America's Perpetual Almost-Decline

By Megan McArdle

I am generally impatient with the narratives of American decline.  I have been alive for thirty-odd years now, and it seems that for my entire adult life, the nation has been just on the brink of plunging over some abyss or the other.  That Japanese were going to buy the country lock, stock, and barrel.  Our manufacturing jobs were going to evaporate.  We were descending into the dark night of fascism.  The Chinese are going to steal all of our clean jobs.  Etc.

As I wrote in the post I linked, way back in 2004:

So after fifty years of sullenly expecting it, the doom everyone was waiting for has not only failed to come to pass--even the worry about it has faded utterly. And we achieved this neither by defeating the Soviet Union in battle, nor by unilaterally disarming, the two solutions that were most widely proposed as the only thing that could save us from this disastrous fate (and the former only in the few brief years before Russia tested her first nuclear weapon).

Why do I bring this up? Well, because the failure of one impending doom to come to pass has not stopped other prophets from pushing theirs.

. . . . A few weeks ago, I was talking to a libertarian who was arguing that the Patriot Act was a one-way ticket to totalitarianism. We were violating fundamental rights that had been enshrined in the constitution for 200 years, and once we'd given them up, it was going to be a short step on the slippery slope to a police state. I share her fear of government intrusiveness. But this a markedly ahistorical view of the constitution and the liberties it allows us to enjoy, which is no more accurate for its extreme prevalence in libertarian circles. There is no primal state of liberty, created by the Constitution, from which we have slowly but inexorably been moving away. Liberties have been granted, and taken away, and granted again throughout the history of our country. Just off the top of my head: Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, the Palmer raids, the detention of the west coast Japanese in camps during World War II, the committment of anyone FDR or one of his minion's thought was especially dangerous to the war effort to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital during same, the McCarthy hearings--see this wonderful Richard Posner piece for a more elegant exegisis of the history of American liberties. The shape of liberty has changed over the 200 years of our existence, expanding in some places and contracting in others. There is no libertarian eden, located somewhere in the American past, from which we are now fallen, or falling.

Now, this doesn't mean that the Patriot Act is a good thing. But the fact that we have the Patriot Act now does not mean, as many libertarians ardently argue, that we will always have the Patriot Act. If the Patriot Act is bad, we should vigorously fight it. But there is no need to construct doomsday scenarios in which the existance of the Patriot Act consigns us to a totalitarian future.

Not to dump on libertarians exclusively, because everyone seems to do it. Social conservatives think we're doomed because the institution of marriage has been dangerously undermined, and is therefore likely to disappear entirely, along with God, patriotism, and the super-sized big mac meal, if we don't do something, quick. A large number of wonkish types (including, on odd days, me) spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility that our old-age entitlements will drive us into disastrous bankruptcy; few of us stop to reflect on the many, many unsustainable economic trends that have worried policy wonks right up until the moment that the impending doom suddenly solved itself under the inexorable logic of Herb Stein's famous dictum: "If something can't go on forever, it won't." Many liberals, like Paul Krugman, think that we nearly got into socioeconomic eden sometime around 1966, give or take, and have been staging a fast retreat towards armageddon ever since; marginal tax rates and some forms of social spending here take the part of doom-bringer, even though on every measure except simple inequality, the lives of the poor and the middle class seem to be richer in material goods, leisure, and quality of work than they were in the Golden Era of America's Middle Class.

That's not to say that liberals shouldn't want more progressive taxes and social spending, policy wonks more sustainably structured entitlements, social conservatives more traditional cultural values, or libertarians more freedom. It's perfectly reasonable to look at the way things are and say "they could be so much better if . . . " What we shouldn't do is compare our present to some highly airbrushed past, or mindlessly extrapolate trends, and thereby hastily conclude that we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

Madeline Albright spoke at my sister's graduation last weekend, and during her speech she said something to the effect that the world situation now was scarier than it had been at any time since World War II. This is a common belief -- commoner among liberals, but not exclusive to them. But huh? Think of what the world looked like to George Orwell. Nazism defeated, but at terrible cost--and no one knew, then, that Fascism wouldn't re-emerge. Russia, with Stalin still at its helm, devouring Eastern Europe. The most terrible weapon ever imagined recently used for the first time, and every nation with two scientists to rub together working hard to develop their own, personal holocaust-maker. The Cold War incipient in the battles over Berlin. And, if you're Orwell, a nasty case of tuberculosis, and no nice antibiotics to cure it. Things were bleak.

