The Fall and Rise of American Empire

Most Americans don’t like the idea of empire. It smacks of power, which is comforting and enriching when you have it, though few like to admit it. In short, empire can be a good thing. Lawrence W. Reed opens “The Fall of the Republic” with this:

For nearly five centuries, Res Publica Romana—the Roman Republic—bestowed upon the world a previously unseen degree of respect for individual rights and the rule of law. When the republic expired, the world would not see those wondrous achievements again on a comparable scale for a thousand years.

Reed summarizes the decline and fall of Rome:

The Roman Republic died a death of a thousand cuts. Or, to borrow from another, well-known parable: The heat below the pot in which the proverbial frog was boiled started out as a mere flicker of a flame, then rose gradually until it was too late for the frog to escape. Indeed, for a brief time, he enjoyed a nice warm bath….

Writers from the first centuries B.C. and A.D. offered useful insights to the decline. Polybius predicted that politicians would pander to the masses, leading to the mob rule of an unrestrained democracy. The constitution, he surmised, could not survive when that happened. Sallust bemoaned the erosion of morals and character and the rise of personal power lust. Livy, Plutarch, and Cato expressed similar sentiments. To the moment of his assassination, Cicero defended the Republic against the assaults of the early dictators because he knew they would transform Rome into a tyrannical despotism.

Ultimately, the collapse of the political order of republican Rome has its origins in three developments that took root in the second century B.C., then blossomed by the end of the first. One was foreign adventure. The second was the welfare state. The third was a sacrifice of constitutional norms and the rule of law to the demands of the other two.

The American equivalent of the Roman Republic didn’t last nearly as long — only about a century, from the Spanish-American War of 1898 through 1991, which marked the end of the Cold War and victory in the Gulf War. The relative peace and prosperity of the next several years masked America’s underlying decline, which has since became evident in the military, political, and economic events of the 21st century.

The causes and symptoms of America’s decline bear a strong resemblance to the decline of Rome. Let’s start with foreign adventure. By the end of 1991, America’s influence in the world seemed assured, given collapse of the USSR and the easy victory over Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s grab of Kuwait. But those two events proved to be the American Empire’s last gasp.

The dust had barely settled on the Gulf War when Somalia joined the list of post-World War II military misadventures, namely, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the lame response to the bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the jurisprudential reaction to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. (Some would argue that America’s entry into World War I was also a misadventure because of the imperial origins and tragic aftermath of the peace, namely, the rise of totalitarianism. But, at least, World War I ended decisively and in a clear-cut victory for America’s side — a victory that wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of American forces.) The seeming disinclination of American leaders to stay the course and to wreak vengeance was duly noted in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the United States. As if to endorse that view, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa were met with ineffectual missile strikes.

And then came 9/11, and in its wake the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both were cast in the mold of Korea and Vietnam: not enough firepower, not enough willpower. Barack Obama’s subsequent foreign policy misadventures and general retreat from effective leadership have only cemented America’s place as a declining, feckless, no-longer-fearsome power. Whence Obama’s fecklessness? Some argue that it is evidence of a deliberate effort to debase the United States.

So much for military misadventures. Let us turn to the growth of the welfare state and the sacrifice of constitutional norms. These go hand-in-hand, and both began before America’s military misadventures after World War II.

Consider the judicial betrayal of the constitutional scheme of limited government, and of order and traditional morality. There is no way, in the course of a blog post, to assess the full scope of the betrayal, in which the U.S. Supreme Court was a willing co-conspirator. Some examples will have to do:

Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1933) allowed governmental suspension of creditors’ remedies (i.e., foreclosure), thus undermining contractual relationships.

National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937) validated the Wagner Act, which vastly expanded the ability of labor unions to extort employers, to restrict commerce, and to fatten the paychecks of union members at the expense of everyone else.

Helvering v. Davis (1937) found Social Security to be constitutional, despite the plain words of Article I, Section 8 (the enumerated powers of Congress).

Wickard v. Filburn (1942) gave Congress unlimited power to regulate anything remotely connected with interstate commerce.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966) stigmatized and hindered the efforts of police to protect the public. On the basis of “intuitive empiricism” (i.e., judicial guesswork), Miranda imposed an overly broad interpretation of the Fifth Amendment. (A subsequent empirical analysis suggests that Miranda was unwisely decided.)

Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971) enshrined disparate impact as evidence of racial discrimination, and put the burden of proof on the accused employer.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) gave judges an easy way (the “Lemon test”) to rule against any government action that might incidentally benefit religion.

Roe v. Wade (1973) authorized murder in the name of privacy.

Goss v. Lopez (1975) made it more difficult for school authorities to discipline disruptive and destructive behavior, and (in my view) established — beyond hope of reversal — the interference of the central government in matters that ought to be handled and disposed of locally.

Coker v. Georgia (1977) outlawed the death penalty in cases of rape, thus contributing to the erosion of the death penalty as a serious deterrent to the commission of heinous crimes and a just penalty for same.

Tennessee Valley authority v. Hill (1978) gave the snail darter — and as a result, all kinds of critters — precedence over human beings, under the Endangered Species Act.

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984) vastly increased the power of regulatory agencies by decreeing “deference” toward rules made in the absence of specific congressional authorization, as long as the rules are “reasonable.”

Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985) confirmed the hollowness of the Tenth Amendment and the States’ ability to exercise any power without the permission of the central government.

Kelo v. City of New London (2005) affirmed the right of any government in the United States to seize anyone’s property, at any time, for any use — even non-governmental.

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012) granted the federal government power to tax anyone for any purpose, even for not doing something.

Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013) left standing a federal district court judge’s self-serving declaration that California’s duly adopted ban on same-sex “marriage” was unconstitutional, thus opening the door to similar holdings by other federal judges about other States’ duly adopted bans on same-sex “marriage.”

The judiciary didn’t instigate the vast expansion of the regulatory-welfare state and the overthrow of social norms, but the judiciary abetted them.

What does the regulatory-welfare state amount to? Huge federal welfare schemes, including but not limited to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; the addition of nine cabinet-level departments to the executive branch in the preceding 100 years; the creation of the cabinet-level Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the delegation of legislative power to the EPA and other federal agencies, and ensuing accretion of rules made and enforced by those agencies; and the pervasive centralization of power in Washington, “thanks” to judicial misfeasance of the kinds listed above, and to political sleight-of-hand (e.g., “cooperative” federal-State programs like Medicare, and grants of “federal” money — i.e., taxpayers’ money — to State and local governments).

As for constitutional norms, the courts of the United States have become perversely “libertarian.” They seem driven to overturn long-standing, time-tested behavioral norms that guide individuals toward peaceful, constructive coexistence with their compatriots. Thus the “right” to an abortion in the first trimester, based on a non-existent general right of privacy, has become the right to kill a nearly born and newly born child. The “right” to practice sodomy has become an obligation to purvey goods and services to those who practice sodomy, regardless of one’s personal views about the practice. The “right” of a male student of confused gender to use the girl’s bathroom in a Maine school threatens to evolve into the “right” to walk into any damn bathroom at any time, regardless of one’s actual gender. And on and on, down the slippery slope and into unreason, barbarity, and oppression.

Where stands the Empire today? Clearly, America has less influence in the world than it had just after World War II and even after the Gulf War. What a joke it is when the American president must be rescued from the consequences of his own (possibly deliberate) haplessness by Russia’s leader, when Iran plays rope-a-dope with Obama in the matter of nuclear weapons, and when China flexes its new-found and growing military muscle without drawing a serious response from the U.S.

American power abroad could be restored in fairly short order, given the will to do so. But the hollowing out of America’s liberty and prosperity — which began in earnest with the New Deal — threatens to be permanent, given the decades-long transformation of the nation’s legal and bureaucratic infrastructure. Government — mainly the central government — now exerts financial control over 40 percent of the economy (here, see first graph), and arguably exerts regulatory control over almost all of it.

That control has long since passed from the elected “representatives” of the people to technocrats who are bent on dictating how Americans’ conduct their lives and earn their livelihoods. Thus:

In an FDA office building in suburban Maryland, the bureaucrats gather over coffee to draft rules meant to squeeze the trans fat out of snack foods.

Four blocks from the White House, in an EPA conference room: more bureaucrats, more meetings, more drafting of rules, these aimed at forcing industrialists to spend billions cutting carbon to fend off global warming.

Congress? Who needs Congress?

