America's 'Oh Sh*T!' Moment

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

America's 'Oh Sh*T!' Moment


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

Has the U.S. deleted the very things that made it great? Niall Ferguson on how America can avoid imminent collapse.

Don't call me a "declinist." I really don't believe the United States--or Western civilization, more generally--is in some kind of gradual, inexorable decline.

But that's not because I am one of those incorrigible optimists who agree with Winston Churchill that the United States will always do the right thing, albeit when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

In my view, civilizations don't rise, fall, and then gently decline, as inevitably and predictably as the four seasons or the seven ages of man. History isn't one smooth, parabolic curve after another. Its shape is more like an exponentially steepening slope that quite suddenly drops off like a cliff.

If you don't know what I mean, pay a visit to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. In 1530 the Incas were the masters of all they surveyed from the heights of the Peruvian Andes. Within less than a decade, foreign invaders with horses, gunpowder, and lethal diseases had smashed their empire to smithereens. Today tourists gawp at the -ruins that remain.

The notion that civilizations don't decline but collapse inspired the anthropologist Jared Diamond's 2005 book, Collapse. But Diamond focused, fashionably, on man-made environmental disasters as the causes of collapse. As a historian, I take a broader view. My point is that when you look back on the history of past civilizations, a striking feature is the speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of the cause.

The Roman Empire didn't decline and fall sedately, as historians used to claim. It collapsed within a few decades in the early fifth century, tipped over the edge of chaos by barbarian invaders and internal divisions. In the space of a generation, the vast imperial metropolis of Rome fell into disrepair, the aqueducts broken, the splendid marketplaces deserted.

The Ming dynasty's rule in China also fell apart with extraordinary speed in the mid-17th century, succumbing to internal strife and external invasion. Again, the transition from equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

A more recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, if you still doubt that collapse comes suddenly, just think of how the postcolonial dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East imploded this year. Twelve months ago, Messrs. Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi seemed secure in their gaudy palaces. Here yesterday, gone today.

What all these collapsed powers have in common is that the complex social systems that underpinned them suddenly ceased to function. One minute rulers had legitimacy in the eyes of their people; the next they didn't.

This process is a familiar one to students of financial markets. Even as I write, it is far from clear that the European Monetary Union can be salvaged from the dramatic collapse of confidence in the fiscal policies of its peripheral member states. In the realm of power, as in the domain of the bond vigilantes, you're fine until you're not fine--and when you're not fine, you're suddenly in a terrifying death spiral.

Remember that poster that used to hang in every college dorm, of a runaway steam train that has crashed through the wall of a rail station and hit the street below, nose first? The caption was: "Oh sh*t!" I believe it's time to ask how close the United States is to the "Oh sh*t!" moment--the moment we suddenly crash downward like that train.

The West first surged ahead of the Rest after about 1500 thanks to a series of institutional innovations that I call the "killer applications":

1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations. …

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