Yet we made it through, with a modicum of liberty and a splash of human kindness, and now democracy is springing up like mushrooms everywhere you look, poverty is steadily decreasing, though perhaps not as fast as we'd like, and wars are killing fewer and fewer humans each decade. The world is a pretty good place to live, and getting steadily better for almost everyone. As flawed as the human race is, we seem to be a lot better than the doomsayers think at muddling through.

I stand by this.  Times are bad right now.  But they were bad in every previous decade, too, one way or another.  I'd say they're worse than usual, but that is a data point, not a trend.

I am particularly weary of the notion that the failure to pass a health care bill proves that the American government, and/or the Republican party, has entered some unprecedentedly awful phase that have rendered the nation "ungovernable".  This confuses passing your parochial policy preferences with "governing".  America is still being governed about as well as she ever has been, and if you think that this is not so, try going somewhere like Somalia, or Haiti, which really doesn't have a functioning government. 

I have a simple three-step test to indicate whether a country is "governable":

  1. Is it having, about to have, or living in the aftermath of, a coup?
  2. Has the civil war killed at least 1% of the population?
  3. If an alien landed and demanded to be taken to see a representative of your government, would you be unable to comply with this request?

If your answer to any of these questions is "yes", then you may be living in a country that is ungovernable, and should consult the World Bank, or an arms dealer, if the symptoms do not resolve within a week.

Otherwise, you are living in a functional nation-state.  You may not like what the government does (or doesn't do), but it is governable, and indeed, is being governed right this very minute!

It isn't even true that it has somehow become impossible to pass important legislation.  The two most recent things that absolutely had to be passed immediately--the bank bailouts, and the stimulus--were.  Maybe they were bad ideas.  But it turns out that Congress can still pass bills, even unpopular ones, if the matter is sufficiently urgent.

I don't find it particularly surprising that Democrats with a numerically large but politically weak coalition found it difficult to persuade their members to pass a politically unpopular bill in the face of an electorate that has made it clear it will un-elect anyone who thinks that they aren't accountable to the voters.  I certainly don't view it as evidence of catastrophic decline.

Nor do I find it particularly surprising that Republicans with a numerically small, but politically fairly uniform coalition, find it easy to maintain party discipline.  It is not even the first time that such a thing has happened.  The Democrats maintained just such party discipline during Social Security reform, with similar results.

Maybe the Republicans are really taking obstructionism to some unprecedented new level, but you can't prove it by health care reform. 

The fact is, Republicans maintained party discipline in the face of some pretty strong Democratic party discipline.  Democrats love to describe themselves as "open to compromise", but what they mean by this is that if they could have gotten the Republicans to sign onto this vast new edifice to which the GOP (and their base) was radically opposed, Democrats would have been willing to make some trivial tweak like adding a weak tort reform position.  Would Democrats have signed onto social security privatisation, if Republicans had been willing to do EFCA in exchange? 

Some things just aren't open to compromise.  A compromise bill would have looked like something else entirely--more like Medicare Part D. It wouldn't have been "HCR 1.01".

Moreover, Republicans maintained this discipline in the face of the bill's growing unpopularity--just as Democrats did with Social Security reform.  If the public had displayed strong majorities in favor, some GOP members would have defected, just as some Democrats would probably have reluctantly gone along with Social Security reform if the GOP had kept its favorables above 50%. 

Don't get me wrong:  I think that the American government doesn't work that well, for reasons well described by Jonathan Rauch.  It does many things that I don't like, and the ones that I do like, it mostly does in some grotesquely inefficient manner.  But that's not new.  Is it really novel, nor surprising, to find that even parties with large majorities find it difficult to pass very unpopular bills on straight party-line votes?

In the near future, I expect Obama to focus more on popular measures that Republicans will have a hard time opposing, and unsurprisingly, these measures will face less opposition.  We will continue to muddle along.  Neither our government, nor our country, will be close to perfect.  But you need only read some history, or travel in the third world, to realize that imperfect as they are, things will still be really damn good.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/02/americas-perpetual-almost-decline/35224/