Grassroots Commentary

The Decline and Fall of America

By Marvin Folkertsma · Nov. 16, 2012

A few days after the election of 2012 the very talented Michael Ramirez published a political cartoon that perhaps conveyed a more profound meaning than he anticipated. He depicted a pair of hands extending from star-studded sleeves (presumably from a mendicant Uncle Sam), which were held in supplication, as though waiting for a handout or petitioning voters to relinquish more of their earnings to the federal government. There's another way of interpreting this image, however; the hands appeared not only pathetic and a bit contemptible, but also aged and withered, as though belonging to an old man. In which case, this representation captured perfectly the situation of the United States as it enters the second decade of the 21st century: America is getting older and is entering a state of decline.

No one understood the dynamics of aging societies approaching decrepitude better than Mancur Olson, an economist who taught at the University of Maryland until his death in 1998. Olson's crowning achievement was a book published in 1982 titled, “The Rise and Decline of Nations.” Olson argued that the proliferation of interest groups (collusions or distributional coalitions, in his terms) eventually spells doom for the societies they inhabit. And proliferate they have, from 6,000 in 1959 to 22,000 at the beginning of the 21st century, according to the Encyclopedia of Associations. Like it or not, every man, woman, and child in the country is represented by an interest group.

But when we say “interest group,” what exactly do we mean? America's master political thinker, James Madison, said it best with his definition of “faction” in Federalist 10, as comprising “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (italics added). So much for our contemporary, naïve notions about how factions (interest groups) proclaim to represent some greater good.

It gets worse, especially considering three additional developments. First, America's mammoth federal government constitutes an interest group itself, which means it does all the things other public and private groups do to protect itself. Second, about half of the population receives some form of aid from the federal government, according to the Heritage Foundation's 2012 Index of Dependence on Government, and these recipients constitute perhaps the most behemoth group of them all. Third, close to one-half of the entire population does not pay federal-income taxes, a figure that climbed from 12 percent in 1969 to 34.1 percent at the beginning of the Bush administration to its current figure as President Obama starts his second term. The question is: What does all this mean for the destiny of America?

Prepare yourself for some very bad news. As societies age, they “tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time,” which in normal speak means that societies become infested with interest groups just like arteries become more rigid and clogged with body gunk as you get older – a phenomenon Jonathan Rauch referred to as “Demosclerosis.” Further, groups “reduce efficiency and aggregate income in the societies in which they operate and make political life more divisive.” Example: anyone read the healthcare bill lately? And the thousands of regulations in existence and forthcoming? And consider its huge increased costs?

The keystone of this argument is a passage that is terrifying in its implications and is worth quoting in full: “The typical organization for collective action [interest group] within a society will … have little or no incentive to make any significant sacrifices in the interest of the society” and “there is … no constraint on the social cost such an organization will find it expedient to impose on the society in the course of obtaining a larger share of the social output for itself” (italics in original). This means nothing less than it says: a group will kill its host, the American republic in this case, before relinquishing even a modicum of benefits for itself.

Nations die this way, empires collapse, societies atrophy, and countries implode (like the old USSR) or are conquered from without. In the United States, this phenomenon cannot be blamed exclusively on Democrats or Republicans; both parties represent coalitions of groups that all want something from the government. Indeed, if there is any difference between Republicans and Democrats in this regard it is that President Obama has accelerated this process over the last four years. But institutionalized selfishness was a going concern before he came along.

All of which is suicidal, right? Yes, it is. Can anything be done to arrest or reverse this process? Absent some kind of revolutionary demolishing of governmental interventions, no, there probably is not. What, then, might happen to America? Considering the current economic situation, some kind of collapse is of course possible. Most likely the United States will change into something else, into a “soft” totalitarian society envisioned by Alexis de Tocqueville, where its citizens are “cared for” but weighted down by mountains of rules and bereft of any dynamism, creativity, or imagination – subservient, socialist, and senile.

And we will have no one to blame for the fall of our country but ourselves.

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science and fellow for American studies with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a high-energy novel titled “The Thirteenth Commandment.”

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7 Comments

P. Long in Texas said:

Yes and isn't it sad. "Our" goals are always more altruistic, more noble, more deserving, less self serving and alas, totally human. We just keep treading the same old pathways over and over. What was it someone said about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different out come? Doesn't say much for us humans.

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 1:25 PM

Orf in Pennsylvania said:

So much talk and no helpful action. I have posted elsewhere several times two of the most obvious enemies (factions) of society -- the propaganda news media and the leftist controlled educational establishment. I also suggested how to change these destructive factions. But I don't know if anyone is listening. I am too old to start political actions, but I hope someone will pick up the ball and run with it.

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 2:51 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Part of what we have today, in Amerika, is SELFISHNESS, or the lack of sufficient maturity, to see beyond one's own NOSE! The Society of Friends (Quakers) was my first organized Church. The Quakers believe in spritual equality for women, abolishing slavery (where it still exists), and of course Religious Freedoms. Two past Presidents were Quakers; Richard M. Nixon, and Herbert Hoover.

Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 6:19 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

One of the problems I see is there is no concept of responsibility by the liberals, the lamestream media, and those living on the dole. They have no interest in preserving the values that made us a great nation. The idea that each individual should work and attain the best life for themselves and their families is now passe. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that we all have a good life even if it has to take from those who work and give to those who don't. No one is held responsibile for the choices they make because there is always an excuse as to why they made those choices. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to be be illterate in this country but we have high-school graduates who can not fill out a job application correctly. We have women having babies they can't take care of because they are too lazy to use birth control and men who disappear the minute they find out she is pregnant. Taking responsibility for your actions is a big no-no! Blame it on someone or something else. I know this is a long tirade but it is sickening to see what is happening to what was once the greatest nation on earth.

Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

One of my son's teachers, in 8th grade, has two pictures of Obongo-Karl Marx on the front wall of the classroom. I had to bite my tongue, for the twenty minutes, that we spent at the parent teacher conference, today!!!Self control is a virtue, so God help me!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 7:02 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

TOD, Just another example of what our children in the public schools are exposed to everyday. I wonder what him/her's response would have been if you had asked why there was not a picuture of a Republican president. My bet is him/her would have been offended. No fair play in the liberal agenda.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 11:27 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Socialism starts as the Statists grab more and more of other people's money. Back in 2006, those ugly bailouts of "W", were like a spider web, woven around the private sector. When Obongocare is fully implemented, employers will only pay penalties, because H.C. will simply be too expensive, come Jan 2014.Applebees, and others, are reducing employee hours to 30, the threshold where H.C. bens stop.Organized Labor cares not 'bout da private sector, which Obongo is poisoning---SLOWLY, but purposefully.

Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 6:27 AM