Like Rome, Is U.S. Doomed to Decline?

Classicist Victor Davis Hanson explains causes of Rome’s fall and how the U.S. might follow Byzantium’s more hopeful path

Bronze statue in Rome of Augustus Caesar, who greatly expanded the Roman Empire. Bronze statue in Rome of Augustus Caesar, who greatly expanded the Roman Empire.

In what surely ranks among the most atypical of presentations on the financial lecture circuit, classicist, military historian and farmer Victor Davis Hanson told financial advisors and industry executives gathered for the Retirement Income Industry Association annual meeting in Boston that the long-term future of the U.S. is as hopeful as its present is dismal.

The upbeat conclusion of Hanson’s address Monday night, titled “Are We Rome or Byzantium?”, followed the Hoover Institution scholar’s overarching anatomy of decline.

Citing the Roman city of Pompeii that was buried in volcanic ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the classical historian said that external stimuli like volcanoes or barbarians beyond the frontier are rarely the reason a civilization comes to an end. It is internal rot that brings its demise.

Both Haiti and Chile suffered devastating earthquakes last year, but the former plunged into chaos whereas the internal fortitude of the latter enabled a robust recovery from a much larger seismic event. Hanson hit unnervingly close to home in a second comparison–between Hiroshima to Detroit. The U.S. unleashed the strength of its Midwestern industrial center to fight and win World War II and devastated the Japanese city with its nuclear might. Today parts of Detroit that are not wasteland are reverting to farmland while the city of Hiroshima is booming.

With the historian’s long view, Hanson compared the experience of Rome, which succumbed to unsophisticated barbarians from Germany and Poland in the 470s. Yet nearly 700 years earlier, in 216 B.C., Rome, faced with the far greater threat of Hannibal’s army, powerfully triumphed despite having lost a third of its then small population. Why the difference? The latter day Romans, despite their much greater wealth, population and military and territorial strength, did not know the greatness of Rome. They had lost their civilizational elan, moral fabric and connection to their past.

In contrast to Rome, Byzantium seemed weaker in the 5th century B.C. but recovered, experienced a renaissance and endured another millennium. The difference is that Byzantium embraced Christianity, believed it had a civilizational mission while Rome became utterly demoralized.

roman forumSeen through this historical prism, Hanson analyzed symptoms of decline in the U.S. and cited several indicators of trouble over the past 30 years.

The first negative indicator is a societal shift toward redistribution of capital from creation of capital. Just such a shift undermined the Aztecs, the Roman Empire and the Greeks before them. In the 5th century B.C., just 7,000 Greeks beat back the formidable Persian invading force of 300,000 at Thermopylae. Yet a mere 30,000 Macedonians steamrolled the Greeks two centuries later.

Histories of the later time reveal the Greeks had grown litigious and lazy, suing each other over pensions and disdaining work. The Roman poet Juvenal decried a latter-day Rome of “bread and circuses” where the government paid for its citizens to go to the theater, when an earlier generation sought military command over vacuous entertainment.

Hanson sees a parallel shift in focus in the U.S. Citing the U.S. government budget in 1953, which allocated 70% of funds to defense and 30% to nondefense expenditures, Hanson notes that the debate at the time was whether we were devoting sufficient resources to defense. Today, he says, we have the exact opposite allocation and the current debate is whether we are devoting sufficient resources to social needs.

The second symptom of decline concerns demographics, and in that regard the U.S. is doing well. Americans still produce children at replacement level and welcome immigrants. The ancient Greeks had a maxim about not planting an olive orchard unless there would be future generations to harvest it, and the modern Greeks, with a 1.2% fertility rate–well below replacement–seem to be living it.

Hanson says Greek society and indeed Europe as a whole (with a 1.4% fertility rate) is not much worried about kids or the future, but is rather preoccupied with an easy life supported by the state’s cradle-to-grave guarantees.

A third symptom of decline is the outsourcing of morality from the individual to the state. The state, Hanson argues, has increasingly become the arbiter of good vs. bad. While it’s good to reserve preferred parking spots for the

disabled, we no longer feel as compelled as earlier generations to escort an elderly person across the street. As the government’s moral sphere increases, ours seems to correspondingly decrease.

In a world exhibiting advanced stages of these symptoms of decline, Hanson said the U.S. was in a relatively stronger position to enjoy a Byzantium-style renaissance. He noted that China, which so many fear, faces huge demographic and modernization problems, including a dangerous gender imbalance as a result of its population policies and unionization problems with its industrializing workforce.

Europe faces demographic suicide because of its low birthrate, unassimilated immigrants and an anti-democratic constitution lacking popular legitimacy. The Middle East, he says, is a complete disaster except for democratic Israel.

The United States on the other hand, with its centuries-old Constitution and Bill of Rights, enjoys a structure of law that enables Americans to meet crises (such as the Civil War) in ways that other societies cannot.

The U.S., he says, also enjoys demographic strength and abundant natural resources (our vast oil and gas reserves doubled in just the last five years).

Our problem today, Hanson said, is that capital remains on the sidelines–not because of any one policy like Obama's new health care law or political rhetoric aimed at “millionaires and billionaires” but by an overarching policy and rhetorical climate that in the aggregate signals to productive people to hold off on wealth creation.

Hanson concluded that a shift back toward a culture of respect for creation of capital and a systematic effort to capture wealth would unleash the torrent of jobs so far missing in our economic recovery and would avoid the disease of affluence that was a key cause of the erosion.

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