What is America’s future? Prediction is no one’s strong point. A century after the fall of Rome, no one could have predicted that Roman armies would reappear to reclaim for the Empire "that which was lost to neglect" and destroy the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Vandals in Africa. Neither could anyone have predicted that Justinian the Great’s restoration of the Roman Empire would be undone in the following century by the rise of an obscure people united under the banner of Islam.
It is easier to note that which America is losing to neglect than to predict the consequences. Failings are everywhere apparent. President Bush has led us into a gratuitous war that has destroyed America’s soft power and demonstrated the limits of its hard power. In the name of fighting terrorism, Bush has eroded already weakened civil liberties. President Bush’s "war on terror" has inflicted greater costs on America than that inflicted by the terrorists themselves.
The opposition party does not oppose. The Bush administration has given Democrats more opportune targets than President Clinton’s sexcapade with Monica Lewinski provided Republicans. But the Democrats are too weak to capitalize on the political opportunities.
The failures of Democrats and Republicans offer chances to libertarians. But libertarians are politically impotent. Their ideology and abstract commitments are perceived as taking precedence over the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. Libertarians cannot differentiate between the comparative advantage case for free trade and labor arbitrage based on absolute advantage that is destroying the jobs and hopes of Americans.
America is so fractured by diversity, multiculturalism, organized special interest groups, and race- and gender-based legal privileges that the concept of the public interest has simply disappeared.
America’s intellectual camps have become boosterish echo chambers that dismiss out of hand any contrary thought. Preaching to the choir while demonizing others is a path to intellectual impotence.
The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of regulators and prosecutors, who interpret the law to suit their careers and agendas, and by the rule of plunder in torts.
Faced with these grave challenges to America’s integrity, the political energies of the American left are focused on gay marriage and abortion; that of the American right on the opposite. Twenty million evangelical Christians, who once focused on saving their souls, now seek an avenue to heaven through war in the Middle East, which they believe will bring on Armageddon and the Rapture.
A once independent media is now highly concentrated and speaks mostly with a single voice in behalf of the interests of advertisers and a new aggressive American nationalism. To save its existence, even National Public Radio feels pressured to partake of the Carl Rove spin.
Democracy struggles under the best of circumstances. When the people are woefully uninformed on almost every subject and totally dependent on spun news, success must rest on outside events and the failure of others.
Was America’s 20th century preeminence the result of democracy and free trade, or was it the result of two wars, which devastated Europe, and the rise of communism, which set back the clock in Russia and Asia for decades?
It is very easy to be preeminent while every other economy must recover from ruin.
Today America is failing, while Asia rises as the economic powerhouse and Europe seeks to unite.
America’s once powerful manufacturers are today little more than brand names with sales forces. Some still assemble foreign made parts, but many simply market products of foreign innovation, design, engineering, and manufacture. As more and more of America’s economy is outsourced, America’s engineering and design professions decline, as does the value of a college education. In the 21st century, America has been unable to create jobs in export and import-competitive sectors.
America’s financial preeminence is based on the dollar’s role as reserve currency, a role threatened by the dollar’s long downward slide in value as the result of trade and budget deficits.
America’s strong communities and neighborhood schools are gone, destroyed by an ideology that used busing to break them apart.
Feminism has put great pressure on families by weakening women’s commitments to children and marriages with the new commitment to career and independence.
Parents cannot discipline children without risk of government intervention through Child Protective Services. Acceptable standards of behavior decline, and children become sexually promiscuous and partake of alcohol and drugs at earlier and earlier ages.
Shame is a lost concept.
University students are stressed to find a major that cannot be outsourced. Students are discovering that outsourcing and work visas have closed many occupations to them.
America’s borders are not protected against legal and illegal immigration that long ago dispelled any pretense of assimilation. Disparate interests, races and values have overwhelmed the abstract basis of American unity. Patriotism is being destroyed by the government’s indifference to, if not preference for, immigrant invasion. Patriotism’s place is being taken by a dangerous nationalism.
Will the Republican Party’s neo-Jacobin ideology reunite the country in an aggressive nationalism against the world, or will America’s Asian bankers cease to finance the empire of red ink?
Does America still have an edge, or is America in retirement, living off past accomplishments?
Whither America is a question that deserves a lot more attention than it gets.
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, former contributing editor for National Review, and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.