The Decline and Fall of America

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 perfectlythe 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.
This article is used with permission from the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College is a conservative think tank promoting truth and liberty through a vision of faith and freedom. 

Dr. Marvin Folkertsma


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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  • javajoe

    Cataclysmic events will take place before most people will notice. Materialism and consumerism have blinded us to economic reality. We have been living on borrowed money for too long. We wouldn’t consciously run a family budget the way our representatives have run this country. Very few are principled enough! I think the only solution is term limits!! Also, cut up the credit card and pass a balanced budget amendment!!

  • Annamarie

    How sad, but how very true! As a country, we have become parasites! These parasites (interest groups) are eating ourselves alive from within. Perhaps it was inevitable, perhaps not. All I know is that with the coming of Obama, the rate has increased remarkably.
    So, for all you liberals who have been cheering over and slobbering over, the re-election of The Anointed, what you have actually been cheering for its the dissolution of America, for the destruction of a way of life. Are you happy now?

  • Poppiexno

    Wodrow Wilson planted the seeds of our decline. The malignant plant was nurtured especially by FDR and LBJ and prospered. With some modest pruning over time by Raegan and others ti continued to grow. Now it is in full flower and has nearly smotherd all else in the garden of our society.
    Roosevelt and Johnson did great harm – but they thought (like Stalin in Russia) they were building a better America. Obama is unique. He wants a weaker, less prosperous and less religious America. May God help the next generations.

  • Victoria

    This is a bleak picture. But for Christians there is always hope, despite what happens to our country, because we are not citizens of this world first. And we Catholics are a large interest group which is capable of putting the interests of others before ourselves. We can turn this country around, with prayer and commitment.

  • Grizzly Mom

    Oh really? That’s why Catholics put Obama in office- think again. It’s the sad truth.
    It’s the social justice junk that Dems have been pedaling and Catholics have been buying. The poor will always be with us- now there will just be many, many more of them with no one to help them. God have mercy on us all!

  • Silence Dogood

    We must never stop helping God’s children, the government may run out of money, but God’s mercy knows no end, don’t lose hope. Now let’s stop calling those who voted for Obama “Catholics”. They are not. They simply represent a large portion of prideful liberals who place party above Catholic teaching, and public office above God. Any Catholic worth his salt and worthy of the title Catholic would not have voted for policies directed at dismantling the religious liberty of the Church and the continued destruction of human life and dignity. They are always welcome back to the Church if they choose to repent, but they have broken ranks on their own accord, and they must return just the same (with prayers from us to aid). The teachings of the Church are clear, you either stand with them or you do not. There is no right or left, up or down in the Church, there is only Catholic and non-Catholic. What we saw this past election were a large group of non-Catholics, assuming the name “Catholic” (out of pride) and then proceeding to voting for non-Catholic principles. We must pray for our brothers and sisters who are lost.

  • It would seem the author is inferring the cause of this undeniable decline are selfish self centered old people. Would he agree with a former Governor of Colorado who claimed for the good of the country, old people have the duty to die and not live too long?

  • Grace

    We cannot continue to live in the past, where America only served (s) the interests of the 1%. I am for the dissolution of the old America, that way of life is not equitable as it marginalizes and allows a large segment of the population to live oppressed and in the shadows. Great leaders look to the future, to build, to educate the masses, to protect the planet, to represent everyone in an inclusive manner. Americans are not asking for hand me downs but to be lifted up to have access to equal education and opportunities… to enjoy some of the benefits once shared by the so called “privileged”.

  • Grace

    and we will pray for you as well! May the Holy Spirit fill your mind with wisdom to be able to discern dogma from truth! Some Catholics can actually read between the lines and choose to separate church and state.

  • chaco

    I know I’m a “Pie in the Sky” optimist, but if we’ve experienced the peace of Christ, we know that world peace begins in individual hearts & grows out from there. I hold to a hope that selfishness & hatred can fall as suddenly & unexpectedly as The Berlin Wall. Heaven’s Peace Plan (Fatima 1917 revelations) gives a strong clue as to how to “Get the Ball Rolling (personal peace)” ; CONSOLE MAMA (“…make reparation for the outrages committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”) As The Christ Man sufferred His greatest trial, He heard His Mother’s cries & his load was lifted through concern for Her; “…behold your mother.” (Jn 19: 26-27). We as “The Body of Christ” on Earth are asked to do likewise as we suffer the trial of seeming doom for America.