Tipping Points: The Decline of the USA

Many conservative commentators have spoken of a forthcoming ‘tipping point.’ By that is meant a point, usually signified by some major event, beyond which it will be impossible for the United States to recover its founding principles and restore its fundamental structure as a Constitutional republic. I believe the idea of a tipping point originates with Thomas Sowell. It presupposes that the United States is on a century-long march from a Constitutional republic in which individual liberty is the highest ideal toward a Euro-style social welfare state in which equality of outcome is the main goal.

Sowell postulates that there will be – if it has not already occurred – a point beyond which the institutionalization of the mechanisms of the social welfare state will be so deeply ingrained that it will be literally impossible to reverse course. The fate of the country will be sealed; no conceivable course of action could then stop the nation’s slide into the basically tyrannical, unexceptional, collectivist, vacillating and increasingly poor nation that it will inevitably become. Some think that the passage of Obamacare was indeed the tipping point.

I will argue here that in fact there are three distinct tipping points – one political, one economic and one cultural. I will explain how we might identify these points and then assess which, if any, has actually occurred. In this way I will raise the possibility that the American people could lose some of the parts of ourselves that make us unique and special, but perhaps not lose the whole ball of wax. I will not claim that the political, economic and cultural features of American society are completely distinct and unrelated – that is certainly not the case. But I will hypothesize that it might be possible to change the fundamental nature of one aspect of American society without losing the heart and soul of another.

Political Tipping Point. A political tipping point would be the place beyond which it is impossible to restore America as the Constitutional republic envisioned and established by our Founding Fathers. That republic was based on these fundamental political principles: Constitutional rule of law; limited government with powers confined only to those enumerated by the Constitution; a federal system in which power is shared by the national government and the States; the people are sovereign and all branches of government derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people; the people’s rights are derived either from Nature and Nature’s God or from the Constitution (as amended); political leaders are ‘on loan from the people,’ not professional politicians and their most sacred duty is to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’; and finally, the main functions of government are to defend the nation from foreign and domestic enemies, maintain a sound currency, ensure that the States deal with each other fairly and consistently and to enforce legal contracts – it is expected to do little else.

It pains me to say so, but there is not a single clause in the above list that represents an accurate description of the political rules by which the United States is currently governed. Our political leaders, in all branches of government, routinely and flagrantly ignore the bounds impose upon them by the Constitution. Perhaps the most telling justification of that assertion may be found in the book, ‘Lies the Government Told You’ by Andrew Napolitano. He details the subversions perpetrated by our national leaders throughout US history going all the way back to John Adams’ signature on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. He highlights how the transgressions have escalated – slowly in the 19th century, much more rapidly in the 20th. Moreover, it is clear that the American public is so accustomed to the misbehavior of its leaders that it has completely lost sight of how far we have strayed from our Founders’ ideals. The people are unaware that the current political system under which we live is far more accurately described as a social welfare state than as a Constitutional republic. Furthermore, there is almost no movement by the people or their leaders to recapture our founding principles. Even if they did, it might be impossible to succeed.

Therefore, from a political point of view, it would appear that we have passed the tipping point. When was it? In fact one can legitimately consider a score of candidates – moments and/or events at which the principle political nature of the American republic was irretrievably lost. Here are a few candidates:

·       Adams’ signature on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

·       Marbury vs Madison in 1803

·       Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1863

·       The introduction of the Federal Income Tax and/or the direct election of senators – both in the time of Woodrow Wilson

·       FDR’s New Deal

·       LBJ’s Great Society

·       Obamacare.

It is impossible to say which of the above (or any other event) marked the actual point at which the US ceased to be a Constitutional republic, much less to prove that having passed that point it is impossible to recover what was lost. However, I believe it is beyond any doubt that our current system would be recognized by our Founding Fathers to be as tyrannical as the one they revolted against.

Economic Tipping Point. In the realm of economics, again we see a huge change if we compare the current US economic system to what existed generations ago. The economic life of our country used to be characterized by: free markets; laissez-fair capitalism; the sanctity of private property; low taxation; the lion’s share of GDP accounted for by private enterprise; a climate in which businesses – large and small – succeeded or failed according to their ability to satisfy their customers; a strong dollar as the world’s leading currency and an ever increasing level of prosperity among the people. Now, while some hint of these characteristics remains, it is more true that: government intervention in the market has drastically increased and continues to increase exponentially; we have a mixed economy with government regulation often stymieing free enterprise; high taxation – especially on the ‘wealthy’; eminent domain has expanded beyond the vision of our Founders; government entitlement programs are choking the economy; businesses that are ‘too big to fail’ are ‘bailed out’ by the government; and we are plagued by a weak dollar, high unemployment and feeble economic growth.

Have we passed the tipping point? Has our formerly free market economy been so thoroughly corrupted by government control that our future is inevitably socialistic, and are we doomed to a diminished standard of living? I don’t know, but perhaps not. Matters were equivalently desperate in the 1970s, but Reagan’s economic program revitalized the economy and sparked a generation of sustained economic growth. Perhaps if we could rid ourselves of big government Republicans like George W Bush and even bigger government Democrats like Barack Obama, we could right the ship again. We certainly won’t find out whether it is possible until the Obama-Pelosi-Reid gang is chased from power and replaced by a limited-government, conservative leadership committed to free markets and economic growth – and I don’t mean more big government Republicans like McCain or Romney.

