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Experts Wonder, Is America Truly in Decline?

Is the U.S. toast? Reports of America’s death have been greatly exaggerated for decades. But every human endeavor does, eventually, come to an end. Now RAND, the granddaddy of think tanks, has a report out that takes for granted the decline of the United States and asks if it can be returned to its former glory. For those of us living amidst seemingly growing chaos, it’s a reminder that nothing is foreverexcept perhaps the hubris of experts who see opportunity in a crisis.

“History is full of great powers that hit their peak of competitive power and then stagnate and eventually decline,” wrote Michael J. Mazarr, Tim Sweijs, and Daniel Tapia, authors of The Sources of Renewed National Dynamism. “There are fewer cases of great powers that have confronted such headwinds and managed to generate a repeated upward trajectoryto renew their power and standing in both absolute and relative terms. Arguably, that is precisely the challenge that faces the United States.”

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Δ Tales of Decline, Old and New

Predictions of the nation’s demise aren’t new. In the years of “malaise,” the 1979 movie Americathon portrayed a bankrupt United States placing hopes on a televised fundraiser. It’s opposed by the United Hebrab Republic, a Middle Eastern superpower founded on “the hots for anything blonde with a tush.”

On a more serious note (unfortunately), after a decade of 1980s prosperity, Michael Prowse noted for the Harvard Business Review in 1992 that “a nation once celebrated for its irrepressible optimism now appears to be obsessed by decline.” He described still-familiar concerns about productivity, wage growth, neglected infrastructure, and federal deficits.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents told pollsters for The Hill in 2011 that the country is “in decline” because of economic woes and declining international clout. Fifty-seven percent thought kids wouldn’t live better lives than their parents.

In 2024, the whole MAGA movement assumes America needs to be made great again.

Jacques Barzun’s impressive 2001 book From Dawn to Decadence took a broader view, arguing that western civilization has run through its life cycle and lost dynamism. “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully.” The result is less collapse than inertia and cultural erosion. Reversing Decline

So, worries about decline aren’t new. But, whatever the timing, all things eventually end. The authors of The Sources of Renewed National Dynamism take it for granted that we’ve passed peak America. Slowing productivity, an aging population, polarized politics, and shrinking prestige have us at a disadvantage. “Left unchecked, these trends will threaten domestic and international sources of competitive standing, thus accelerating what isat the time of writingthe relative decline in U.S. standing.”

Worse, they add, “recovery from significant long-term national decline is rare and difficult to detect in the historical record. When great powers have slid from a position of preeminence or leadership because of domestic factors, they seldom reversed this trend.”

Examples they cite of countries that anticipated decay and engaged in reforms to revive themselves include Britain in the 1840s and 1850s, the United States after the 1890s, and the late-Cold War Soviet Union. In the case of Britain, reforms “expanded the voting franchise, addressed working conditions for women and children, expanded educational opportunities, addressed the environmental cost of industrialization, and much more.” In the U.S., the Progressive movement addressed “rising inequality, social tensions over workers’ rights, the environmental and social risks of uncontrolled industrialization, and elements of political corruption, including close connections between business interests and political actors.” The Soviet Union, of course, tried to become far less Soviet by backing off socialism and totalitarianism. The Soviet Union no longer exists, so those efforts were a failure.

But the problem, the authors admit, is that these countries “had not yet declined significantly (if at all) when these processes began, and it is not clear how severely their competitiveness would have otherwise suffered.” Did the Progressive movement really save the U.S. from early decline?

“As in the British case, we cannot know for certain what impact these challenges would have had if left unaddressed,” concede Mazarr, Sweijs, and Tapia. “The United States was a burgeoning industrial power likely to continue expanding its relative economic and technological power even without the surge of reform and resulting renewal that took place in this era.” Solution or Snake Oil?

That leaves the authors touting policies they like that might have, in two out of three cases, pulled nations out of downward spirals. Or maybe not. In Illiberal Reformers, published in 2017, Princeton University economic historian Thomas C. Leonard argued that progressives did an enormous amount of damage to the United States by hampering economic liberty and promoting pseudo-scientific racism.

“The progressive economists’ outsized confidence in their own wisdom and objectivity was matched only by their belief in the transformative promise of the administrative state,” commented Leonard.

Maybe, instead of forestalling Gilded Age degeneration, their “reforms” accelerated the arrival of the current moment of national decline. It’s easy to look around and see hostile factions vying for control of an administrative state powerful enough to punish enemiesand hamper opportunity and innovation that could keep society viable. That is, the “solution” could be a big part of the problem.

The danger is that Mazarr, Sweijs, and Tapia could be right in their diagnosis, but wrong in prescribing solutions that would further empower the political class that got us here. The U.S. is certainly troubled: Politics are messy and too often violent, the government is spending itself (and us) into a corner, and some Americans clearly don’t believe in America. That’s grounds for concern, and it’s natural that people who care about the country would look for means of reversing the decay and restoring dynamism.

Unfortunately, though, there’s also an opening for political opportunists and well-intentioned true believers to peddle ideological snake oil as the cure for an ailing nation. Did the treatment work in the past? Maybe. The patients survivedsometimes.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if a country is really on its way out until it’s nothing but an entry in history books, or what might have saved countries that otherwise would have failed but didn’t.

Does that leave us to fret over a country quite possibly in decline? Yes, it does. And there’s no sure solution.

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