Politics & Policy

Decline or Decadence?

America is suffering from a lack of mastery over its own riches.

Almost daily we read of America’s “waning power” and “inevitable decline,” as observers argue over the consequences of defense cuts and budget crises.

Yet much of the new American “leading from behind” strategy is more a matter of choice than of necessity. Apparently, both left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy and right-wing Jacksonians are tiring of spending blood and treasure on seemingly ungrateful Middle Easterners — after two Gulf wars, the decade in Afghanistan, and various interventions in Lebanon and Libya.

We certainly have plenty of planes and bombs with which to pound Syria’s Bashir al-Assad. Never in the last 70 years has the U.S. military been so lethal.

But chaos in Libya followed the death of Moammar Qaddafi, and the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood seems poised to replace Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Most Americans assume that if we were to remove the murderous Assad dynasty in Syria, the rebels would either show us no gratitude or install a replacement regime not much better.

#ad#So much of our sagging profile abroad is simply a growing realization that the Middle East is, well, the Middle East: You can change the faces, but the regimes end up mostly the same — as innate reflections of the volatile mix of tribalism, vast infusions of oil money, radical Islam, and generations of dependency.

Can decline be better measured by our vast debt of $16 trillion, growing yearly with $1 trillion deficits? Perhaps. But Americans know that with a new tax code, simple reforms to entitlements, and reasonable trimming of bloated public salaries and pensions, we could balance federal budgets. The budget crux is not due to an absence of material resources, but a preference for not acting until we are forced to in the eleventh hour.

Do high gas prices and huge imported-oil fees reflect an energy-short America? Not really. There are 25 billion barrels of oil sitting right off California’s central coast, and much more in Alaska, the Midwest, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Eastern shore. At some point, when gas hits $5 or $6 a gallon, a new generation of Americans will be cured of its smugness and decide to tap trillions of dollars in natural riches.

In other words, the manifest symptoms of decline — frustration with the Middle East, military retrenchment, exorbitant energy costs, and financial insolvency — are choices we now make, but need not make in the future.

If our students are burdened with oppressive loans, why do so many university rec centers look like five-star spas? Student cell phones and cars are indistinguishable from those of the faculty.

The underclass suffers more from obesity than malnutrition; our national epidemic is not unaffordable protein, but rather a surfeit of even cheaper sweets.

Flash mobbers target electronics stores for more junk, not bulk food warehouses in order to eat. America’s children do not suffer from lack of access to the Internet, but from wasting hours on video games and less-than-instructional websites. We have too many, not too few, television channels.

The problem is not that government workers are underpaid or scarce, but that so many of them seem to think mind readers, clowns, and prostitutes come with the job.

An average American with an average cell phone has more information at his fingertips than did a Goldman Sachs grandee 20 years ago. Over the last half-century, bizarre new words have entered the American vocabulary — triple-dipping, Botox, liposuction, jet set, COLA (cost of living adjustment), three-day weekend, Medi-something compounds (Medicare, Medicaid, Medi-Cal) — that do not reflect a deprived citizenry. In 1980, a knee or hip replacement was experimental surgery for the 1 percent; now it is a Medicare entitlement.

American poverty is not measured by absolute global standards of available food, shelter, and medical care, or by comparisons with prior generations, but by one American now having less stuff than another.

As America re-examines its military, entitlements, energy sources, and popular culture, it will learn that our “decline” is not due to material shortages, but rather arises from moral confusion over how to master, rather than being mastered by, the vast riches we have created. If decline is fighting just two wars at a time rather than three, budgeting as we did in 2008, tapping a bit more oil offshore, or having our colleges offer more grammar courses and fewer rock-climbing walls, then by all means, bring it on.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author most recently of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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