There is another point to be made. Sad to say, as with politics, a large percentage of the American public is not cognizant of the fundamental changes wrought in the American economy over the last 50-100 years. They take it as perfectly normal – and correct – that the federal government should play such an enormous role in the economy. They don’t know otherwise; and if they think about it at all, they don’t think it should be otherwise. As that percentage grows, the economic tipping point grows closer.

Cultural Tipping Point. Regarding American culture, yet again we see massive changes. Until approximately 1900, American culture was marked by: a WASP superstructure that valued morals grounded in religious faith – especially Christianity; a British legal system and classical British cultural traits like modesty, humility, perseverance and personal responsibility; veneration of the family; bourgeois values; patriotism; reliance on civic and religious societies; rugged individualism; and pride in our American heritage and appreciation for the achievements of Western Civilization. Today we see on the ascendancy a different culture, one that emphasizes: multiculturalism and the denigration of Western civilization; secular humanism; personal fulfillment over personal responsibility; sexual promiscuity; homosexuality and other abnormal arrangements in addition to (or even in lieu of) traditional family structure; denial of American exceptionalism; government as the ultimate resource for all societal problems and ‘social justice’ as the highest goal.

Nevertheless, I believe that we have not yet passed any cultural tipping point. I have two reasons for saying that. First, in the cultural sphere – unlike the political or economic, many are aware of the radical changes that have occurred and people have a sense of what is being lost. Politics and economics are very complicated, also impersonal, distant, at times unapproachable. But culture is personal, close, daily. It’s hard to conceal any changes. Grandparents tell their grandchildren about cultural differences much more readily than they discuss political or economic changes. Therefore, resistance is greater to adopting cultural changes than it is to accommodating political or economic change.

The second reason lies in the driver of the changes. Political and economic changes are driven primarily by government whereas cultural changes are driven by the media, the educational establishment and through the organizations of civil society (religious, civic, professional, etc.). Although the historic nature of the American experience encompasses a healthy distrust of government, I think that the people have been trained to instinctively rely on government more than on the opinion molding organs of society that have warped our culture. And so, there is less resistance to the advent of a political or economic tipping point than there is to a cultural one.

There is an anomaly hidden in this analysis. I have argued previously in this blog (see http://new.ronlipsman.com/2009/05/17/what-culture-is-it-that-the-politics-have-caught-up-with/


that the strategy progressives adopted in order to radically alter the country was to first capture the culture, whereupon the politics would follow. And that is exactly what happened. Therefore, how can we have a political tipping point precede a cultural one? I believe the answer is as follows: The progressives captured enough of the culture to enable them to successfully assault the classic political and economic structures of the US. With regard to the latter, the people are either unaware of the changes, or can live with them, or actually favor them. But a substantial part of the populace is uncomfortable with the new culture and resists the cultural onslaught – even if they do not resist its political and economic consequences.

Actually, if this interpretation is accurate, then there is cause for hope that conservatives can mount a counter-revolution and take back the culture. Then perhaps we could even overcome the political and/or economic calamities that we have endured. But it will be extremely difficult. History is replete with fallen civilizations that were not able to recover their former exalted status: Persia, Greece, Rome, and more recently Spain, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. (It’s an interesting exercise to try to identify the fatal tipping point for these. My favorite is Britain, for which I think the Suez crisis of 1956 was the tipping point. The cavalier way that Eisenhower brushed aside the Brits marked the latter’s downfall as a world power.)

A legitimate question arises: Is the current situation sustainable? That is, having hopelessly corrupted our political system, teetering economically, but retaining our cultural identity to a large extent, can we survive in this hybrid fashion for a long period? Perhaps. The analogy is imprecise, but in some sense that is what the situation is for the Asian Tigers, and to some extent also China. Those countries do not enjoy the political freedoms that America did. Their economies are not as free as ours once was. But their cultural identities are strong and seem to be enough to keep the people unified and motivated. Can America endure as a big Singapore? I find it hard to believe so, but we shall see.

Let me conclude by reinforcing my hypothesis – namely, that we have passed a political tipping point, are very close to an economic tipping point, but are stoutly resisting a cultural tipping point. I will do so by briefly highlighting what I see as the signature consequence or output of each of these three components of American society – politics, economics and culture. They are, respectively, freedom, prosperity and patriotism/morals. Well America might still be the home of the brave, but we’re no longer unquestionably the land of the free. This year the Heritage Foundation downgraded our status from ‘free’ to ‘mostly free.’ For me, that is an unmistakable indication that a political tipping point has passed. As for economics, we are still a very rich society, with great opportunities for individuals to prosper. But if one consults Per Capita Income Data on the web site of the U.S. Census Bureau (see e.g., http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/p01AR.html), one sees (in constant 2007 dollars) a curve that is steadily rising over the years until the turn of this century. During the first decade of the 21st century, the curve is flat. It hasn’t turned down yet, signifying that we are on the cusp of a tipping point. Finally, I think that most Americans still believe in American exceptionalism, that America has been and should continue to be a force for good in the world, that our society – which represents a unique experiment in individual liberty – is blessed by Divine Providence and should remain a beacon of freedom to the world. Moreover, they are bitterly disappointed to learn that their President does not share that belief. If we the people loose that faith and tip culturally, then we are truly lost. I don’t think that is going to happen.
This piece also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: