The current debt, recession, wars, and political infighting have depressed Americans into thinking their country soon will be overtaken by more vigorous rivals abroad. Yet this is an American fear as old as it is improbable.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression supposedly marked the end of freewheeling American capitalism. The 1950s were caricatured as a period of mindless American conformity, McCarthyism, and obsequious company men.
By the late 1960s, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., along with the Vietnam War, had fueled a hippie counterculture that purportedly was going to replace a toxic American establishment. In the 1970s, oil shocks, gas lines, Watergate, and new rustbelts were said to be symptomatic of a post-industrial, has-been America.
At the same time, other nations, we were typically told, were doing far better.
In the late 1940s, with the rise of a postwar Soviet Union that had crushed Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the eastern front during World War II, Communism promised a New Man as it swept through Eastern Europe.
Mao Zedong took power in China and inspired Communist revolutions from North Korea to Cuba. Statist central planning was going to replace the unfairness and inefficiency of Western-style capitalism. Yet just a half-century later, Communism had either imploded or been superseded in most of the world.
By the early 1980s, Japan’s state capitalism along with emphasis on the group rather than the individual was being touted as the ideal balance between the public and private sectors. Japan Inc. continually outpaced the growth of the American economy. Then, in the 1990s, a real-estate bubble and a lack of fiscal transparency led to a collapse of property prices and a general recession. A shrinking and aging Japanese population, led by a secretive government, has been struggling ever since to recover the old magic.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the European Union was hailed as the proper Western paradigm of the future. The euro soared over the dollar. Europe practiced a sophisticated “soft power,” while American cowboyism was derided for getting us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civilized cradle-to-grave benefits were contrasted with the frontier, every-man-for-himself American system.
Now Europe limps from crisis to crisis. Its undemocratic union, coupled with socialist entitlements, is proving unsustainable. Symptoms of the ossified European system appear in everything from a shrinking population and a growing atheism to an inability to integrate Muslim immigrants or field a credible military.
As we enter this new decade, we are being lectured that China is soon to be the global colossus. Its economy is now second only to America’s, but with a far faster rate of growth and with budget surpluses rather than debt. Few seem to mention that China’s mounting social tensions, mercantilism, environmental degradation, and state bosses belong more to a 19th- than a 21st-century nation.