The history of the world is in good part the history of the rise and fall of empires. The USA (American) empire is the latest, and even though it is only a little more than 200 years old, it is already showing signs of decay, which may be fatal.
Americans like to refer to their country as a “superpower” rather than an imperial empire. In their day, Britain and Rome were also superpowers but did not recoil from referring to themselves as imperial empires. Most “empires” were short-lived as they plundered their neighbors or tried to impose some religion or ideology — usually with bad results. Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” managed to exist for only about a decade.
The most successful empire in history was the British, which lasted about 400 years and controlled about a quarter of the Earth’s land area and population. The British succeeded in part because they were in intense competition with the French, the Spanish and others, and were keenly aware that if their little island were to survive, it had to be more efficient and innovative than its bigger rivals.
Many of the thought leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment were the intellectual force in the British Parliament, yet only lukewarm at best when it came to Empire. But they did establish the principles of how it could best survive — free trade, protection of private property, the rule of law, etc. The British expats who served in the various colonies brought along their institutions, clubs, sports and manners, which were often adopted by the colonists out of choice rather than coercion.
After World War I, the United States became the predominant empire as it picked up the financial, industrial, military and even global cultural and entertainment mantle from the British. The British had been exhausted by WWI and the increasing cost of maintaining their colonies. Despite having “won,” the even greater cost of World War II made the end of empire for the British a certainty.
Most empires die from overextending themselves, often with costly military adventures, leading to near bankruptcy, and from an increasingly lazy, incompetent, and corrupt political and civil service class. Signs of American decay are all too obvious — from rising crime rates in many big cities to declining educational test scores. Real wages are no longer keeping up with or exceeding the rate of inflation — caused by undisciplined spending.
Normally, as countries become wealthier, they also become healthier, with longer life expectancies. A study released last week shows that after two centuries of increasing life spans, the U.S. has reversed course, with life expectancies falling back to the 1996 level. Some of it is likely temporary as a result of COVID-19, but much of it is a result of lifestyle choice with increasing drug use, etc. Medical science continues to make great gains, yet at the same time, much of the population is becoming less healthy — the contradiction being a sign of societal rot.
From the beginning of the republic, succeeding generations of Americans became better educated, which led to a more productive workforce and a more-informed voter. But now, test scores are falling, and many students can no longer do basic math or read and write at grade level. Rather than learn history, the fundamentals of the American governmental system, and the reasons for the Bill of Rights, students spend their time learning how racist and sexist their friends and neighbors are. Not good for social cohesion.
Wokeism has even hit the country’s best engineering schools like MIT and Stanford. Most of us couldn’t care less about the color and gender of those who design our bridges and airplanes and provide our medical care, but we do care about their competence and experience. The more time students spend on discussing fashionable theories of the socialists and utopians, the less time they have to learn substantive and useful things. The communists/socialists spent enormous resources and time indoctrinating their populations on “what to think,” but they could provide them with basic material well-being.
Last week, Boeing announced that it was not going to design and produce a totally new airplane until at least the mid-2030s, and at the same time, delivered its last 747. Fifty years ago, the U.S. had three producers of wide-body civilian aircraft — Boeing with the 747, McDonnell Douglas the DC-10 and Lockheed the L-1011. With competition came great innovation. Now Boeing and the European Airbus have a comfortable government-subsidized and controlled duopoly where little innovation takes place. Boeing’s last totally new plane was the 787 (Dreamliner), introduced in 2011. Innovation dies from overregulation, too much taxation and too little competition.
Empires tend to suppress innovation and expand bureaucracies until they topple from their own weight. Empire meltdowns happen in pieces as individual government services fail one by one — including the military — and private providers are slowly strangled until they wither away. It is not foregone that the U.S. will soon go the way of the Roman, British or Spanish empires, but without a change in direction, the end is certain.
• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.