By Victor Davis Hanson
Why do once-successful societies ossify and decline?
Hundreds of reasons have been adduced for the fall of Rome and the end of the Old Regime in 18th-century France.
Reasons run from inflation and excessive spending to resource depletion
and enemy invasion, as historians attempt to understand the sudden
collapse of the Mycenaeans, the Aztecs and, apparently, the modern
Greeks. In literature from Catullus to Edward Gibbon, wealth and leisure -- and who gets the most of both -- more often than poverty and exhaustion implode civilization.
One recurring theme seems consistent in Athenian literature on the
eve of the city's takeover by Macedon: social squabbling over slicing up
a shrinking pie. Athenian speeches from that era make frequent
reference to lawsuits over property and inheritance, evading taxes, and
fudging eligibility for the dole. After the end of the Roman Republic,
reactionary Latin literature -- from the likes of Juvenal, Petronius,
Suetonius, Tacitus -- pointed to "bread and circuses," as well as
excessive wealth, corruption and top-heavy government.
For Gibbon and later French scholars, "Byzantine" became a pejorative
description of a top-heavy Greek bureaucracy that could not tax enough
vanishing producers to sustain a growing number of bureaucrats. In
antiquity, inflating the currency by turning out cheap bronze coins was
often the favored way to pay off public debts, while the law became
fluid to address popular demands rather than to protect time-honored
After the end of World War II, most of today's powerhouses were either in ruins or still preindustrial -- China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Only the United States and Great Britain
had sophisticated economies that survived the destruction of the war.
Both were poised to resupply a devastated world with new ships, cars,
machinery and communications.
In comparison to Frankfurt, the factories of 1945 Liverpool had survived mostly intact. Yet Britain
missed out on the postwar German economic miracles, in part because
after the deprivations of the war, the war-weary British turned to class
warfare and nationalized their main industries, which soon became
The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of
trying to meet ever-expanding appetites, rather than a physical
inability to produce past levels of food and fuel, or to maintain
adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more
sophisticated medical care -- and never have so many been on disability.
King Xerxes' huge Persian force of 250,000 sailors and soldiers could not defeat a rather poor Greece in 480-479 B.C.
Yet a century and a half later, a much smaller invading force from the
north under Philip II of Macedon overwhelmed the far more prosperous
Greek descendants of the victors of Salamis.
For hundreds of years, the outmanned legions of the tiny and poor Roman Republic
survived foreign invasions. Yet centuries later, tribal Goths,
Visigoths, Vandals and Huns overran the huge Mediterranean-wide Roman
Given our unsustainable national debt -- nearly $17 trillion
and climbing -- America is said to be in decline, although we face no
devastating plague, nuclear holocaust, or shortage of oil or food.
Americans have never led such affluent material lives -- at least as
measured by access to cell phones, big-screen TVs, cheap jet travel and
fast food. Obesity rather than malnutrition is the greater threat to
national health. Flash mobs go after electronics stores, not food
markets. Americans spend more money on Botox, face lifts and tummy tucks
than on the age-old scourges of polio, small pox and malaria.
If Martians looked at the small box houses, one-car families and
primitive consumer goods of the 1950s, they would have thought the
postwar United States, despite a balanced budget in
1956, was impoverished. In comparison, an indebted contemporary America
would seem to aliens flush with cash, as consumers jostle for each new
update to their iPhones.
By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States
has it all: undreamed new finds of natural gas and oil, the world's
pre-eminent food production, continual technological wizardly, strong
demographic growth, a superb military and constitutional stability.
Yet we don't talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our
natural and inherited wealth. Instead, Americans bicker over
entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up
trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality rather than liberty is
the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government
goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the
unborn to pay for them.
In August 1945, Hiroshima was in shambles, while Detroit was among the most innovative and wealthiest cities in the world. Contemporary Hiroshima now resembles a prosperous Detroit of 1945; parts of Detroit look like they were bombed decades ago.
History has shown that a government's redistribution of shrinking
wealth, in preference to a private sector's creation of new sources of
it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.