Optimistic or Pessimistic About America?

Commentary Magazine

November 2011

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

Whether someone is optimistic or pessimistic is usually more a product of his temperament than external conditions. My own outlook is generally optimistic, so it should be no surprise that I am bullish about the prospects of my country. But there is also good reason to have faith in America’s future.

Look at how far we have come since the start of the War of Independence in 1775: from 13 beleaguered colonies with 2.5 million inhabitants perched precariously on the eastern seaboard to a continental nation of 307 million that is wealthier and more powerful than any other in history.

There was nothing foreordained about our rise. We had to surmount numerous challenges—from the initial revolution to the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Great Depression​, World War II​, and the Cold War​—that could have done us in, or at least vastly reduced our standing. Just look at how other megastates such as China and Russia, or potential megastates such as Europe and Latin America (both of which have long dreamed of unification), have sabotaged their own prospects with suicidal political and economic policies. That could have been us. But it wasn’t.

The reasons for our success surely include a favorable geography that provides us lots of natural resources and few nearby enemies and allows us access to both Europe and Asia; a political system that makes the state stable and flexible; a legal system that guarantees property rights and minimizes corruption; an entrepreneurial culture that encourages innovation and economic growth; an openness to immigrants that allows us to assimilate newcomers better than any other nation in the world does; and a civic spirit that leads citizens to serve when called upon—whether in 1861, 1941, or 2001.

I have no reason to think that we have lost any of these fundamental strengths. None of our “near peer” competitors is so lucky.

Europe must deal with chronic disunity, economic stagnation, an aging population, a sclerotic welfare state that cannot be cut back without riots in the streets, an influx of immigration that threatens traditional culture, and puny military capabilities. Japan’s population is aging even more rapidly—it’s in a demographic death spiral. The same goes for Russia.

China is facing its own demographic issues: its population is predicted to decline after 2020. It will age so rapidly that there will not be enough workers to support hordes of retirees. China must also deal with the fundamental illegitimacy of its unelected government, its lack of civil society, pervasive corruption, environmental devastation, and paucity of natural resources. (Almost all its oil must come from the Middle East along sea-lanes controlled by the U.S. Navy.) India, as a fellow democracy, may have greater potential to knock us off our perch, but given how poor it remains, that is unlikely to happen in this century.

We have our own urgent problems to address—especially too much federal spending and too little economic growth—but they are hardly unsolvable. Ronald Reagan​ dealt successfully with similar issues in the 1980s. All it will take is a political change in Washington, which is becoming more likely as Obama’s popularity wanes. There is no reason the 21st century cannot be another American Century.