When I was a kid my schoolteachers used to tell me that I lived in the freest and most enviable nation on earth. They told me that America was the greatest nation that has ever existed, that no other people lived in such secure prosperity, that millions upon untold millions of people fled their home countries and came here for those very reasons. At the core of this myth was the guarantee that every generation would live in greater comfort and prosperity than the last. I believed it. No reason not to, no reason to believe that my life wasn’t as good or better than it would be in any other nation on earth.
If a citizen of a nation perceives his lifestyle to be the most desirable (or adequately desirable) lifestyle attainable, and attributes the lifestyle (the possibility of its practice) to certain characteristics unique to the nation in which he lives, then this question becomes one of sustainability: how can the nation continue to provide the desired lifestyle to the maximum number of generations? If the goal is to maintain and preserve the American way of life, we have to identify those things which make that lifestyle possible.
I guess the best way to go about forecasting the long-term sustainability of American pre-eminence in the world is to define what exactly it means for a country to be “#1” in the eyes of its citizens-what are those characteristics of this nation that allow for such a desirable lifestyle, and what are the antecedent factors that create those characteristics? We have to start with the assumption that America is #1, that the assertion is well founded. Indeed, there are a great many reasons to believe this, first among them the unrivaled military and economic hegemony we enjoy on a global scale. No country is stronger, no country more powerful, no culture recognizable, no political institutions more influential. This strength creates a global power structure that allows American economic interests to trump those of local populations in almost every place on earth-the American consumer will never find himself wanting for anything, provided he has the resources by which to acquire it.
But the strength itself is not a comfortable lifestyle, it is only a necessary prerequisite, and it is coming very much into question. The situation we find ourselves in is not good. The challenges confronting the American Empire are vast: unprecedented national deficits being fed by uncontrollable debts incurred as result of undisciplined government spending that is used to feed unsustainable polices that themselves threaten the reputation and strength of the United States. We are beset by a crisis of energy complicated by a crisis of will. Our economy is periodically ravaged by the vagrancies of boom-and-bust cycles that have become its hallmark. The physical infrastructure of the nation is outdated and crumbling. American industrial capacity has been gutted; an entire generation of working people has been cast aside. Exacerbating these problems-the primary impediment to their resolution-is an unresponsive and corrupt political system, entrenched in its ways, complacent with its power, comfortable with its status, controlled by a privileged elite that have lost the trust and support of the citizens they have sworn to serve .
In short, our desired lifestyles, fueled by cheap oil, are only attainable when our government pursues economic and foreign policies that are the very source of the problems confronting the United States. The policies are unsustainable because they assume sustainability, they take power for granted and allow for no flexibility in judgment or implementation. The empire has become unwieldy in its size, undisciplined in its use of the power that makes it so great. This will be its downfall, but it doesn’t have to be.
The fact is, we’ve been in worse situations, confronted harder circumstances, faced more existential threats, and have consistently managed to be stronger for it. The American spirit is remarkably resilient. In a very real sense this nation is defined by crisis- our finest moments are defined by crisis, our most revered and respected figures are those who prevailed against the greatest odds (or met their end doing so), our greatest presidents governed through times of immense upheaval. Self-sacrifice is a hallmark of the American experience: I work hard so my children don’t have to.
I’m sorry to say that the United States will not be “#1”, will not remain a haven for the lifestyle its citizens so cherish, in two generation’s time unless the people of the United States are willing to come to terms with a great many unpleasant truths. Our military is overextended and increasingly unable to confront future challenges-fully 40% of the Army and Marine Corp’s equipment has exceeded its useful lifespan . We must understand this. We must stop acting like an empire. We must demand honest and open discussion from our leaders. We must demand leaders who are willing to say things to us that we do not like.
But perhaps that’s the thing that makes a recovery so difficult. We don’t like being told to stop driving our cars. We don’t like being told that we shouldn’t buy frivolous luxuries with other people’s money. Our leaders will never be able to tell us to wise up because the ones that do are chased out of office: this is the most inherent and crippling weakness of Liberal Democracy. American freedom has degenerated into a simple freedom of mobility: it is the freedom to buy whatever we want in whatever quantity we want for as low a price as possible, woe to the politician who tries to take that from us. That is the freedom our empire delivers us. Our economic stability is not hampered by our military strength, rather, it is very much a product of that strength, and quite possibly unsustainable (in its current form) without it. We engage in unsustainable foreign policy practices because our unsustainable collective lifestyle demands it.
The most fundamental threat facing the American Experiment is a lack of bold, innovative, honest, humble leadership. Solutions cannot be dictated to us, they must be organic, must be developed and instituted by the citizenry and the private enterprises they comprise. We can’t afford to continue to be content with waiting for government to provide incentives for action. This process will only be effective if the political system is responsive to the demands and desires of the electorate. If we do nothing, a solution will be imposed upon us by outside forces.
The American people must recognize that the institution of government in a Liberal Democratic society is not designed to react to every conceivable circumstance a society my find itself in. There are things central government does very, very well, of course, but that list is insignificant compared to the things central government does very, very badly. For a very long time the default position for government officials has been a prejudice towards action. This prejudice has instilled in the American psyche a predisposition to government intervention in moments of crisis great and small. This prejudice towards action has and will continue to hamper efforts to extricate ourselves from the problems we have created. There are things that no government structured as ours is should bothers itself with doing, for fear of exacerbating problems that would otherwise be solved by the society itself. We must recognize that a government such as ours only injects itself into inappropriate situations when its people demand it. We must stop demanding that government fix our problems. It can’t do it. The will isn’t there. More importantly, the institution itself is not designed to do the things we are demanding of it.
We are faced with two options: we must either change the way we live, or we must change the means by which we acquire the resources that allow us to live the way we live. There are no other options.
Perhaps the United States would be well served by a more humble view towards the outside world. Power can be a corrosive, dangerous influence on a nation if it is taken advantage of. Perhaps, in the end, we will realize that the concept of administrative rights was misguided. Perhaps we will find that the modern social welfare state was a grand experiment that failed. Perhaps we will start to question the long-term sustainability of the very idea of a social welfare state. Perhaps we will go back to living the way our ancestral Americans lived: the old cared for by their children, the poor cared for by churches and charities. Perhaps we will wake up one day and look around and realize that government efforts to establish equality of condition have bankrupted the only institution in our society that can guarantee equality of opportunity. Perhaps then your children will inherent a stronger nation than you.