The US is Weaker, Poorer, Less Free and Less Confident

Numerous articles have been written to justify (one or all of) the claims in the title of this piece. Such articles often cite key cultural and economic statistics measured against corresponding numbers from one or more decades ago. For example:

 • The size and capabilities of our military are shrinking precipitously and our ability to project power and respond to world crises has diminished significantly.
• Average family income has been stagnating for more than a decade, and arguably has actually declined.
• The population is increasingly constrained by government: in the products it can buy, the investments it can make, the jobs it is eligible for, even the words it can utter.
• Finally, we have a President who does not believe in American exceptionalism, who leads from behind and who – by virtue of his election and re-election –is emblematic of a nation, which increasingly believes that the warts in its history outweigh the good that it has brought to the world.

The points in the first three bullets have been bolstered by many authors with corroborating statistical data. Therefore, that is not my purpose here. Rather, my objective is to supply anecdotal evidence – some of which has gone unnoted – that lends credence to the claims of the title.

Weaker. How is the US a weaker nation than it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago? Let me count the ways! The Middle East is spiraling out of control and we have lost any ability to influence, much less control events there. Obama promised to play nice with every Middle Eastern despot (except those named Mubarak, who actually was playing nice with us). Today Obama is held in contempt by all of them. Iran thumbs its nose at his entreaties to suspend their nuclear weapons program. His precipitous withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan prevent us from solidifying the precious few gains that we achieved in those arenas, and probably consigns the people there to subjugation by anti-Western thugs. Russia and China build up their arms and increasingly treat the US like a former superpower. Tin pot dictators in Latin America do likewise. I could go on, but here are two little, if at all, noted aspects of our weakened state. Whereas during and after Reagan, virtually all of Latin America had adopted democratic, free market regimes and liberty was on the march, today one country after another is reverting back to statist, socialist, anti-Western dictatorships. They no longer see the US as a role model for their societies. The light from America’s lamp grows dim. The other little noted manifestation of a weakened America is that the US now imports a dramatically higher percentage of its food. Just check out the local supermarket: all the “fresh” fish is from Southeast Asia; the fruits and vegetables are from South America and even Europe; and an amazing amount of the canned and bottled foods are from all over the globe. We used to fret about OPEC cutting off our oil or China calling in our loans. How about some nasty third world thug cutting off our food supply!

And that’s just foreign affairs. The internal structure of our country is also less firm than it used to be. The culture is disintegrating: the out of wedlock birth rate has skyrocketed; the birth rate itself is falling; cohabitation supplants marriage – which institution itself is crumbling; millions of abortions are performed; assisted suicide is increasingly tolerated; religion is under attack; as is the traditional family. And we are all “bowling alone.” But again, here are two less noted manifestations. First, the nation is seriously contemplating granting amnesty to 10 – and perhaps as many as 30 – million illegal aliens. This is not a sign of internal strength. It reflects a failure to enforce our laws and an inability to protect the sanctity of the nation. The second manifestation, while often articulated, is commonly referred to as a problem or crisis, but not as a sign of the inherent weakness of our society. Namely, our thoroughly dysfunctional federal government with its attendant inability to address our most serious domestic problems is indeed a symbol of our country’s weakened state. Our debt, deficits and entitlement programs are out of control and threaten to bankrupt the nation. But our government spends its time on climate change, diversity and obesity – reflecting a serious weakness in the fabric of our nation.

Poorer. This development is painfully self-evident. Yes, there is still a startling amount of wealth in the US and our standard of living remains high. But the signs of diminished financial stature abound. The national debt is a monster that is threatening our economy and portends fiscal calamity before long. All of our governments, from municipal up through State and Federal, have spent and continue to spend vastly beyond the revenue that they take in. Municipalities and counties have gone bankrupt. States will follow soon – and the federal government will not be far behind. Then there are the untold, and often uncounted, unfunded liabilities these entities bear such as employee and retiree pensions and health benefits. These represent trillions of dollars in obligations that have no collateral backing. The “economic recovery” that we are experiencing is the weakest the nation has ever endured. College graduates have diminished prospects; young and even middle aged children are forced to take up residence in their parents’ domiciles. In fact, in general young people today almost never live as a well as their parents do or did at the corresponding age.

Now here are two items, little noted, that signal the declining wealth of the US. Income disparity has increased. The rich may be getting richer and although the poor may not be getting poorer, they are certainly not getting any richer. A declining middle class is not a sign of a country enjoying increased prosperity. The marriage rate continues to decline and the average age of first marriage goes up. The fertility rate, which held steady for a long time at roughly replacement, has now declined markedly in the last decade. Fewer young people paying for overly generous entitlements to more old people is not a recipe for national prosperity – just ask Japan.

