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American decline: Perception or reality?

Niall Ferguson

recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations — revealing that public opinion within the NATO Alliance overwhelmingly believes that within a decade China will be more powerful than a “politically broken” United States — also contained the alarming message that similar majorities believe their countries should remain neutral in any potential conflicts between the U.S. and China or Russia.

Anyone doubting that our enemies have reached similar conclusions regarding U.S. decline need look no further than the remarkable first meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Anchorage. As described in a Wall Street Journal editorial, “China’s Warning to Biden,” Yang gave Blinken a lengthy and severe “tongue-lashing” in which he rejected all U.S. criticisms of China by extensively citing all too familiar American media narratives to strongly denounce the United States’s history of violence, racism, human rights abuses and chronic intimidation of other nations “through the use of force or financial hegemony.”

Touting the superiority of “Chinese-style democracy,” Yang reminded Blinken — accurately — that “many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”

In current debates about decline, partisans reflexively point fingers at either President Biden or former President Trump and their dramatically different approaches to policy formulation, yet all must recognize that such discussions have been going on throughout the 20-plus years of America’s debilitating political polarization. Accordingly, there is virtue in seeking greater understanding regarding the phenomena of decline by turning to historians who can offer a depth and balance of insight far superior to the slanging matches that pass for political “dialogue” today.

One such historian is Niall Ferguson, who in 2012 produced a volume that has held up well in the intervening years: “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die.”  Currently a history professor at Stanford University, Ferguson previously held senior academic positions at Oxford and Harvard and has written a series of acclaimed books, including “The Ascent of Money,” “High Financier,”  “Civilization: The West and the Rest” and “The Pity of War.”

Ferguson’s analysis goes beyond the conventionally cited characteristics of decline — slowing growth, crushing debt, increasing inequality, aging populations and antisocial behaviors — to focus on the four institutional pillars that, in his view, define the American way of life: representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society. He persuasively asserts that these institutions, and not geographical or climatic advantages, enabled the historically unparalleled rise and dominance of Western civilization over the past five centuries — and that their accelerating deterioration explains the decline of the West nowhere more graphically than in the United States.

He convincingly demonstrates how our representative government has broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren; our free markets have been increasingly crippled by overly complex regulation and debilitating economic and political processes; the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers; and civil society has been gravely undermined by gradually ceding the protection of individuality and liberty to government control.

In the decade since Ferguson’s book was written, the negative indicators he cites have only gotten worse. While the economies of the U.S. and of Europe and the real incomes of their working classes have stagnated, the Chinese economy has consistently delivered robust double-digit growth.

The bottom line is that life for the average Chinese family has dramatically improved over recent decades and because of that, the Chinese who have no experience of democracy may readily acquiesce to the shortcomings of their unapologetically authoritarian government. Additionally, evidence suggests that as a people they continue to view the world through a strongly nationalistic and patriotic lens.

In contrast, life for the average U.S. family has not significantly improved and accordingly, Americans are less inclined to tolerate the increasingly glaring deficiencies they see in their own government and society.

Decline is a relative term, but clearly by a preponderance of measures America is declining while China is ascending. The great question is whether this decline is terminal, or whether the American people — as they have done in past times of trouble — can rise to the occasion, break free of our current malaise, and deliver a national act of regeneration that will reanimate that spirit and pride which our people have manifested throughout our history.

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