American (Relative) Decline Would Be a Good Thing

Kevin Drum has a good post on the recurring waves of declinist sentiment in America, but I did want to encourage a different emotional orientation from this one:

But what’s remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn’t guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it’s ever been, and it’s certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive.

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Anyway, I find that when I’m feeling depressed I think America is in terminal decline, and when I’m in a good mood I don’t. Despite being sick at the moment, I’m in a relatively good mood today, so I don’t think we’re in decline. But ask me again next week and I might change my mind.

Something to note here is that relative decline would almost certainly be a good thing. America’s share of world population is pretty small, so far and away the most likely scenario for American relative decline would be “catch up” growth in large poor countries such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. And I hope it happens! A lot of third world countries adopted staggering bad policies in the postwar era. That bolstered America’s relative standing in the world, but it was a human tragedy. Besides which, even if faster growth in those places leads to relative decline in American dominance, it would almost certainly boost our living standards in absolute terms. Healthier, better-educated, freer, richer, more productive people in all those other countries would invent marvelous things, produce great works of art, etc. and we’d all win.

The tragedy would be global stagnation, not American decline.