Winston Churchill, 1943
One of the major themes on this blog is sober, positive discussion about Power. Western Civilization has undergone a tremendous change as to the specific objects that represent Power, but it is important to note that the levers and drivers of how to obtain it, how to expand it, and how to exploit it transcend history.
Since the gateway to power can be accessed through several portals, let’s discuss how this has changed over the past 200 years.
Political power is startlingly similar to what it was 200 years ago. In the United States, the republic has predictably allowed its elite to pluck the most feathers with the least amount of hissing.
Economic Power, however, has undergone a sea-change. The days of scaling up heavy industry in developed nations is over. Power now comes from information technology, energy, and global services. These structures have proven to be resilient and it does not appear humans will regress to more primitive means of communication and data gathering.
Ideological power is also experiencing a resurgence. It is somewhat paradoxical that the Internet has unleashed the most powerful means for religious and ideological dissemination the world has yet seen.
A curious side-effect has been a decrease in the use of violence to resolve conflicts both at local and global levels. This might be due to a number of factors, but it appears as though the information age has enabled law enforcement to pursue offenders with a great deal of accuracy, in addition to constantly broadcasting real-life consequences of violence and war. Pain, death, and suffering are now available over the Internet. Consequences are a quick Google search.
Many commentators compare the United States with Great Britain or Ancient Rome and derive comparisons of the eventual demise, simply positing that because the U.S. is extremely powerful and appears to be in a constant state of war its decline is imminent. They fail to realize the unique context and the supreme first-mover and monopoly advantages with respect to technology, legal and financial hegemony, and even the world’s first and only true reserve currency.
The overarching principal of the fall of nations if not one of the erosion of power in absolute terms, but rather a decline relative to the status of other nations. For example, I have written previously regarding the “cause” of the American Revolution and my position that the famine of Bengal had as much to precipitate it as any philosopher of the day (recall also Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was published in 1776).
And so the relative position of the United States as the world’s security service provider is increasing…its market share as a total percentage of “responsibility” grows by the day. Economic power has had its day in the sun, now it is global networks, security, Order, etc.
Thus, the problem with the “Bearish USA” crowd is that they are gazing at a different planet with the same old lenses that suffer from over-use. The next century will not be one of raw economic power winning the day. But rather a logistical challenge that rewards the most informed.
Mercantilism as a gateway to prosperity and power is a foolish concept that generally guarantees social disorder as income inequality becomes unbearable (see Falkenstein’s “envy theory” for more detail on why this concept should be THE fundamental assumption built into all economic theory)
For example, we have witnesses the ascension of China to the ranks of wealthy countries, but does this portend a future of peace and prosperity for the country? I have argued, to put it kindly, “incessantly” that this particular outcome is no likely. Industrial build-out and export capability is no longer power. Technology and connectivity has made the entire world an instantaneous market, and never before in history have labor costs been so transparent. Thus, Mercantilism is a failed strategy, as production can simply be shifted to another locale once costs become prohibitive. Modern manufacturing technique has made this even easier to do since refitting “modular” manufacturing plants is several orders of magnitude easier than it was even 20 years ago.
The future looks even more interesting. Think of the implications of truly “just in time” manufacturing with 3-D printers able to download a concept in real time and deliver them to customers within minutes. There need not be a “factory” at all, and information and logistical expertise will truly be ascendant. This also entails Order and Security services will be needed from a sophisticated and powerful partner. You get the idea.
These circumstances are unique in history, but the underlying mechanisms of change are not. What is different in the present epoch is that physicality, location, population are more irrelevant. What matters now are access, ideas, security, stability, and Order.
And, as I have argued in the past, we should experience a resurgence in religion as proxy for stability and political order. This is simply the by-product of Religion enjoying a somewhat unique message delivery system in the form of faith or adherence to a place of worship. When replications costs for distributing ideas are zero, those organizations that already have stable existing systems enjoy massive advantages vs. competitors. Political process goes through several lenses prior to being accepted…Religion does not have those limitations. Relatedly, domestic instability, rather than external competition, is the major threat to U.S. dominance in the next 100 years and beyond.
The biggest beneficiaries from this lattice of surveillance are those countries that can guarantee privacy and anonymity. These luxuries will become very, very valuable in the coming decades. Countries will form that will seek to provide these services. Big enough to provide the necessary infrastructure, small enough to not attract too much attention. Panama, Bolivia, Angola, Qatar, Iceland, Lithuania, and, yes, maybe even a North Korea post-revolution will be among the contenders for such services.
The first mover, monopoly provider of global security in physical, financial, and legal terms, is the U.S. This status will not simply go away because of some misguided notion of Deficit Spending or shifting Trade Deficits with countries like China. No, it is a persistent real advantage, and one that must be addressed in every conversation regarding the "downfall" of America.