Joseph F. Johnston's book asks why nations fail, and how we should understand America's national despondency.
Joseph F. Johnston is an attorney and writer who has read widely in history and philosophy. His new book, The Decline of Nations: Lessons for Strengthening America at Home and in the World, is a deep meditation on the national condition, motivated by the hope that we will escape the almost universal fate of nations to rise and then decline. He believes that our problem began with the abandonment of moral certainty in favor of relativism. His survey of the damage to American culture and mores extends from the expansion of the welfare state and the enervation of private initiative to literary habits, sexual behavior, demographics, and high culture. Every college student in the country should be tied to a chair and made to read it (or, if needed, hear it read aloud).
In his conclusion, he offers a well-considered set of remedies. “Low rates of taxation, limited government, free markets, encouragement of private enterprise, fiscal responsibility, sound money, and the rule of law” are the foundation of economic strength. This in turn depends on educational excellence, by “providing parents with an alternative to public schooling.” Jurisprudence should return to “the objective truths of an acknowledged moral order.” America’s military strength must be rebuilt, focusing on defense against nuclear missiles, terrorism, cyberwar, and space technologies, without overextending our capacity to “protect countries that are unwilling to protect themselves.”
Demographics and Decline
In 2008, the United States was an outlier among the large industrial nations with a total fertility rate of 2.1 live births per woman. That is the total number of births the average woman is expected to have during her lifetime. The US National Center for Health Statistics reported in May that the total fertility rate (TFR) had fallen to just 1.64, close to that of Europe or China. We have heard forecasts of demographic doom for years from the Old World and East Asia; a new study in The Lancet forecasts that the population of the European Union will fall by a third, to 308 million from 446 million, by the end of this century. It appears that the bell also tolls for us.
The long-term consequences of demographic winter will be devastating; in the United Nations’ low-fertility scenario, the US will have 71 citizens over the age of 65 for every 100 of working age (Europe would have 84, and Japan 120). The unfunded liabilities of the Social Security and Medicare systems now exceed $113 trillion by some estimates, and a smaller working-age population would struggle to support them.
Johnston observes that America’s somewhat higher birth rate in the past was supported “by the large number of Hispanic women who live here, whose fertility rate is significantly above 2.1 but may not remain at that level. Non-Hispanic middle-class women are reproducing at rates well below the key number.” His prediction has already come true: In 2008 the Hispanic total fertility rate was 2.8 children per female; by 2019 it had fallen to just 1.9, barely above the TFR for non-Hispanic white women.
Johnston adds, “Already, the American population is aging, and it is predictable that it will age more rapidly. An aging population is likely to express a preference for security and comfort over adventure, risk and innovation, and elderly voters will demand more healthcare and other services, placing a heavier burden on taxpayers. . . . Throughout the history of civilizations, declining populations have been accompanied by economic stagnation, military weakness, and other social ills.”
A vast body of research, including Eric Kaufmann’s 2010 book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, links fertility behavior in the industrial West to religious practice. The decline of religion is one of Johnston’s major concerns. “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “the outward profession of religious belief appeared to decline. Religious practices, to a significant extent, have been watered down and demystified in order to make them more acceptable to a secularized society. America’s major institutions, attitudes, and activities are scarcely touched by religious values.”
He concludes: “The real choice for the citizens of Western nations is either to return to their traditions, including recovery of their religious and intellectual sources, or to acquiesce in the continued dislocation of Western culture. . . . If we give up the culture that created and sustained our country, there is nothing of value to replace it. We will simply fail and slip back into the receding tide of historical decline.”
Immigration and Decline
Johnston’s scope is so broad and his diagnoses and prescriptions so extensive that readers will find much to quibble with. America competes with Asian manufacturers who subsidize capital-intensive industry, for example, and in my view it is impossible to restore US manufacturing without responding in kind. Industrial policy raises myriad problems, but the issue has been forced upon us.
His discussion of America’s woes and their possible remedies begins with an extended comparison with ancient Rome. He refers repeatedly to declinist theorists of the past, notably Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Arab historian. He believed (in Johnson’s paraphrase) that
the cycle of a civilization begins with the founding of a tribe or dynasty by hardy people who live simply and defend themselves vigorously. . . . [T]he tribe is bound together by a strong sense of social cohesion and solidarity. . . . Eventually, however, the successful society becomes addicted to abundance, leisure and luxury. . . . Military discipline evaporates and ”group feeling” wanes. The population works less and demands increased benefits from the rulers, who impose higher taxes and incur more debt.