Less Free. In principle the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and historical traditions remain ours to enjoy. But it is absolutely without question that these freedoms are under assault from a perhaps benignly intentioned but increasingly powerful, ever expansive, unresponsive – and in places corrupt –federal government. Liberals may choose either to ignore this or actually believe that we are better off for it, but they cannot deny that the average citizen today is constrained in infinitely more ways by the federal government than his ancestors were a few generations ago. Books have been written describing the ways. (For example, the recent and ongoing IRS scandal is emblematic.) But here are a few that have not played a prominent role in that litany:
• A classic feature of American freedom has been the boundless capacity to form organizations and associations to address civic needs. This characteristic – unique to American society – was already evident to de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago and remained strong for generations. No more. Here is some poignantly relevant data from a recent Wall Street Journal article by James Piereson.
For much of U.S. history, nonprofits have operated as a check on government by providing private avenues to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, American charities—and more broadly, the entire nonprofit sector—have become a creature of big government. For decades, the U.S. government has administered research, welfare, housing and educational programs through a system of grants to state and local governments, colleges and universities, hospitals, research organizations, consulting firms and not-for-profit advocacy groups. In the past 50 years, federal spending has exploded 36-fold, to about $3.6 trillion in 2012 from $100 billion in 1962. Meantime, the number of federal civilian employees has expanded modestly in comparison—to 2.8 million in 2011 from 2.5 million in 1962. The reason the federal government can increase its spending without adding many employees is because it subcontracts so many of its functions to ostensibly private institutions. This system has gradually turned much of the not-for-profit sector into a junior partner in administering the welfare state. 
The government has swallowed the civic organizations of America. We are no longer running our own affairs; the government is.
• The phenomenal growth of surveillance and monitoring has been noted, but this constraint on our freedom is not just limited to the NSA monitoring our phone calls. The streets are full of surveillance and speed cameras, our internet trails are tracked and our financial transactions monitored. Privacy is a thing of the past; our freedom is curtailed because so many of our private actions are observed and recorded.
• Mind control. The left has taken control of all the opinion-forming organs of American society: the media, universities, foundations, libraries, seminaries, the educational system, the legal profession and so on. The population, especially the kids, are literally brainwashed with a statist point of view. But the vast majority doesn’t even realize it. They are programmed like robots and make no attempt to formulate their own ideas. Not exactly the hallmark of a free people.
• The quaint notion of a free press is gone. The press is in the tank for the left. Therefore it does not perform its most basic function envisioned for it under the Constitution – to act as a watchdog and check on government malfeasance. For example, it not only permitted, it abetted the election of Barack Obama – the most manifestly unqualified candidate ever to ascend to the presidency. When the press does not perform its assigned function, our freedom is jeopardized. The Founders understood well that the people’s freedom is critically dependent on a free press. That is why they put it in the First Amendment.

Less Confident. Polls show decreasing optimism in the populace about the future of our country. People are pessimistic and fatalistic about the prospects for their children, the economy and their nation. In the past Americans were an upbeat people, always confident – perhaps unreasonably so – about the country’s ability to solve its problems, move forward toward more liberty and prosperity, and to fulfill its destiny as a light unto the nations. Increasingly we don’t know what our destiny is nor do we care. We are no longer that beacon of freedom, that shining city on the hill; we’re just another country – like France or Argentina. Ugh! One of the unnoted signs of declining confidence is the increasing prevalence of a nihilistic outlook among the nation’s youth.

Alas, a rather bleak picture. One might argue that America has faced equivalent crises in the past. It was arguably poorer during the Great Depression; probably weaker during the early 1800s; perhaps less free during the Civil War; and likely less self-confident in the mid 1800s leading up to the Civil War. But we never experienced all four phenomena at once as we do now. Has America passed its zenith? Are we in an irreversible path to decline? Has the time for the American experiment expired well before the 500-year expiration date that we traditionally anticipated?

Well to those of us who believe in American exceptionalsim, in the uniqueness of the American experiment in limited government, and that America has been a force for good in the world, the above developments are very dismaying. Our country was founded upon an idea – unlike all the other nations of the Earth whose existences stem from: geography, language, ethnicity, colonialism, religion, tribal identity, etc. The American idea is that free men and women can govern themselves and in so doing be: free, prosperous, strong and at peace. Moreover, our freedom is a natural right, bestowed by Nature or God and not by any government or ruler. Indeed, the government’s main job – in a real sense, its only job – is to secure the rights enumerated in our Constitution by enforcing the laws that express the consent of the governed.
The federal and most state and local governments, with the tacit approval of the people, have been increasingly violating the precepts of the preceding paragraph for several generations. As our Founders envisioned, the result is a country that is poorer, weaker, less free and less confident. The only way to reverse the tide and extend the life span of the American experiment is to reign in the government.
This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: