One of the factors in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was a temperamental evolution among the Roman classes. In short, they outgrew the traits that made them “roman” in the first place. Among these traits were a certain ferocity of character, a pervasive and driving ambition, and a faith that Rome was destined to greatness. Over generations, with success, wealth, and victory accumulating beyond all measure, the Romans grew soft.
The great Khans of the Eurasian steppe noted a similar tendency among their horse-warriors. The characteristics that gave the Mongols unquestioned military superiority on campaign tended to fade when the riders became occupiers of towns and cities. The sedentary life unmade the harsh edge of nomadic life. To combat this, generals would institute rotations among their warriors that would put men back to the steppe after a certain amount of time spent in a city.
It is tempting to think that Americans have grown soft. Certainly more Americans live in metropolitan areas than ever before. The privations of the Depression era are closer to folklore than memory. Few born after 1980 even remember the Cold War. As Francis Fukuyama suggested, we may be living at the end of history.
America has nothing equivalent to the steppe to return to, no place to serve as a whetstone for our cultural traits. Mark Steyn has wonderfully chronicled the comforts of decline with sidewalk cafes now lining former landscapes of production. Socialized healthcare, tenure, early retirements, long vacations, prolonged adolescence, endless entertainment options and so on, cushion each of our days. Decline may be coming, but it is not yet here, and even if it were who would care: if this is decline it is full of enjoyment.
To trade rugged individualism, stubborn self-reliance, and an anti-authoritarian love of liberty for the relative wealth (America’s poor are fat homeowners with cable television and air conditioning) and excess of the age seems to most to be a bargain.
Should anyone even dare to reject this Faustian bargain, what options would they have? A rejection of the modern world would seem less Henry David Thoreau and more Ted Kaczsynski.
For the political conservative the founding era is a surrogate for the steppes. We visit the battle sites, read the biographies – of what truly is our “greatest generation” – and cite the founding documents. It is a good start.
Many Americans do embrace the older lifestyle. We live in nuclear families attend religious services on Sunday and use the v-chip to block MTV in our homes. Of course millions do live in rural areas, work with their hands for wages, and live without subsidized guarantees. Some bear the responsibility of military service. There is no doubt that broad swathes of America live and breathe the ethos that made the United States the brightest light of liberty and material security in the world.
If decline is not yet fully upon America, we are near the tipping point. So many people have signed on for the decadent comforts that bring decline.
I hope I may be wrong, but the only hope I see to avoid decline and reverse the creeping trend is to care for the future. Not just any future, and certainly not some theoretical eco-future. In fact, I think no future of our own is persuasive enough. Only the future of our children may be worth a determined embrace of liberty over decadence. We must want our children to inherit a super-power, not the mortgage bill for our comforts.
Ever lower birth rates in the modernized nations has accelerated decline. Look only to Greece, Italy, and France for evidence. The rest of Europe and Japan is not far behind. Even surging China is facing a pending downward spiral that threatens their economic prosperity. America is on this path of childlessness that values selfish pursuits over posterity.
The 2012 Presidential election is important in that one candidate represents the manifestations of decline while the other represents the traditional model. Yet the wheels of decline are already in motion. The impact of the 2012 election seems more likely to influence the pace of decline rather than the direction of the nation. We may have already come too far.
I am not optimistic.