Johnston writes: “The Roman Empire was destroyed, in part, by a massive migration of peoples whom it could not assimilate.” The “group feeling” could no longer be maintained. “That is a historical lesson that we should not forget,” he warns. But Brian Ward-Perkins in his classic The Fall of Rome (2003), a source Johnston cites elsewhere, observes that the number of barbarian invaders into Roman Italy was very small compared to the settled Italian population. Roman slaves, who comprised 30 to 40 percent of the Italian population, revolted and joined the invaders to devastating effect.
That is quite different from an immigration problem, and it points to the danger of generalization. Rome, with its dependence on slave labor, vanished as a civilization. China, by contrast, founded its economy on the extended family farm, and its civilization remains intact after thousands of years, despite many smaller cycles of decline and regeneration. China stands as a reproach to deterministic decline theories. So does the United States, I believe.
Does Ibn Khaldun’s “group feeling” adequately characterize the covenantal character of the United States? Johnston writes, “I believe that the United States remains fundamentally a religious nation. Europeans tend to be less religiously observant.” One might argue that American identity is religious by construction. Unlike the Europeans, whose cultural origins lie behind the mists of time, Americans made a self-consciously religious country. We have nothing like T.S. Eliot’s precis of English culture, namely “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese,” and so on.
Immigrants become Americans by choosing American identity, an act analogous to Christian conversion. The number of immigrants has little to do with the matter. Seventeen percent of the inhabitants of today’s Germany are first-generation immigrants, compared to just 14 percent of Americans, yet no one in Germany says of a naturalized foreigner, “He’s a German,” but only, “He has a German passport.” And this despite the fact that Germany, with its chronic labor shortage, assimilates immigrants into its economy far better than does the United States. A new American, by contrast, is a full-fledged American.
Immigration worries Johnston. So does the decline of classical culture and science education. Yet our best graduate programs in the quantitative sciences, as well as our best music conservatories, would shut down without immigrants. Foreigners earn four-fifths of doctoral degrees in computer science and electrical engineering at US universities. Classical music may be neglected in America, but in Japan, South Korea, and China it enjoys unprecedented popularity. We may require immigrants to sustain our technological edge as well as our high culture.
America cannot help be religious: the question is not whether religion, but rather which religion. Secular Europe is relatively impervious to the epidemic of self-invention that plagues the United States. French and German boys do not want to become girls or vice versa, and transgender girls do not elbow biological girls out of secondary-school track teams. In part that is due to the fact that European universities have little in the way of organized sports and no sports scholarships. About 16% of Americans reported having transgender family and friends in one recent survey, vs. 3% in Germany, 7% in France, 3.4% in Italy, and 9% in Britain. The Europeans, who are what they always have been, have less interest in reinventing themselves than Americans, who became Americans by reinventing themselves in the first place.
When American religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong indeed. It isn’t that Americans have ceased to be religious, but rather that the Christian categories of sin and redemption have morphed into racial or class guilt and Woke atonement for the sins of racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, and so forth. On this subject, I defer to Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening (2020) and Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age.
Philosophy and Decline
In one sense, Johnston believes that America’s problems are of relatively recent vintage:
During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the United States had what could be regarded as a common culture. The large number of immigrants early in the century were successfully assimilated into America’s productivity economy, while two world wars and a full recovery from the Great Depression cemented a general sense of patriotism and solidarity. There was a prevailing ‘Americanism’ that nourished a feeling of common identity. In the 1960s, that began to change.
But the America of 1859 was no paragon. The America of “Manifest Destiny” (which Johnston mentions as an example of national confidence) was ruled by the slave party from 1800 to 1860 with brief interruptions, and Manifest Destiny was the slave party’s slogan. Ulysses Grant argued in his memoirs that America fought the Mexican War to acquire slave territory, and the Civil War was its punishment for this offense. The America of the 1850s was on the verge of disintegration, and less than a moral paragon. Yet the election of Lincoln summoned enormous reserves of national spirit and set the country on its course to become the world’s leading power. We have awakened spiritual resources before that seemed exhausted.
