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Are We Really Going The Way Of The British Empire?
Those who believe America’s power is on the wane look to the example of Britain’s shockingly quick collapse. But the similarities may be less alarming than they seem.
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
There are many aspects of American popular culture that are not admirable, and one would hope that others don’t admire them, such as the sometimes excessive consumerism, drug use, the falling savings rate, and so forth. But despite this, what’s interesting is that there are other aspects of American culture—the commitment to democracy, the professed commitment to human rights that sometimes we do live up to in our foreign policy, the concern about material welfare, and the openness to new ideas, to new people—that I think are enormously attractive to others. It’s not that American culture or popular culture is perfect. Far from it. But it’s hard to see any other popular culture in the world that has so seized the minds of many peoples as the American culture has.
You speak about American receptivity and openness, compared with Japanese insularity, but don’t the Japanese themselves contend that their racism serves them well, sparing them the tensions and indeed the occasional miseries of a multinational society?
I think there are two sides to that coin. The Japanese do extremely well with the human resources that they have. Ninety-five percent of Japanese high school students graduate. A quarter of our own high school students don’t, making them virtually helpless in an information-based economy. And the test scores indicate that another quarter probably graduated from high school but didn’t learn as much as they should have. Frankly, we cannot get along in the future if only half our population is adequately equipped to participate in our economy.
On the other hand, if the Japanese do well with the human resources they have, they’re not very good at importing more. And this is an area where the Americans are quite good. We are a nation of immigrants, and we have been very successful in importing human resources, and what’s more, allowing them to rise quite rapidly. It’s a negative comment on the American education system that nearly one-fifth of the engineers in the United States today are foreign-born. But it’s a positive comment on the openness of the American society that these newcomers could rise so quickly to such high-prestige, high-status occupations.
If one looks ahead to the future, one notices that all three areas of the industrialized world—Europe, Japan, and the United States—will face certain demographic problems when the population ages and birthrates decline. And in the long run the United States will be the best placed of the three to profit from imported talent from the rest of the world.
There’s a notion that one of the difficulties that Britain had at the turn of the century was that although her best universities were still the best in the world, she had lost the ability to produce large numbers of technically educated people. Germany produced engineers in quantity; Britain did not. Does this disturb you about the United States, the fact that our excellence, like Edwardian Britain’s, may remain only at the very top of the educational system?
Yes, it does, and this may be one of the places where the analogy to Britain is useful, although the British situation was never wholly comparable to the American one; Britain never sent half of its population into some form of community college or better. But the general concern is real. While we spend a lot on education—more than many other countries —we’re getting worse results for our money, which has to do with the organization and bureaucratization of the school system. That is something we absolutely have to remedy.
In your book you suggest that Americans have traditionally chosen to preserve an eighteenth-century political structure on the grounds that it produces large quantities of liberty at the expense of efficiency. It has similarly been said that Britain long retained what was in fact a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political culture and social structure, with the same result: a great deal of liberty and rather less efficiency than its Continental rivals.
If we have this view that the position of the United States in the fifties and sixties was normal, then we’re bound to feel dread when we consider the present.
I think the founders designed the government to be inefficient. And that indeed is what we have. But in counterbalance to that, there is not only the value of liberty but also the point that much of the creativity of American society is outside government. Entrepreneurship, social mobility, social integration—these are things that are not dependent on central government.
With that said, the governmental situation is serious in the following sense: The United States is currently a rich country that acts poor. There is a chapter on domestic problems in my book that essentially says that just because we remain the largest and the most powerful country and are likely to remain so for some time doesn’t mean that all is well. We have very severe problems, and the one that I placed most emphasis on is the budget deficit; we are unwilling to tax ourselves to pay for what we spend. The fall of the savings rate is partly attributable to the government’s eating up too much of our savings in financing the budget deficits. And our inability to tax ourselves to pay for the services that we want is a reflection of the impasse between Congress and the Presidency, as well as a result of the broader mood in the body politic.