Neal Stephenson, long one of my favorite authors, has a crucial and timely article asking whether America can still do the “big stuff” anymore. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Americans landed men on the Moon, cured several diseases, increased the ability for the world to feed itself, and invented the modern technological age. Even in the former half of the 20th Century we invented the airplane, created the Atomic Age, won two World Wars, and survived a depression worse than the one we are living in now.
But what have we done lately? Stephenson notes our cultural and technological malaise:
My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.
Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.
Stephenson points out that we are no longer a society that embraces risk in the way that we have in previous years. If we want to advance as a society and continue to provide a better life for our children, we have to embrace the idea that no great advancement comes without substantial risk. Yet our culture, our politics, our whole society has turned its back on the spirit that produces the next batch of great entrepreneurs.
The Lost Spirit Of American Entrepreneurship
From childhood, we are systematically smothering the initiative of our children. We fret about vaccinations (one of the greatest life-saving technologies of the last 200 years), we worry about them falling on the playground. We have overblown fears that any moment a child predator will snatch them up, and we imprint that fear of the world onto them.
We don’t let our children explore the way they used to. The chemistry set has been practically banned out of existence. It used to be that children could learn about engineering and science by actually building things themselves—instead, we encourage children to color inside the lines, sit down, do what they are told, and accept the guiding hand of authority.
That is not how you raise a culture of entrepreneurial risk-takers. That’s how you raise a culture of middle-managers.
And that same aversion to risk continues on in our politics. Our politics is not about the future, but about the past. Look at the Democratic Party: what is their bold political position for the future? It’s going back to the New Deal. For that matter, the Republicans aren’t much better: they envision a return to a more restrained system of government—but they can’t seem to elucidate why that benefits the future of the country except in the most nebulous way.
That’s because our politicians are more concerned about preserving the past spoils system than launching the future. Our political class suffers from a severe lack of vision: instead of bolding charting new courses, our political system has become largely about managing our decline. That isn’t all bad—we don’t really want a system of government that leaps from bad idea to bad idea. But our Founders didn’t want a static system of government either: they wanted the states to retain sovereignty so that they could become laboratories of democracy and experiment with new and better systems of governance. But the creeping centralization of Washington has eliminated the ability of the states to do much other than comply with the demands of the D.C. nomenklatura.
Reclaiming America’s Future
What can we do to restore America’s future? We have to stop placing roadblocks in our own path. What we need can’t be legislated from the top-down, it has to come from the grassroots up. We need a culture that encourages and fosters responsible risk-taking. That requires parents to stop living in fear and let their children learn. That requires a culture that doesn’t coddle future generations, but gives them room to explore. That requires us to stop sliding comfortably into decline and start taking personal responsibility for the future.
We are still a culture that can do great things. We still have innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos who can provide instructive examples. We could, if we desired, return to the Moon and create a lasting human community outside the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. We could, if we desired, became a nation where great technological leaps once again happened in the garages of individual innovators. There are subcultures in America that are not only dedicated to making things again, but could revolutionize manufacturing for the entire world.
America in 2031 can be a country where small innovators use computers and 3D printers to design amazing new technologies and take them from the drawing board to reality in hours rather than days. Or, America in 2031 can be a country where what few resources we have left are being fought over in an intergenerational battle between young and old.
We can’t hope for government to solve our current economic and cultural crisis—only rekindling the American spirit of innovation can get the economy growing again and allow us to have another period of growth and optimism.
America can to great things again. The question is whether we’re willing to do what’s necessary to get there.