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.
It’s not that Luce’s argument isn’t convincing. Many things in ths country, from the stock market to public education to scientific discovery, seem to be getting worse. But in citing only very recent trends, Luce implies that if only we as a nation could address issues like education and business creation, then we all could be rich again. He acknowledges that this is unlikely—“one nagging concern,” he writes, “is that America’s obsession with what Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor, calls ‘the politics of now’ will continue to divert Washington’s policymakers from domestic problems.” But Luce seems unwilling to take the next step and ask why are these things happening, and whether we can really correct them.
While Luce never comes to this point, he seems to demonstrate, by accident, that civilizational decline is more than just a matter of contemporary political dysfunction. A country’s downfall, like its rise, is apolitical. There’s something very risky about pointing to decline by citing only fleeting economic trends. So many pundits shout, write, and blog that “if the Obama administration would take the following few steps” we could fix this. As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic in 2010:
The United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong. And a longer-term perspective would mean doing all we can to address the “75-year threats”—the issues for which we’ll be thanked or blamed two or three generations from now.
The country should, Fallows explained fix, its infrastructure, invest more money in research, and get serious about environmental degradation. Good ideas, but isn’t the real problem the fact that US policymakers can’t (or won’t) do these things?
Were there 75-year threats Gladstone could have addressed in the 1880s that would have kept Britain on top? Does it matter? Were there 75-year threats the Emperor Diocletian,, who split the Roman empire in two in order to try to preserve the institution’s power, could have addressed in the 290s?
Sure it’s time to “start thinking,” but, frankly, the time to reverse the decline trend might be over. Politicians have proven themselves, for thousands of years, unable to stop decline; they can only manage it.
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