Sometimes you do live to see it. In my book America Alone, I point out that, to a five-year-old boy waving his flag as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession marched down the Mall in 1897, it would have been inconceivable that by the time of his 80th birthday the greatest empire the world had ever known would have shriveled to an economically moribund strike-bound socialist slough of despond, one in which (stop me if this sounds familiar) the government ran the hospitals, the automobile industry, and much of the housing stock, and, partly as a consequence thereof, had permanent high unemployment and confiscatory tax rates that drove its best talents to seek refuge abroad.
A number of readers, disputing the relevance of this comparison, sent me mocking letters pointing out, for example, Britain’s balance of payments and other deteriorating economic indicators from the early 20th century on. True. Great powers do not decline for identical reasons and one would not expect Britain’s imperial overstretch to lead to the same consequences as America’s imperial understretch. Nonetheless, my correspondents are perhaps too sophisticated and nuanced to grasp the somewhat more basic point I was making. Perched on his uncle’s shoulders that day was a young lad who grew up to become the historian Arnold Toynbee. He recalled the mood of Her Majesty’s jubilee as follows: “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.” The end of history, 1897 version.
Permanence is an illusion — and you would be surprised at how fast mighty nations can be entirely transformed. But, more important, national decline is psychological — and therefore what matters is accepting the psychology of decline. Within two generations, for example, the German people became just as obnoxiously pacifist as they once were obnoxiously militarist, and as avowedly “European” as they once were menacingly nationalist. Well, who can blame ’em? You’d hardly be receptive to pitches for national greatness after half a century of Kaiser Bill, Weimar, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust.
But what are we to make of the British? They were on the right side of all the great conflicts of the last century; and they have been, in the scales of history, a force for good in the world. Even as their colonies advanced to independence, they retained the English language and English legal system, not to mention cricket and all kinds of other cultural ties. And even in imperial retreat, there is no rational basis for late-20th-century Britain’s conclusion that it had no future other than as an outlying province of a centralized Euro nanny state dominated by nations whose political, legal, and cultural traditions are entirely alien to its own. The embrace of such a fate is a psychological condition, not an economic one.
Is America set for decline? It’s been a grand run. The country’s been the leading economic power since it overtook Britain in the 1880s. That’s impressive. Nevertheless, over the course of that century and a quarter, Detroit went from the world’s industrial powerhouse to an urban wasteland, and the once-golden state of California atrophied into a land of government run by the government for the government. What happens when the policies that brought ruin to Detroit and sclerosis to California become the basis for the nation at large? Strictly on the numbers, the United States is in the express lane to Declinistan: unsustainable entitlements, the remorseless governmentalization of the economy and individual liberty, and a centralization of power that will cripple a nation of this size. Decline is the way to bet. But what will ensure it is if the American people accept decline as a price worth paying for European social democracy.