America Stalled

From Morton Keller at the Hoover Institution:

In the scant arsenal of the historian, the concept of the century has an outsized place. A historian’s century needn’t strictly adhere to the dictates of the calendar: Most of them, for instance, incline to the view that the twentieth century began with the outbreak of World War  One in 1914. (Though there is the unsettling fact that by the time the novelist Henry James died in 1916, he had acquired electric lighting, rode a bicycle, wrote on a typewrirter, saw a movie, and could have had a Freudian analysis, flown in a plane, and understood the principles of the jet engine and space travel.)

However defined, one of the distinctive features of the twentieth century was the rise of the large, regulatory, welfare-warfare state to become the default model for governance, replacing the monarchical-aristocratic and laissez faire-liberal polities that were the nineteenth century’s norms.

Large-scale historical changes spurred the transformation: the rise of industrial economies; popular nationalism and cultural unification; and the ever-expanding arsenal of bureaucratic, military, and economic policies that fostered the growth of government. New technology and forms of political, social, and economic control intertwined to foster scale and centralization.

The twentieth-century state took a variety of forms. Hitler’s Germany, Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China rose and fell in their distinctively destructive fashions. Tinhorn versions of the totalitarian model cropped up in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Authoritarian kleptocracies became the norm in much of Latin America, the Middle East, and post-colonial Africa. Most of Western Europe along with its Canadian and Australasian outliers adhered to a third, far more benign model of representative democracy. But whatever the form, the trend line was the growth of the big-spending state. Between 1870 and 2007, government spending as a portion of national income rose from 9.4 to 44.6 percent in Great Britain, from 10 to 43.9 percent in Germany, and from 12.6 to 52.6 percent in France.

And then there is the United States, in so many ways the West’s outlier. It had no history of feudalism, aristocracy, or monarchy, and came up with the first large liberal-democratic polity. But this heritage had its costs. American democracy, individualism, and voluntary association went hand in hand with American slavery, which flourished even as abolition took hold elsewhere in the Western world. And Southern secessionism, slavery’s close companion, rose while unification became the norm in Western Europe, notably in Germany and Italy. What historian David Donald called “an excess of democracy”—the freedom of Americans to create their own forms of social organization, from religion and labor to politics and government—fed the nation’s greatest social and political failures as well as its triumphs.

Read more: Hoover Institution