Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 23:15 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 23:15 | SYDNEY

The smugness of the anti-declinists


Sam Roggeveen


25 July 2008 11:59

This is a pretty standard critique of the current rash of books and articles on America's decline as a world power. It ends thusly:

Over the years, America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated — by condescending French and British statesmen in the nineteenth century, by German, Japanese, and Soviet militarists in the twentieth, and by homegrown prophets of doom today. The critiques come and go. The object of their contempt never does.

The article makes a number of strong points against the declinist thesis. And I agree that some observers place too much store in events (like Iraq) that look apocalyptic today, but which will look like recoverable American errors in retrospect. As Adam Smith said, there's a lot of ruin in a nation.

But am I wrong in also reading a level of misplaced smugness and complacency into the critique of declinism? It may be true that America's decline has been wrongly predicted many times, but that's really quite irrelevant, isn't it? It would be equivalent to arguing that my guess for whether a coin will come up heads or tails should not be trusted because my previous guess was wrong.

Of course that analogy breaks down under closer comparison. A coin toss is a pure guess, whereas we can examine the methodological reasons why a particular observer was wrong in their prediction about American decline. But this article and others like it make no attempt to do this, and thus gives no reason to be more confident that America will endure rather than decline.