The current U.S. government, he writes, is huge, overly bureaucratic, and increasingly impotent. But there’s a difference between a cause and symptom. If we could only fix this, he suggests, the country might maintain its power. “America has no lack of ‘starter pack’ ideas,” he writes, about the country’s attempt to address its “growing crisis.” The trouble, he explains, is that
It mostly lacks the will to implement them. In areas where Washington does find the will, such as education, its ideas have not had the desired effect. Most important, though, America’s economic crisis has grown alongside a mutually reinforcing polarization in police that has badly disable the federal government’s ability to offer solutions. Just when intelligent government is most needed, it seems to have been put beyond reach.
What he seems not to understand, when he demonstrates the stasis of our current government—particularly partisan wrangling over uncontroversial policy proposals and meaningless struggles over the federal budget—is that dysfunctional politics are itself a symptom of national decline. Cato the younger, for instance, used the filibuster in the ancient Roman senate to block new tax policies and oppose land reforms that would give farms to veterans. Caesar, sensibly, responded by dragging Cato out of the Senate and taking the land vote directly to the people. We’ve been here before.
But Luce never mentions this. Part of the trouble with his presentation seems to stem from his essentially shallow take on world history. While he laments, at one point, the fact that no one in Washington seems to know anything about Washington before the last election cycle, he only bothers to go back a few more pages himself. When he delves into history it is virtually always British history. Like Great Britain in the late nineteenth century, he argues, we’re now at the point where we suspect something is amiss, but our government just can’t seem to correct it effectively. Like Lord Balfour and William Gladstone, President Obama just isn’t implementing the right policies. Well, why not?
It’s understandable that his perspective on decline doesn’t extend much beyond the political economy of the last 250 years. There’s a reason for this—he’s a British journalist who worked at the US Treasury Department—and there are specific measures used to compare economies. But by focusing only on the free-trade-based economies of nineteenth century Britain and twenty-first century America, he seems to miss larger historical patterns. These two examples might have a lot in common, but ultimately their economic strength and military prowess are no more distinct that of hundreds of other cultures throughout history. One country can’t rule forever. Powerful civilizations go through cycles. They all start to look kind of the same.
Luce makes much of income inequity, but the existence of a small group of mega-rich oligarchs, however disturbing their existence may be, is not simply a function of the politics of, say, President Ronald Reagan—it’s a feature of all declining civilizations. As Francis Fukuyama explained in The Origins of Political Order (2011), the rich in powerful empires have long tried to avoid taxation, no matter how much their states may need the funds. China’s Han dynasty fell in the third century AD in part due to aristocratic families’ success at keeping their land from taxation. Sixteenth-century Spanish kings sold state offices to the rich as a way to raise funds and keep the aristocrats occupied. This naturally had the effect of both not raising enough money and putting incompetent people in positions of power. Ancien regime France exempted the aristocracy from taxes and shifted the whole tax burden, used to pay for continuous wars, to the peasants.