Politics & Policy

America’s Slide from Greatness

A country that gets in its own way.

All my life, Americans have been accustomed to thinking of theirs as “the richest, freest” country in the world. By most measurements, it was long a contender for that honor, and — among the larger countries, if equal weight were given to wealth and indices of freedom — probably did deserve to be so described. As matters have slipped, American apologists have taken to excluding, as meaningless for purposes of comparison, smaller countries: not only such petro-states as Qatar, Kuwait, and Brunei, but small countries generally, including those that live by their wits, such as Luxembourg, Singapore, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Switzerland. When we strip all of these out, and Norway as well, which, although an oil-rich state, is a serious country of a clear ethnic and geographic rationale that antedated offshore oil by many decades, the United States is in a fierce competition with many countries it has not been in the habit of considering as serious competitors in prosperity and general quality of life.

In straight gross domestic product per capita adjusted for purchasing power — apart from railing at the countries just mentioned, and trailing some of them badly (e.g., poor little Luxembourg has a 75 to 100 percent higher standard of living than the U.S. and has never produced a barrel of oil or an ounce of gold) — America finds itself in a ding-dong battle with Denmark, Taiwan, Belgium, Iceland, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands. Canada and Australia are naturally rich and large countries, and the engineering skill and industriousness of the Germans are well-known, but how could the others be so successful? The Netherlands has no resources and a third of it is below sea level; its ethnic problems with Muslims are notorious. And Ireland! When I first visited Ireland in 1963, it was a poor country and, at the railway platform at Limerick, the public-address system advised to “change here for Cork and America.” Sixty years ago, South Korea was a war-ravaged, destitute sea of mud with millions of penurious refugees squatting in huts in its filth. They didn’t manufacture anything and had no resources, and were governed by a corrupt dictatorship with the help of an American army of joint defense. Today, South Korea’s per capita income is about two-thirds that of the U.S., and it is an industrial powerhouse, even in shipbuilding and automobiles, not one of which was manufactured in that country 40 years ago.

If we stray further, into the admittedly slightly esoteric world of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s estimation of quality of life, where we find ourselves factoring in life expectancy, divorce rates, church attendance, and union membership (the last two being considered plus points by the rather secular open shop at The Economist) as well as political stability and security and political and individual freedom, climate, geographic congeniality, job security, and absence of gender and other discrimination but staying clear of less precisely measurable factors such as culture and going fairly light on environmental conditions and urban services, the race tightens further. The U.S. is tied with Canada and trails, in ascending order, Finland, Singapore, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, Australia, Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland (the Irish again, whom less than two generations ago Bing Crosby was singing about as a tribe of congenial peasants, in which “the women in the uplands digging praties / Speak a language that the strangers [such as Crosby] do not know”). When I first went to Spain, also in 1963, it was scarcely part of the Western world, a priest-ridden fascist dictatorship where the men always dressed in black, riot police were everywhere and not hesitant to apply their nightsticks to the crania and tear gas to the nostrils of the populace, the media were medieval propaganda, and no one had any idea what really happened in the Spanish Civil War, except that Franco won.

On this list, the U.S. is at a midpoint between the countries just mentioned and, just below, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Japan, Portugal, Austria, Taiwan, Greece, Cyprus, Belgium, France, Germany, Slovenia, Malta, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Chile. There is doubtless room for a good deal of debate about the exactness of this order, but it is beyond debate that the gap that long existed between the U.S. and all but a few countries in terms of prosperity and liberty has largely evaporated in respect of the advanced world. Of course, the principal reason for this is the immense success of the U.S. in the Cold War and in extending democracy and free-market economics. Many of the countries that now rival the U.S. in these indices owe that fact to the Americans and should never cease to be grateful to them for that. And the U.S. is also the victim of its own optimism: It is an upbeat, self-confident, and Americocentric place, and has drunk the American-exceptionalist Kool-Aid to the lees, to the point that it is poorly equipped psychologically to recognize how under-competitive it now is, on the face of the human and economic development in other nations.

The success of many of these countries is easy to understand, especially the very rich countries and those with sophisticated political and educational systems that are not overburdened with international responsibilities, such as Switzerland. But it is a challenge to free-market economics, including my own espousal of it, to fathom how a country like the Netherlands can be almost as wealthy, per capita, as America. A serious study of why the U.S. has lost so much ground to apparently ill-favored competitors should be undertaken, and its conclusions should be factored into U.S. public policy. But among the answers must be these: Far too large a proportion of the country’s human capital has been squandered in a failed state education system, a gigantic and corrupt and oppressive criminal-justice and custodial system, and a system of public health and medical care that seriously disadvantages the lower economic third of the population and is more than twice as expensive per capita as systems of other countries that, on balance, provide as good a service. Too much has been spent in duplicative or hypertrophic national defense, including wars from which the country did not gain anything and that it need not have fought, or fought at such high cost, in people and in resources.

There’s also the policy that allowed the entry of 20 million unskilled workers illegally, while outsourcing 60 million relatively unsophisticated jobs, and concentrated the economy on service industries that add little or no value, such as the law and most consulting, pushing much national talent and effort into a cul-de-sac. The entire ethos, lubricated by fiscal and monetary policy, has been oriented toward instant gratification, consumption, and borrowing to spend, in all things, so the people have become obese, consumer-obsessed, and economically if not physically hedonistic; and investment, fitness, and other traditional values have suffered. As I just wrote, a study of these matters on the scale that their urgency deserves would have to be conducted very thoroughly, but if such a study is not undertaken and the logical conclusions translated into public policy, the comparative decline of America will become an absolute decline, and sooner than one could easily imagine, an irreversible decline. Almost none of the countries that have risen swiftly in these comparisons is hostile in the slightest to the U.S., so the threat is not existential, other than to the degree that Americans are accustomed to thinking of their country, with good reason these 200 years, as a yardstick for national progress and achievement, and would be disoriented to find it is not.

Adjusting to an era in which that is no longer the case would be much harder for Americans and American national psychology to assimilate than the steep rise of the prosperity, productivity, and political sophistication of a host of friendly countries, many of which would not hesitate to acknowledge their indispensable reliance on the generosity, example, and protection of America as they climbed the peak to compete with their benefactor.

Unfortunately, in the one party as in the other in this dismal election year, all we have heard is the usual soporific claptrap about “the greatest nation in human history,” arguably true, but no defense against the insidious and unceasing rot within, which will paralyze or kill all productive impulses and aptitudes if allowed to, and will, sadly, only still the frenetic tongue, on autocue, of the much-talking political huckster last of all.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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