Rise and Decline - Discussion

Main Points

  1. It’s historically certain; the United States of America will cease to exist … someday.
  2. The life cycle of nations; why they rise and inevitably decline.
  3. America’s life as a nation; when did it start and when did we start to decline?
  4. The decline of our nation; what can we do about it? Why bother?

Questions & Answers

  1. How does history say America will cease to exist? How can you be so sure? President Trump says he will make America great again.

    First, we need to be clear; we’re talking about states, not people, not ethnic groups. By ‘state’ I mean an independent, organized political entity, recognized as such by other states.  The people in North America will continue to live as their states come and go.  Just as the French people, for instance, have lived through the rise and decline of 10 French states just during the current lifetime of the United States.

    History has seen thousands of states, around 700 in just the last five centuries.  Of those, 200 exist today, and the majority of these are less than 50 years old.  The United States is 241 years old.  Only four current nation/states have been around longer – San Marino (since 1243), Vatican City (1274), the United Kingdom (1689) and Oman (1749).

    Q:Those statistics don’t prove that the United States won’t last forever.

    That’s true.  But they present odds that virtually no one would bet against!

    Q:So you think Trump’s goal to ‘make America great again’ is just rhetoric?

    Not necessarily.  He says America will be great again.  But he hasn’t said America as we know it will last forever, much less be great forever.

  2. How do nations start?  What makes them rise and decline?  There must be many reasons, different for all nations.

    The germ of any nation is an idea that one or a small group of people have in mind.  When they convince some critical mass of others to adopt that idea, a nation is born.  It rises in prominence as its people carry out its founding principles.  It declines as its people neglect or disdain those principles, ultimately ceasing to exist.

    Q:What do you mean by founding ideas?  What are some examples?

    Rise and Decline identifies founding principles of six historical nations.

    • Ancient Athens – Citizen sovereignty, and opportunity for upward mobility through individual initiative.
    • The Roman Republic – Sovereignty of the state (imperium), government with participation of the governed (res publica), trustworthiness in all agreements (fides) and freedom from domination by one man.
    • The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – The Golden Liberty including election of the king by the szlachta, freedom of religion, the liberum veto, obligation to provide unpaid military service.
    • The Third French Republic – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
    • The United Kingdom – The supremacy of the elected Parliament, together with rights granted by Parliament to citizens, such as the English Bill of Rights (1689).
    • The United States – Preambles to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
    … all men are created equal … endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …

    We the People of the United States in Order to … establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty …


    Q:Most of the nations you mention, and others, seem to have risen by conquering others and building empires.  Then, when other nations conquered them, they declined and died.  So don’t power and dominion have more in common with nations rising and declining than any founding principles?

    That’s pretty much the way history is presented.  But there are flaws with that impression.  First, over the course of history, conquest has not been a significant part of many – maybe thousands – of nations’ life cycles … San Marino, and Switzerland are current examples.  History takes less note of such, perhaps because their stories seem less interesting and they leave fewer dramatic markers.  And it’s generally easier to see what nations have done than to understand why, which gets into personal motivations and social dynamics.

    Q:Looking at nations that no longer exist … they’ve died from many different causes – wars, revolutions, international mergers, natural disasters, etc.  How can you say that citizens’ disregard for founding principles was the cause of their demise?

    That’s not quite what I’m saying.  As you say, a nation’s life cycle may be cut short by many different things.  But Rise and Decline shows that citizen disregard for founding values will always lead to a nation’s downfall and demise (if nothing else does it first).

  3. So how can we say it’s happening to America?

    Keep in mind that ‘rise and decline’ refers to a nation’s prominence relative to other nations.  Such prominence is an aggregate of many factors.  With any given nation, certain factors may be much more significant than others.  For the United States, we looked at population, territory, the economy, international standing, education, quality of life and individual rights; how these changed over the years.

    From our founding until 1945 most such factors were trending upward, both absolutely and relative to other nations.  By the end of World War II we were ‘on top’.  And we stayed there for around 50 years.

    Many or most probably agree that the United States has passed its peak.  Assigning any single year to the end of Maturity and beginning of Decline is more problematic.  Arguments can be made for almost any year between the mid-1960s through the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.  I’ve chosen the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 because it made clear that the United States could no longer prevent enemy attacks within its territory.

    The erosion of regard for founding values – the U.S. raison d’être – can be seen at many points in our history, but it clearly began to accelerate around these same years.  Most notable, I think, is the entrenchment of disdain for our founding values in educational institutions; among those who teach our youth, which began in the 1960s.  As a result, large segments of our populace don’t support rights expressed in the Declaration and Bill of rights … at least not for others.

  4. You make it sound pretty dire.  But if it’s really inevitable, what can we do about it?  And why bother?

    History is clear.  America’s nation-life as we presently know it will cease to exist, someday.  And we can’t know what will replace it.  So the operative consideration for us and for our descendents is 'how long do we have'?  And, assuming we want to, what can we do to prolong the life of the United States?

    Q:OK.  How long do we have?

    I can’t say.  Some nations have lasted for only a short time; others for centuries.  Of those examined in Rise and Decline, the Roman Republic lasted 460 years; the French Third Republic only 70.  The period of decline can be very brief (20 years for the French Third Republic) or quite extended (107 years for ancient Athens).  The United Kingdom has been in decline since 1920 (97 years), and the United States for about 24 years.

    Q:So the real question is can we prolong the life of the United States?

    Yes, if we want to.  It seems that many Americans don’t much care, and some really seem to believe that their idea of some other country is a better model for our own.

    But assuming enough Americans want to prolong the life of the United States, we’ll have to commit to a multi-generational program that includes:

    • Parents of school-age children must take charge of the values imbued in their children.  They should talk about American history in their homes and make a conscious effort to imbue their children with founding values.  And they should challenge teachers who denigrate or dismiss such values.
    • Our schools, colleges and universities must reestablish teaching, comprehension and practice of values, liberties and rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
    • Teach Americans to value freedom more highly, thereby restoring balance between freedom and equality.
    • Control immigration to ensure entrance only of immigrants and refugees who support United States laws, values and way of life. Require and facilitate timely assimilation.
    • Repeal or modify existing laws that abridge individual freedoms.
    • Nullify the mass of federal regulations that presume to advance equality through excessive abridgement of individual freedoms and the initiatives they spawn.
    • Eliminate, or at least reduce government elitism and sense of entitlement by enacting Constitutional amendments that will impose term limits on Congress and prohibit exemption of its members from laws it enacts.
    • Elect leaders who will consistently support a program of revival of liberty and enterprise.  Consciously evaluate how well seekers of public office understand, articulate and demonstrably support Constitutionally-guaranteed individual freedoms; vote accordingly.

    Q:Presented with such a program, many Americans would respond, “Why Bother?  Things are pretty good just as they are.”

    Many Americans wouldn’t agree that things are pretty good.  But leaving that aside, we must understand that things will not stay the way they are.  They’ll either get better, or they’ll get worse.

    If we think they’ll get better by doing nothing or continuing existing patterns, then we needn’t bother … we or our descendents will soon be living in a different nation.

    If we want to preserve and improve the nation we have as long as possible, then we’d better bother.  We may be nearing a point of no return.