The Myth of America's Triumph

January 8, 2014 Topics: Politics Regions: United States

The Myth of America's Triumph

Mini Teaser: The declinists are wrong—but so are many of their critics.

by Author(s): Michael Lind

Another claim of the demographic-exceptionalist wing of American triumphalism is that a never-ending stream of youthful immigrants with high birthrates will expand the U.S. labor force while reducing budgetary pressure on entitlements for the elderly for generations to come—even as European and Japanese populations shrink, followed by low-fertility, aging China. Joffe quotes the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt: “By 2025, under current UN and Census Bureau projections, China would account for less than a fifth of the world’s population but almost a fourth of the world’s senior citizens [emphasis added by Joffe].”

The reality is hardly as apocalyptic as Joffe makes it sound. A chart that he reproduces—“Graying China, Youthful America, Young India”—actually undermines his argument. In 2050, according to the graph, about 21 percent of the U.S. population and about 25 percent of the Chinese population will be over sixty-five—compared to only about 13 percent in India. Surely a better description of this scenario would be: “Graying China and Graying America, Youthful India.” Will China really be crippled by having 4–5 percent more of its population over the age of sixty-five than the United States half a century from now?

Demography is neither as favorable for the United States nor as dire for China as Eberstadt and Joffe suggest. In the case of the United States, immigration (legal and illegal) and birthrates plummeted during the Great Recession, as they did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They might resume, with a strong, prolonged economic recovery. But if the United States, like other advanced industrial economies, endures decades of weak demand and slow growth, then recent forecasts of an immigration-driven population explosion in the United States in the twenty-first century may turn out to have been mistakes, caused by a one-generation boom in Latin American immigration attracted by an unsustainable, debt-driven bubble economy.

LIKE MANY ON the political right, Joffe believes that modern, Western-style welfare states crowd out investment capital: “Another reason for slowing growth is the enormous welfare burden, with transfer spending eating up about one-third of Western Europe’s GDP, leaving correspondingly less for investment, which is a down payment on tomorrow’s growth.” This is confused in three ways.

First, as noted above, in the particular case of China, reducing overinvestment and boosting consumption—including consumption by the elderly—would be a good thing. Second, the world for the foreseeable future is likely to be awash in private and sovereign-wealth-fund capital which cannot find adequate investment opportunities, notwithstanding high levels of spending on the elderly in the United States, Europe and Japan. Third, and most important, the main constraint on global growth is not the competition of overly generous welfare states with productive industry for money, but rather the toxic interaction of glut-inducing overinvestment in heavy industries by China and other mercantilist economies with inadequate global consumer demand.

Inadequate global consumer demand, in turn, has a short-term cause—the collapse in spending by households that are “deleveraging” or reducing their indebtedness, in the aftermath of housing and stock-market bubbles—and a long-term cause: the refusal of economic elites, including both the kleptocratic Communist Party princes of China and America’s increasingly plutocratic investors and managers, to share the gains from economic growth equitably with most of their workers in their own nations. In such an environment, slashing entitlements for the elderly would not significantly increase investment, while it would contract demand further, by suppressing spending both by the elderly and the younger relatives who would have to support them more directly.

Echoing Robert Kagan’s thesis that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” Joffe warns Americans against surrendering their martial virtue to the lotus-eater comfort of a European-style welfare state. He writes:

For the great democracies of Europe and Japan, the load [of the welfare state] is not as weighty as it is for the United States. The former are not in the business of world order; in fact, they have been steadily shifting from warfare to welfare. Twenty-first century America is straggling, but moving in the same direction.

Apart from a small group of neoconservative Republicans, there is no constituency in the United States for expanding military spending while cutting Social Security and Medicare. It is hardly a sign of decadence, however, that many Americans prefer “nation building at home” to debacles like those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Nor is there necessarily a trade-off between military preparedness and a generous social safety net. The fact that Americans spend a larger percentage of their economy than do Europeans on health care, for comparable or worse results, suggests that reforming America’s dysfunctional medical-industrial complex could free resources for more butter and more guns, if more guns really were needed.

