World history is largely the history of the rise and fall of empires. The US (American) empire is the latest, and although it is only a little more than 200 years old, it is already showing signs of a potentially fatal disintegration.
Americans like to call their country a “superpower” rather than an imperial empire. Great Britain and Rome were also superpowers in their day, but they did not hesitate to call themselves imperial empires. Most “empires” were short lived because they plundered their neighbors or tried to impose some religion or ideology – usually with bad results. Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich” existed for only ten years.
The most successful empire in history was the British, which lasted about 400 years and controlled a quarter of the Earth’s land and population. The British succeeded in part because they were in fierce competition with the French, the Spanish, and others, and they knew full well that if their small island was to survive, it had to be more efficient and innovative than its larger rivals.
Many of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment were an intellectual force in the British Parliament, but were only lukewarm when it came to the Empire. But they established principles of how best to survive – free trade, protection of private property, rule of law, etc. The British who served in different colonies brought their own institutions, clubs, sports and etiquette. often accepted by the colonizers by choice rather than coercion.
After World War I, the United States became the dominant empire, taking the financial, industrial, military, and even global cultural and entertainment mantle from the British. The British were exhausted by World War I and the rising costs of maintaining their colonies. Despite having “won”, the greater costs of World War II spelled the end of empire for the British.
Most empires die from overextending themselves, often from expensive military adventures that lead to bankruptcy, and from an increasingly lazy, incompetent and corrupt political and civil service class. The signs of America’s decline are clear, from rising crime rates in many major cities to declining academic test scores. Real wages no longer match or exceed inflation – due to undisciplined spending.
Generally, as countries become richer, they also become healthier and have higher life expectancies. After two centuries of rising life expectancy, the US has reversed course and life expectancy has fallen back to 1996 levels, a study released last week shows. Some of this may be temporary as a result of COVID-19, but most of it is the result of lifestyle choices with increased drug use, etc. Medical science continues to make great strides, but at the same time the majority of the population is becoming less healthy – a contradiction that is a sign of decay in society.
Since the beginning of the Republic, successive generations of Americans have become better educated, leading to a more productive workforce and a more informed electorate. But now test scores are falling, and many students can no longer do basic math or read and write at grade level. Instead of learning about history, the foundations of the American system of government, and the reasons for the Bill of Rights, students spend time learning how racist and sexist their friends and neighbors are. Not good for social cohesion.
Wokeism has even hit the nation’s top 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 medical care, but we do care about their qualifications and experience. The more time students spend discussing the modern theories of socialists and utopians, the less time they spend learning meaningful and useful things. Communists/socialists spent a lot of money and time educating their population on “what to think”, but they were able to provide basic material welfare.
Last week, Boeing announced that it will not design and manufacture an all-new plane until at least the mid-2030s, while unveiling its last 747. 50 years ago, three wide-body aircraft were produced in the USA. civil aircraft – Boeing with 747, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011. With competition came great innovation. Boeing and Europe’s Airbus now have a comfortable government-subsidized and controlled duopoly where innovation is scarce. Boeing’s last all-new plane was the 787 (Dreamliner), introduced in 2011. Innovation dies because of too much regulation, too much taxation, and too little competition.
Empires tend to stifle innovation and expand bureaucracy until it collapses under its own weight. The empire crumbles as individual public services collapse one after the other – including the military – and private providers are slowly suffocated until they wither. It is not predictable that the US will soon follow the path of the Roman, British, or Spanish empires, but without changing course, the end is certain.
• Richard W. Rahn – Chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.