If we are to believe Mayan lore and a recent John Cusack movie, the world will end in 2012. But even if it doesn’t there are plenty of people set to declare that if humanity manages to survive the year, the United States won’t last the decade as the planet’s dominant economic and military power.
“According to the latest IMF official forecasts, China’s economy will surpass that of America in real terms in 2016 — just five years from now,” Marketwatch reported last year. At that point, the “Age of America” will purportedly end.
Maybe. But even some who’ve set out to chart the decline of the United States have ended up highlighting why we actually have an excellent chance of succeeding in the long run. If we can rededicate ourselves to free markets.
For example, consider the book Civilization, by British historian Niall Ferguson. “It is only by identifying the causes of Western ascendancy that we can hope to estimate with any degree of accuracy the imminence of our fall,” Ferguson says. “My conclusion is that we are already living through the twilight of Western predominance. But that is not just because most of the Rest have now downloaded all or nearly all of our killer apps. It is also because we ourselves have lost faith in our own civilization.”
Again, maybe. China may overwhelm the U.S., as another historian once predicted Japan would. But have a closer look at what Ferguson called the “Killer Apps” that have allowed western society to dominate the entire planet for hundreds of years:
• COMPETITION Western societies divided into competing factions, leading to progressive improvements.
• THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION Breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.
• THE RULE OF LAW Representative government based on private-property rights and democratic elections.
• MODERN MEDICINE 19th- and 20th-century advances in germ theory, antibiotics, and anesthesia.
• THE CONSUMER SOCIETY Leaps in productivity combined with widespread demand for more, better, and cheaper goods.
• THE WORK ETHIC Combination of intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.
He broke his list into six headings. But notice that three of Ferguson’s apps, “competition,” “consumer society” and “work ethic” are actually components of one idea: The free market.
A free market encourages competition by allowing successful entrepreneurs to prosper while driving inefficient suppliers out of business. It encourages a consumer society by focusing on creating products people value at prices they’re able to pay. And it encourages a work ethic by rewarding success and making it possible for workers to move up in the world.
China continues to call itself “communist,” but its government has, of course, embraced many of these free market ideas. That’s helped explain its explosive growth in the last decade or so. However, the Chinese still lag in Ferguson’s “rule of law,” as any visitor who’s picked up cheap DVD copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster can attest. As long as China doesn’t protect intellectual property, it’ll struggle to unlock its people’s intellectual potential.
This also helps explain why the American military seems likely to dominate the 21st Century as it did the 20th. “The Western way of war is grounded not merely in technological supremacy but in an entire array of political, social, and cultural institutions,” writes historian Victor Davis Hanson in his book Carnage and Culture. Elsewhere in the book Hanson notes that “Freedom is the glue of capitalism, that amoral wisdom of the markets that most efficiently allots goods and services to a citizenry.”
Of course, there is reason to worry. Freedom isn’t as widespread in the U.S as it used to be. And that’s a matter of federal policy.
President Obama recently warned supporters that if he isn’t reelected, the federal government will end up doing less. “If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. If you don’t like that some corporation is polluting your air or the air that your child breathes, then you’re on your own,” he warned. “That’s not the America I believe in. It’s not the America you believe in.”
But it is the America that applied the “killer apps” to spread our economic and political ideas around the world. There’s no reason the U.S. can’t continue to dominate, if we’re willing to reduce the size and scope of government and go back to promoting the free market. All we need is the will to act.