CONNECTING ALL OF Joffe’s critiques of declinism is a largely implicit but partly articulated theory of history that blends both American and liberal triumphalism, a theory of a kind familiar among contemporary neoconservative and neoliberal thinkers. Nowhere does he set forth his version of triumphalism systematically; he is writing a polemic, not a treatise. Nevertheless, a more or less coherent account of world history and America’s role in it can be pieced together from the incidental comments he makes while attacking declinism.

Like Francis Fukuyama and the Whig historians of yesteryear, Joffe evidently believes that liberal capitalism and democracy are destined to supersede other ways of organizing modern industrial societies. Democracy is a more or less inevitable spin-off of the economic growth produced by industrial capitalism: “The historical correlation is perfect. Growth favors democratization, and as democracy expands, growth shrinks” as “the empowered masses will demand more for themselves and grant less to the state.” According to Joffe:

The benign historical experience of the West—from wealth to liberty, though with murderous totalitarian lapses—has jelled into a kind of economic determinism: with development comes democracy. . . . This deterministic blend of Karl Marx and John Locke does hold for the West, as well as for East Asia’s first risers, where it happened much faster.

Thus, today’s authoritarian China will be pressured to choose democracy by the very economic success that it has enjoyed recently under authoritarian rule.

The view that world history is moving in one direction, toward free markets and multiparty democracy, has become the conventional wisdom among Atlantic elites since the end of the Cold War. A more plausible minority view is that set forth by the Israeli scholar Azar Gat and others: the survival and diffusion of liberal capitalism and democracy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a historical accident, contingent on the geopolitical triumph of the United States over illiberal great powers.

The fascist model of modernity found supporters from Latin America to the Middle East and Asia and was discredited only by the military defeat of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and fascist Italy in World War II. Suppose that the United States had stayed out of World War II and that the world beyond the Americas had been divided among totalitarian empires. Is it really the case that economic growth in a victorious Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan would have led to successful demands for democratizing those authoritarian, state-capitalist regimes? Would the “murderous totalitarian lapses” in Germany and Japan have been mere temporary blips in “the benign historical experience of the West” on the road to liberal, capitalist democracy, absent the pulverization and occupation of Germany and Japan by the United States and its allies?

Similarly, the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the wave of democratization and marketization that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall can be viewed more as a case of opportunistic emulation of the triumphant superpower than as a vindication of a “deterministic blend of Karl Marx and John Locke.” The rapidity with which the nostrums of the New Left of the era of Khrushchev and Mao gave way within the global intelligentsia to paeans to markets and democracy in the 1990s suggests tides of fashion, not deep, underlying currents of history. From this perspective, the collapse of the Soviet threat in the 1980s removed the rationale by which anti-Communist military regimes around the globe had justified their rule, both to their own populations and to their U.S. ally. If the Soviet bloc had remained intact and if the Cold War had persisted to the present, is there any reason to believe that the United States would have pressured its authoritarian allies to democratize? The absence of Soviet-American competition is one reason that the United States today can afford to be relatively relaxed about the overthrow of friendly autocracies like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt as part of the Arab Spring.

There would seem to be a contradiction between Joffe’s expression of confidence in the long-term triumph of liberal-democratic principles and his concern, expressed elsewhere in the book, that liberalism and democracy in the world depend on American military and economic power. “A rules-based world requires a caretaker. . . . How would the world fare if the global commons were run by China or Russia, illiberal giants both? Or even by democratic India, Japan, or Europe, which cannot take care of their own back yards?” Joffe’s list of dangerous powers that only the United States can stand up to is the familiar neoconservative most-wanted list:

Pullquote: Joffe defends a version of American "triumphalism" that is as unbalanced as the very declinism he scorns.Image: Essay Types: Book Review