WHY DO SOCIETIES GIVE UP?

Washington Times on February 19, 2013, published a commentary by Victor Davis Hanson, who asked why once-successful societies ossify and decline?

Hundreds of reasons have been adduced for the fall of Rome and the end of the Old Regime in 18th-century France. Reasons run from inflation and excessive spending to resource depletion and enemy invasion, as historians attempt to understand the sudden collapse of the Mycenaeans, the Aztecs and, apparently, the modern Greeks. In literature from Catullus to Edward Gibbon, wealth and leisure — and who gets the most of both — more often than poverty and exhaustion implode civilization.

One recurring theme seems consistent in Athenian literature on the eve of the city’s takeover by Macedon: social squabbling over slicing up a shrinking pie. Athenian speeches from that era make frequent reference to lawsuits over property and inheritance, evading taxes and fudging eligibility for the dole. After the end of the Roman Republic, reactionary Latin literature — from the likes of Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius and Tacitus — pointed to “bread and circuses,” as well as excessive wealth, corruption and top-heavy government.

After the end of World War II, most of today’s powerhouses were either in ruins or still pre-industrial — China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Only the United States and Great Britain had sophisticated economies that survived the destruction of the war.

In comparison to Frankfurt, the factories of 1945 Liverpool had survived mostly intact. Yet Britain missed out on the postwar German economic miracles, in part because after the deprivations of the war, the war-weary British turned to class warfare and nationalized their main industries, which soon became uncompetitive.

The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites, rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel, or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care — and never have so many been on disability.

For hundreds of years, the outmanned legions of the tiny and poor Roman Republic survived foreign invasions. Yet centuries later, tribal Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and Huns overran the huge Mediterranean-wide Roman Empire.

Given our unsustainable national debt — nearly $17 trillion and climbing — America is said to be in decline, although we face no devastating plague, nuclear holocaust, or shortage of oil or food.

Americans have never led such affluent material lives — at least as measured by access to cellphones, big-screen TVs, cheap jet travel and fast food.

By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States has it all: undreamed new finds of natural gas and oil, the world’s pre-eminent food production, continual technological wizardry, strong demographic growth, a superb military and constitutional stability.

History has shown that a government’s redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private-sector’s creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His new book, “The Savior Generals,” will appear this spring from Bloomsbury Press.

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