, for whatever the reason. Our nation was founded on the opposite belief that people, regardless of station in life or circumstances, had the ability to choose their own destiny. To my mind this founding belief became the accelerant to all of the natural advantages that the United States had – it is why the U.S. became a great nation so quickly.
And it is why our future is in doubt. I think that through time, inattention and circumstances our nation has lost this belief; we no longer make the leap of faith that all men and women are equal in their ability to know what is best for themselves. Most people assume they themselves control their lives, but increasingly doubt that others are able to rise above the effects of the environment and circumstances to decide what is best for themselves. I believe this view by individuals in aggregate translates into the operation of our government. Because we don’t believe individuals can control their lives, we don’t explicitly use the institutions of government to extend and support individual’s ability to take control of their lives. If our nation falls it will be because we have abandoned this belief in the equality of all men and women, because we have abandoned this truth that is at the foundation of our country.
But if we can re-capture this truth it is our chance to defeat the inevitability of our decline. If we are again true to this belief and it manifests itself in the institutions of government we can avoid the class calcification that has brought down other great nations. We have a chance to create a permanently churning class structure, where individuals are able to rise according to their ambition and talent, where each new generation believes it has an opportunity to pursue its dreams and ambitions. A nation where the poor can always get rich and this upward pressure keeps our nation dynamic. This is our chance. If we as a nation again return to the belief that all men and women are created equal, then the United States can cheat history.