The United States is so large, powerful, and prosperous today that it is unthinkable that it could rapidly recede to an “also ran” among the world powers, with a sharply diminished standard of living. But many economists are predicting that we will go off a proverbial fiscal cliff if we continue on our current trajectory for just a few more years, and the unthinkable may become our reality.
Supporting those economists, thoughtful historians (the kind that are good at “connecting the dots”) are pointing out that powerful societies have abruptly and quickly collapsed when they did not heed the signals of impending trouble. One such historian, Niall Ferguson, tells us of cases where a dominant empire collapsed within ten years following the awareness of the fact that they were in deep trouble. Even powerful Rome collapsed within one generation after passing that historical inflection point. And history tells us that once a society passes this point they are doomed and a sharply diminished way of life awaits them.
But it couldn’t happen here, right? . . . we’re too clever to let that happen to us.
Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise, leading to the inevitable conclusion
that we are just as vulnerable to repeating this historical pattern as any of the
preceding societies that are now simply footnotes in history.
If this essay accomplishes one thing, we hope that it plants the seed of doubt about the invulnerability of the United States to these historical precedents.
How did this happen? How did we end up with promises to citizens that can bankrupt the country and well-intentioned programs that curtail our personal freedoms? Our first reaction is to blame our politicians, but on deeper reflection, we must accept the blame. Didn’t we fall into the very trap that pundits warned us about, that once empowered by democracy the populace could demand more and more services and benefits from the government and would pass the costs on to society at large? In effect, we have behaved like a teenager that is given a credit card with no debt limits. Our behavior has been irresponsible and we must face this reality and clean up the mess we have allowed to evolve.
Certainly, there have been subplots at work that have accelerated our rush toward insolvency: For example, special interests have played a significant role. But we stood silently by and watched them as they negotiated public contracts, shaped legislation, and promoted regulations that advanced their narrow interests. We have been misguided in thinking this was a proper exercise of their rights while ignoring the collective rights of our society at large.
Politicians do not make good prophets, since their motivations are to maintain their personal power by defending the status quo; they do not welcome any disruption of the relationships between the major players on the political stage. Their too-consistent and reliable reaction to impending problems is to “kick the can down the road,” leaving it for the unfortunate citizenry of the future to deal with.
After all, isn’t it true that the way to win an election (and reelection) is to ignore unpleasant problems and continue to offer a “free lunch” to constituents? And isn’t it easy to
manipulate the public with a steady stream of half-truths and fabrications?
The answer is “Yes, indeed” to both questions, and many of our political elite employ these practices with no apologies or remorse.
If our political leaders won’t save us, where do we turn? A good piece of advice comes from the oft-heard admonition that in our republic “we get the government that we deserve,” which puts the onus right where it belongs: On us.
But the good news is that We the People, with the help of our state legislators, have it in our power to take charge and invoke the necessary reforms to save the country, restoring our faith in the government, rebuilding our moral strength, and improving our social fabric . . . in short, improving our lives and, more importantly, the lives of our children and future generations.