by Victor Davis Hanson
Decline is a Choice
As the summer winds down, there is more and more talk of decline in the air. Some of it comes from the left, as a sort of giddy notion that we are now, at best, devolving into what the Greeks called prôtos metaksu isôn, first among equals, enjoying traditional prestige but otherwise nothing much special in comparison to the Europeans, India, and China.
In the age of Obama, the notion of not being exceptional or preeminent comes as a relief to millions on the left who pretty much are in sync with the protocols of the United Nations. On the right, there is a sense that Obama is the ultimate expression of downfall; given the wild spending, the iconic efforts abroad at apology, and the rampant entitlements we simply aren’t what we once were. In between, most aren’t quite sure — but sure are worried that we may never climb out of our self-created indebtedness crater, and that the culture’s education, the nation’s borders, and the civilization’s values are eroding.
I agree with the latter take, but see decline in history as largely psychological. After all, a Rome that was little more than 4 million and half of Italy almost simultaneously fought both Hannibal and Philip V and ploughed on after losing over 100,000 dead between 219-216 BC to victory, while by AD 450-80 an empire of 70 million, with a million square miles of territory, could not thwart thuggish tribes across the Rhine and Danube.
A very poor United States in 1941 defeated imperial Japan and helped to defeat Nazi Germany in less than four years. A few hundred thousand immigrants between 1870 and 1960 took a godforsaken desert in California’s central valley and turned it into an oasis of agriculture, for nearly half a century with no more than muscle and mule power.
And on the Plus Side
On the plus side, as I mentioned last time, our economy is almost three times larger than China’s. American agriculture is the most productive in the world. There is simply nothing like the farmland in the Great Plains, or the 400 miles of irrigated expanse between Bakersfield and Red Bluff. For all the damage done by the federal government, we remain the most orderly free society on the planet, where merit still to a large degree determines success — not class, race, or tribal affiliation. While our universities in the humanities are increasingly corrupt, their science, engineering, and computer science departments, as well as professional schools in business and medicine, are the best in the world. It is not that Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard or Yale or Stanford are better than counterparts in Germany or Russia or China, but that an entire array such as UCLA, USC, Texas, Ohio State, Duke, and dozens of others is as well.
We have huge reserves of both coal and natural gas, and can quite easily quadruple our nuclear power generation. The U.S. military is not just the most technologically advanced and supplied, but the most experienced in all phases of modern challenges, from air campaigns to counter-insurgency.
I have lost confidence in American arts, in the sense of fiction and poetry, which are now in large part warped by the cult of race/class/gender orthodoxy that brings intertribal awards and recognition, but American scholarship in science, medicine, and the professions remains preeminent.
Our population, even without immigration, remains stable; we have none of the demographic nightmares of a Japan, Germany, or Russia — or the warped gender dynamics of a one-child China. Christianity and Judaism, the pillars of public religiosity, are compatible with plurality, tolerance, and democracy in a way a one-billion-person Islam is so far largely not. The wages of atheism and socialism that one sees in a shrinking, entitled, and static Europe so far have not taken over here. When people protest in the United States it is more often about too much federal spending, not too few entitlements, as is true in Europe.
There is an amazing uniformity of affluence in the United States. I have picked up the same kidney stone medicine prescription at Rite-Aid in 20 different cities. I am assured that the supermarket will have pretty much what I want at a reasonable price and with an assurance of general safety in almost any state. When one goes in the EU from Amsterdam to rural Greece, or from eastern Poland to western Germany, there is not the same uniformity of convenience.
A Generational Problem
I could go on, but you get the picture: our parents and grandparents left us a wonderful infrastructure, methodology, and constitutional system. So it is hard for our generation (I was born in 1953) to screw things entirely up, although we have done our best, within a mere twenty years of coming into the responsibility of governance.
Look at the often cited pathologies that are destroying what we inherited, and note how easily they are within our material ability to cure — and yet how psychologically we simply lack the courage to take our medicine.
A 4-step Self-help Program
1) Debt. If we are headed back to the Clinton income tax rates, why will we not then head back to the two years of Clinton surpluses? All that would require is a similar across-the-board freeze on government spending, as we saw in the early 1990s, that in the ensuing two decades has grown exponentially. It is not just that a great deal of the money is often wasted, but is counterproductive in creating a culture of dependence on the lower end, and crony capitalism on the upper. The entire farm bill should be scrapped; Social Security must be radically refashioned; and everything from corporate bailouts to unemployment payouts and food stamps must be drastically reformulated. The solutions do not require a great deal of material sacrifice. No, the problem hinges on how much abuse one can endure to see through the needed reform.
2) Borders. The greatest untruth of the age is that the southern border simply cannot be enforced. It can be very easily through four simple measures, many of them already in play: finish the fence that Obama stopped; fine employers who hire illegal aliens; issue a biometric ID card; and beef up enforcement. Stop the influx, and then deal with the furor over guest workers, amnesty, anchor babies, remittances, etc. We could do that in a year, and within five integration, assimilation, and intermarriage would be back on track; within fifteen years there would be as much need of a National Council of La Raza as there would a National Council of Das Volk, as much an argument for a Chicano-Latino Studies Department as there would be a Swedish-Danish Studies Department.
3) Education. In a multiracial age where everyone is seeking some sort of grievance status — one-third African-American, half Mexican-American, a quarter Korean — and the majority of BA graduates are already women, it is time to drop the race/class/gender affirmative action industry. We need also to return the curriculum to inductive, facts-based inquiry, rather than postmodern relativism. When students are taught the evils of Westernized food among indigenous peoples but can’t identify Valley Forge or the Pantheon, we are in deep trouble. Such changes would be easy if we embraced a few basic reforms: end tenure in the schools, start merit pay across the board, cease affirmative action, impose an exit requirement examination for the granting of the BA degree. I am not talking about an aptitude test or even something like the GRE, just a basic exam that assumes a degree of mastery of facts, English prose, science and math.
4) Tax code. I don’t really have much of a preference for a flat tax, fair tax, or radical simplification of the present mess; all are preferable to what we now have. Something is needed to avoid the billions lost in tax preparation and avoidance, as well as the increasingly warped system in which a smaller and smaller, more and more demonized top bracket is paying the lion’s share of the aggregate taxes, while lower brackets are exempt entirely — and increasingly receive credits on April 15. At this point we will resemble 4th-century Athens when courts were consumed either with suits against those with money or mechanisms to extract their hidden wealth for polis entitlements.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson