The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.

I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.

Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.

At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.

The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”

The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”

As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.

However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .

Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?

This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.

The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.

With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Linguistic Rationalization

14 October 2009



There is an insufficient appreciation of the extent to which the US and its characteristic institutions are relics of the Enlightenment. I have commented previously that US leaders no longer believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this may be one of the reasons that the political legacy of the Enlightenment goes largely unrecognized. But the fact remains that the institutions of the US constitute the most systematic and successful attempt to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this is one of the sources of American exceptionalism.

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

But no practice fully or absolutely embodies the theory of which it is an attempted realization, and so too the US and its institutions constitute an incomplete realization of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not exhausted by its political ideals, but also spawned ideals throughout social, economic, religious, and philosophical thought. The US has realized some, but not all, of the political ideals of the Enlightenment, but few of the other ideals of the Enlightenment found application in the institutions of the US, however important these ideals were in the lives of the founders.

We all know (or should know by now) that from the American perspective, the American Revolution was the first great political event of the Enlightenment, while from the European perspective the American Revolution was a sideshow while the French Revolution was the main event. Again, from the American Perspective the French Revolution was a glorious failure and an object lesson that ended in blood and suffering and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon royal family. But France, whatever its political troubles, did make one lasting shift due to the Enlightenment, and that was its conversion to the metric system.


Again, as we all know, the US does not use the metric system. Specialists use it for special purposes, and people who work on Japanese and German cars have wrench sets available in metric sizes, but the mechanics have not thrown away their standard wrenches. The US is nearly isolated internationally in its failure to adopt the metric system. An odd exception along with the US is Burma.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

There is a sense in which the metric system is one of those great ideas of Enlightenment utopianism and universalism, like the idea of a universal language such as Esperanto (of which Carnap was an enthusiast, but of which Wittgenstein said, “Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables.”). What makes the metric system different from other pie-in-the-sky universalist fantasies is that it was actually adopted and is in use throughout most of the world today.

Europe once had almost as many weights and measures as there were cities and towns. Many of these weights and measures were brought to the Americas along with the languages and political traditions of the immigrating Europeans. The Constitution gave the US Congress the power to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” but the Congress did not carry out the kind of wholesale rationalization that was embodied in the metric system. The greatest experiment in the practical application of Enlightenment principles — the United States itself — was to do without the advantages of the Enlightenment’s system of weights and measures.

While in one sense the metric system is a utopian idea, it is also an idea with profound practical economic consequences. The standardization of weights and measures across political boundaries eases trade to a remarkable degree. It is the same logic that was behind the creation of the Euro, a common currency for the European Union (the standardization of currency). The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures, however, did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.

If the standardization of weights and measures had the profound effect that it had on commerce, imagine the economic gains that could be realized from the standardization of language. If one language came to dominate the world in the way that the metric system dominates the world today, there would be a great facilitation of commerce. But the very idea of embarking on a program to replace all the world’s languages with a single language — call it linguistic rationalization, if you like — not only sounds like a utopian fantasy, but in many quarters would be greeted with nothing less than horror. Anthropologists regularly inform us how many of the world’s languages are being lost, and with the loss of every language the world permanently loses part of its cultural heritage.

This is true. It is also true that the world lost a lot of its cultural heritage when the metric system supplanted local systems of weights and measures. It could be argued that while the cultural loss was permanent, or nearly permanent (there are probably records of former systems of measurement), we did not substantially lose cultural diversity as a result. It could also be argued that weights and measures are not as central to cultural life as is language, and that that is why weights and measures were relatively easily converted to the metric system.

Similar arguments, mutatis mutandis, could be made regarding language. A comprehensive program could be undertaken to document all the world’s remaining languages before they were extirpated from general use and replaced with a linguistic rationalization that would facilitate commerce to a remarkable degree. Suppose it could be shown that such a program would make the world wealthier to some definite degree — say it would account for an additional two percent of annual growth in the world economy in perpetuity — can you imagine anyone suggesting such a proposal?

We should consider counter-factual scenarios like this when we meditate on the legacy of the Enlightenment, which, from this perspective, becomes more complex, and therefore more interesting.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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Last Monday I posted The Use and Abuse of Inefficiency, in which I suggested that a society might choose to have an inefficient economic system in order to forestall the economic equivalent of tyranny, just as the inefficiency of parliamentary democracy is sometimes put forward as a mechanism to forestall political tyranny.

In that discussion I several times touched on the issue of popular sovereignty and its place in contemporary political systems. It would not be hyperbole to say that the relation between the state and its people — or, if you prefer (and in the interest of greater precision), between a given nation-state and its population — is not only one of the great political issues of the modern age, but also one of the great moral issues of our time. For while nation-states putatively represent the interests of a given nation, that is, the interests of its people, this de jure concern is not always, not even often, realized in de facto institutions.

France is one of the scenes of the great struggle between people and government, state and population. The French state has been centralized since the middle ages, and this centralization has been strengthened by modern developments. On the other hand, France was the scene of the most radical of the political revolutions that swept away the feudal order and replaced it with a recognizably modern political order. Thus in France we see a strong centralized nation-state, as well as a population that has repeatedly sought political revolution, attempting to overturn the centralized nation-state.

The dialectic of state and people is played out in France in a very concrete way, and often with spectacular violence. It is a little difficult for someone from North America to appreciate it, but even a tourist’s view of France can provide some telling clues. Everyone knows what it is like to try to go to an museum in France only to find that the staff is on strike. The French strike often and strike with gusto. Sometimes, perhaps even often, these strikes turn violent. I recall walking around the base of the Eiffel tower and seeing several police vans parked in the area. I looked in their windows and saw lots of riot gear: helmets, truncheons, and shields.

It was utterly peaceful and quiescent that day at the Eiffel Tower, but the police were ready for a riot to break out nonetheless. The police in France are always ready for a riot to break out, and sometimes one does.

The relation between state and people in France is something like the relation between management and workers in a contested and often violent industry. To use the terminology of that sometime Parisian, Rousseau, this arrangement constitutes something of a social contract. The people of France are accustomed to a strong centralized government that often uses its police power with some brutality, and the government of France is accustomed to a population that sometimes riots violently. Is this an efficient arrangement? Perhaps not, but the French have learned to live with it. It sounds like I’m talking about Italy, where spectacular inefficiencies are often accepted as a matter of course in daily life, but that just goes to show you that societies strike all kinds of deals, and these deals have much more to do with history than with reason or rational planning.

This is the moment, then, when we can assert American Exceptionalism, for in the US, a society created during the Enlightenment, and shaped to reflect Enlightenment values, much is in fact the result of reason, rational planning, and rational compromise. And while the political left likes to remind us of violence of labor history in the US, on the whole life in the US is quite peaceful and orderly, important exceptions noted.

We have, over the past year, seen a financial crisis that has not only destroyed enormous fortunes, but has also devastated the savings and investments of ordinary middle class and working class Americans. Many who have saved a lifetime and have done the responsible thing have suddenly found the value of what they own cut in half. It is a painful experience. But you will notice that there is little or no rioting in the streets. As with the burst of the dot com bubble (or the burst of the Enron bubble), so with the burst of the real estate bubble, Americans accepted their ruin with remarkable equanimity.

Recent financial shenanigans have also included a couple of spectacular pyramid schemes, those of Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford. The collapse of these enormous schemes devastated fortunes great and small. People were angry, and they shouted their anger to television cameras, but overall, things remained peaceful. A few years ago a pyramid scheme collapsed in Colombia and there were riots. A few years before that, pyramid schemes collapsed in Albania and there were riots in which people were killed.

The upshot of this is that, in the US, there is a different social contract than those which prevail in France, Colombia, or Albania. In each case, observe, there is a formal constitution, but there is also a tacit social contract that involves its own assumptions, expectations, and conventions. Is the tacit social contract more or less important in the life of the nation than the explicit and formal constitution, or vice versa? We all know that there are nation-states that utterly ignore their written constitutions, and others that regularly change their constitutions, and nothing else much seems to change. Thus the life of a nation is much more than its formal constitution.

It is to be expected that the observations concerning the political life of the nation also hold for the economic life of the nation, with similar distinctions between implicit social contracts and formal economic institutions as well as the difference among nation-states between both of these. And it is not only the difference between formal and informal institutions (the fact that these institutions exist in parallel), but the tension between the two, that defines the unique economic climate of a nation-state.

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