Niall Ferguson has an excellent article in Newsweek on how American civilization can avoid a precipitous collapse. His advice boils down to a proposition that’s simple in theory, but difficult in practice: the United States must return to the system of values that made it what it is today.
Specifically, Ferguson identifies six “killer applications” that made the West stand out from the rest of the world from the 1500s through the end of the 20th Century. He identifies competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic as the factors that led success of the West for five hundred years.
The challenge that America faces, and Western nations face generally, is that at the same time we are turning our backs on those values, other civilizations have figured out that they can copy our success. India, which gained some benefits from its days as a British colony, is rapidly industrializing and developing its own transnational elite. The industrialization of China has transformed it from a Maoist hellhole to a unique hybrid of state oligarchy, crony capitalism, and small-scale free markets. Despite its lost decade, in 50 years Japan transformed from a bombed-out shell to a global powerhouse. Other Asian countries, from Singapore to Taiwan to even Communist Vietnam are combining their cultural work ethic with open markets to power a major economic boom. The 21st Century could see the world’s centers of economic power shift from London, New York, and Berlin to Mumbai, Beijing, and Taipei—and in many ways, this is already happening.
But the biggest enemy that the West faces isn’t other upstart civilizations—it is its own complacency. As Ferguson implies, the rise of the modern welfare state undercuts many of the factors that led the West to success in the first place. For example, a society with a cradle-to-the-grave welfare state will always be a society that has a lesser work ethic. The hard truth of the matter is that if you remove many of the risks of failure, there’s less incentive to work hard. If the state takes care of you no matter what, then why bother with hard work? This harm is not a theoretical one—we can already see it playing out across multiple sectors of American society today. The same is true of competition. Why should GM be truly innovative? They have already gotten bailed out by the government, and their main market is no longer the American consumer, but their government keepers. The Chevy Volt is not a vehicle designed for American drivers, it’s a vehicle designed to meet the artificial mandates of the United States Government. When the state picks winners and losers, the market will start being more responsive to the state’s preferences rather than the consumers.
America cannot simply keep going on like this. Ferguson is right—we’re heading for an “Oh, shit!” moment. The continuing collapse of the Eurozone is a preview of our own future. Greece is just further ahead on our same path.
In theory, all we have to do is get everyone to embrace the values that made America strong and things will sort themselves out. After all, they did in the past. We survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War all in a row, didn’t we?
The problem is that the theory and the practice of “rebooting America” as Ferguson calls it are two entirely different things. The self-absorbed Baby Boomer generation systematically turned its back on the values that made America what it was (and Jesse Jackson got Stanford students to attack Western civilization itself). We replaced competition with a radical and false sense of egalitarianism. We replaced the rule of law and representative government with an administrative state that has sweeping and largely unconstrained powers. We replaced modern medicine with the inane idea that health care is a “right” and that medicine should be free. We replaced the value of the consumer society with a parody of itself fueled by cheap credit. And finally we replaced our work ethic with a culture of entitlement. In short, we made a mockery of our own success. We chipped away at our own cultural foundation, slowly but surely undermining it.
But that was the past. The question is how do we go back? And that will be more challenging than anything this country has ever faced. How do we tell an entire society that all the things they’ve thought that they were entitled to they will have to earn from now on? We can’t make minor changes to our entitlement programs without huge controversy? How do we expect to start facing the difficult reality that those programs are fundamentally broken and can’t survive into the future?
To be pessimistic, I don’t see this country making those hard choice until that “Oh, shit!” moment actually comes. We will have to suffer a collapse before the body politic will embrace substantial reform. We will have to face something worse than a Greek-style debacle before things can get better. We are simply too attached to the status quo. In most circumstances, that’s a benefit—we don’t want a society prone to wild swings in the social status quo. Those seeking to change society rightfully bear the burden of persuasion to get people to change. But in this case, our status quo is unsustainable, and the body politic wants to cling to their comfortable illusions for as long as possible. They will not let go until all other avenues are exhausted.
But there is an optimistic side to all of this—if there is to be a collapse of the current status quo, the values that underpin our society haven’t been erased. America is still a land of innovative people. America is still a land with an incredible work ethic. America is still a nation, and will be so even if the state were to evaporate overnight. If tomorrow Washington DC were hit by a rogue asteroid and the entire federal government were to stop, America would not stop running. We would form voluntary organizations to take care of each other—it’s what we’ve always done. In fact, many of those voluntary organizations would be better off than they would be if the state could coopt them as it so frequently does.
Starting from the Ground Up
Can America reboot itself? It is possible, but it is going to require this country to make substantial sacrifices and be willing to make substantial changes. Our political system is not designed for that. Ultimately, if we want to look to Washington D.C. for change, we will never find it. The changes necessary to reboot America are not going to come from the halls of government, they will come from the people.
The fact is that culture influences politics much more strongly than politics influences culture. Washington can create some of Ferguson’s “killer applications,” such as enforcing the rule of law, but ultimately there can never be a law that creates a strong work ethic. The focus must be on instilling small-r republican values in the population—which requires strong families and a culture that rewards hard work, thrift, and the entrepreneurial spirit. We can create such a culture, but that takes time, and a willingness to shed cultural baggage from the failed counterculture of the 1960s. And it must come from the bottom up, not the top down.
And that’s the problem. We want easy solutions, and pushing our problems off on Congress is as easy as it gets. Finding out that we are personally responsible for America’s future success is a hell of a lot more daunting. But at the same time, it’s also an acknowledgment of something positive: that we are part of America’s success when it fails. And those values still exist, waiting to be unleashed.
It’s time to reboot America by first rebooting the American spirit, which is the fuel for the engine of American prosperity. We have the “source code” for America’s “killer applications.” It’s time we used it again by first getting government out of the way as much as possible and secondly by working on an individual level to restore our commitment to the culture that makes this country the world’s preeminent superpower.