In a far broader sense, Johnston argues that America’s cultural decline began when “the classical tradition of [Aristotelian] realism was challenged in the fourteenth century by nominalists who asserted that universal principles (redness, justice, etc.) do not have independent existence but are merely names for a collection of individual things.” That is an often-repeated argument that Johnston adopts from the Southern Agrarian Richard Weaver. The problem is less clear-cut than Johnson suggests.
As Plato (in Parmenides) and Aristotle (Metaphysics, 990b17-079a13) explained, both Platonic forms and Aristotelian universals collapse into infinite regress. If we have a set of things characterized by redness, we must ask if “redness” itself is red, which it plainly is; and that requires a new set that includes the old set, plus the redness of redness, and so on ad infinitum. This sort of self-referential problem persists through modern logic. Bertrand Russell tried and failed to banish it with his “Theory of Types.” The same problems that bedeviled the Greeks pop up in the paradoxes of modern set theory. Self-referential problems persist in logic, so there still is no disproof of the Nominalist critique.
Johnston abhors positivism and pragmatism, noting, “It is true that traditional forms of philosophy have survived in the academy and in religious circles, such as Kantian idealism, essentialism, and neo-Thomism.” It is odd to view both Kant and St. Thomas as “traditional.” Kant’s attack on the antinomies that arise from the old metaphysics destroyed the influence of classic realism in mainstream philosophy. Nietzsche, Johnston adds, announced “a radical skepticism that denied the truth of all religious, ethical, and metaphysical values, resulting in a meaningless world. Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that ‘God is dead’ lent support to this dismal theme.” But the madman in the marketplace who cries “God is dead, and we have killed him” in Zarathustra is talking about Kant, who replaced divine command with human autonomy guided by reason. Kant barred the way back to the old metaphysics, and Nietzsche barred the way back to Kant.
As Johnston reports, it has been a slippery slope. It is less clear that we can clamber back up the way we came. “I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort to find a solid basis for rational liberalism. Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight. But here is the trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger,” said Leo Strauss almost 60 years ago. Heidegger in my view wasn’t a great thinker; he just played one in the 20th century’s Theater of the Absurd.
The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause begins at a planetarium where teenagers played by James Dean (“Jim”) and Sal Mineo (“Plato”) hear a narrator expound on the meaninglessness of mankind:
And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance–has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, we will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came, destroyed as we began in a burst of gas and fire. The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the complexity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of Man seem trivial and naive indeed. And Man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequences.
James Dean sighs, “Hey, it’s over. The world ended.” And Sal Mineo retorts: “What does he know about man alone?” In 1938 Hans Bethe had discovered the fusion of hydrogen that powered the sun, which made it possible to reckon how long it would take for the sun’s fuel to run out. With Newton, science abandoned Aristotelian teleology; with relativity theory, it severed man’s fate from that of his natural environment. And this in turn gave the seeming support of pop science for the newly-fashionable Existentialism.
If the earth itself will burn out, how can we talk about moral certainty? The scientists don’t have an answer, but 3,000 years ago the Psalmist did (Psalms 102:25-29):
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment;
as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.
The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.
Neither the root of our problem nor its possible solution is to be found in philosophy. Weaver’s argument about Aristotelian Realism would have surprised Cotton Mather, the scourge of Jesuits who “strain their wits to defend their Pagan Master Aristotle.” The Germans of the 1780s and 1790s fought furiously over Kant, the philosopher par excellence of the French Revolution, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge evangelized his work to the English Romantics, but the American Founders barely took notice. John Adams mentions in passing “a certain professor Kant of Koningsberg, who passes for a prodigy of metaphysical depth, because he writes a jargon that no human being can understand.”
Nothing but a new Great Awakening can save America. Sadly, we have had an awakening of sorts, but in the form of an immanentized apocalypse—climate change—and the substitution of Woke cultishness for the old awareness of sin and redemption. Mr. Johnston has done a great service with his comprehensive survey of our follies and their consequences. His indictment of America’s national decline and its causes in economics, culture, and politics is incisive and convincing, and his overreach in history and philosophy is a minor distraction in the construction of his case. His belief that America has the wherewithal to restore itself shines through, especially in his concluding chapters. During the 1930s we sank into Depression and isolationism, but emerged as the most powerful nation on earth and the leader of the Free World in the 1940s. We languished in what Jimmy Carter called a national malaise during the 1970s but came roaring back with the Reagan Revolution. We have yet to see which spirit will move us.