Americans heard President Barack Obama declare this week that he intends to bypass the gridlocked Hill to get things done on his own. What they didn’t hear: just how far he’s actually pushing his executive authority.

An in-depth examination of the administration’s actions and plans, agency by agency, regulation by regulation, reveals an executive power play that’s broad and bold — and intensely ambitious. Far more than he let on in the State of the Union, the president has marshaled the tools of his office to advance policies, many unabashedly liberal, that push deep into everyday life for tens of millions of Americans.

He wants to change how power plants operate. And what we buy for lunch. How we travel to work. And how our kids learn math. How our gasoline is formulated. How we light our aquariums.

Already, the president’s team has enacted 300 economically significant regulations, far more than Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan did in comparable periods. Some of those rules are driven by the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank banking reform, the two big laws Obama pushed through Congress early in his first term, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses. But there is far more.

Follow the link and read the rest, if you have the stomach for it.

The Empire lives, but it’s a different Empire than the one that enjoyed its last hurrah in the early 1990s. The Empire now exists not to make Americans safe and prosperous, but to dominate Americans in the name of overblown and non-existent threats (e.g., sexism, racism, endangered species, global warming), out of ersatz compassion, and with the aim of attaining the impossible: equality for all. Well, equality for all but that minority of minorities — the hard-working, tax-paying, straight, white person of European or Asian descent who minds his own business and not everyone else’s. If you are one of those, and religious as well, you are a particular object of persecution and prosecution.

In sum, a new Empire has arisen on America’s shores. If it had a motto, it would be* “trillions for the regulatory-welfare state and its clients, but not enough for defense.”

*     *     *

Related reading:
Bill Gertz, “Putin’s July 4th Message,” The Washington Free Beacon, July 6, 2012
Dean Cheng, “South China Sea: China Drops a Bombshell,” The Foundry, July 7, 2012
Walter Russell Mead and staff, “Putin Tells His Ambassadors: The West Is All Washed Up,” The American Interest, July 9, 2012
Erica Ritz, “Troubling? Putin Oversees Largest Nuclear Tests since the Cold War,” The Blaze, October 20, 2012
Norman Podhoretz, “Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,”, September 8, 2013
Melanie Phillips, “Putin Checkmates America,” Melanie’s Blog, September 15, 2013
Walter Russell Mead (and staff), “Mixed Messages from Washington Confuse Allies,” The American Interest, December 3, 2013
Lawrence W. Reed, “The Fall of the Republic,” The Freeman, January 8, 2014
doriangrey1, “The Iranian Rope-a-Dope,” The Wilderness of Mirrors, January 20, 2014
Bill Vallicella, “The Decline of the West: How Long Can We Last?,” Maverick Philosopher, January 21, 2014
Adam Garfinkle, “Obama’s Middle East Recessional” in four parts (here, here, here, here), The American Interest, January 21, 2014
Victor Davis Hanson, “Obama’s Recessional,” RealClearPolitics, January 22, 2014
Elise Cooper, “Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy: An Utter Failure,” American Thinker, January 26, 2014
Dan Roberts, “White House Warns Obama Ready to ‘Bypass on 2014 Agenda,” The Guardian, January 26, 2014
Alexander Boltin, “Cruz: Putin Plays Chess, Obama Plays Checkers on Foreign Policy,” The Hill, January 28, 2014
Stephanie Simon, “Obama’s Power Play,” Politico, January 31, 2014
Tom Blumer, “Is It Over and We Just Don’t Know It? Have We Lost Our Founders’ Government?,” PJ Media, February 10, 2014
Victor Davis Hanson, “An Orwellian Nation of Obamathink,” Jewish World Review, February 13, 2014
Angelo M. Codevilla, “Do We Deserve the Constitution of 2014?,” Library of Law and Liberty, February 16, 2014
Richard Winchester, “Left-Wing Totalitarianism in America,” American Thinker, February 17, 2014

Related posts:
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Left
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Well-Founded Pessimism
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
America: Past, Present, and Future
The Barbarians within and the State of the Union
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
The World Turned Upside Down
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
* A mockery of the words of Robert Goodloe Harper, who as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1797, said “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” The remark was occasioned by a demand from France for tribute (a bribe) in exchange for the release of American ships that had been seized by the French.