We still are the number one military power, although that may not be something to be particularly proud of. The strongest, toughest guy in town is OK, unless he becomes a bully. Unfortunately our Defense Department, certainly in recent times, might better be named the Offense Department. What is the purpose of all these stupid wars with the associated waste of human and economic treasure? When was the last time we actually won a war? Better yet, when was the last time that we actually entered a conflict knowing what defined victory?
Beyond military might, there are a few areas where we can legitimately claim to be number one. However, we have slipped in many areas. Below is a chart from The Daily Bail that is troubling. Some of the categories are highly subjective and open to debate regarding rankings. The categories suggest its creator may have had an agenda to diminish the US. Regardless of intent and methodological weaknesses, the rankings are startling:
A closer inspection of the chart lessens somewhat the initial reaction although still has troubling impl*ications.
The first reaction is how involved government is in many of the categories. The following categories are either fully or heavily controlled/influenced by government: democracy, freedom of the press, prison population (War on Drugs primarily), Corruption, Education and Scientific Literacy (another education problem). To the extent that we perform poorly versus the rest of the world is a direct indictment of our government and its clumsy and inefficient ways. We have big, inefficient and oppressive government weighing heavily on these outcomes and entrenched interest groups that want to maintain the status quo regardless of the outcomes.
Other categories are less clear, although healthcare is an industry heavily controlled by government. The fact that Quality of Healthcare rather than Cost of Healthcare was included is curious. It would have been easy to claim that the US has the highest healthcare costs in the world. To argue that the quality of US healthcare is not first-rate is a tougher endeavor. Why would so many foreigners elect to have serious medical procedures performed in the US rather than their home countries if the quality was not first-rate?
Some of the remainder of the items in the chart — Life Expectancy, Internet Speed, Mobile Phones, Renewable Energy and Infant Survival Rate — can arguably be attributed to government(s), at least in a speculative sense. Life Expectancy and Infant Survival Rates are probably related more to lifestyle than the medical system. How does that relate to the government? Subsidizing unhealthy behavior and bad habits changes behavior.
The institution of entitlement programs changed the dynamics of survival. Prior to these becoming a substantial “right,” citizens had to take care of themselves and their families. If citizens did not work, they might not eat. If people didn’t behave “properly,” society shamed and even shunned them. Pressures to stay well, work hard and lead what was considered a proper lifestyle prevailed. Society was not heartless and generally came to the rescue of those who “played by the rules” or were considered worthy. Behavior was the key to both success and a helping hand when one was necessary.
Large entitlement programs arguably severed the link between proper behavior and survival. The shame of having a child out of wedlock was no longer. Many have argued that the income reward for doing so was responsible for the massive increase in unwed pregnancies. Patterns of behavior which evolved over centuries because they were successful were abrogated by the artificial incentives created by the welfare state. Entitlements made survival a right rather than a responsibility. Effort, behavior and responsibility were all weakened.
Arguably, countries not wealthy enough to completely sever the bond between behavior and support have better work ethics and lifestyles than those who guaranteed a full-fledged social net. All of this is speculation on my part. None of it argues against a social safety net per se. The point is that good intentions produced unintended consequences. The separation of behavior and responsibility from support has to weaken effort, self-development and self-reliance.
How much of an effect this has had on US lifestyles and life expectancy (or infant mortality) is moot. I think it is difficult to argue that it is lack of access to quality medical care in the US that causes us to be ranked lower than other countries. The relationship between healthcare and lifestyle has likely been investigated many times. Econometric studies and statistical analyses undoubtedly exist that support both sides of the issue. Citing one, two or several cannot definitively end the debate one way or another. Rarely do behavior issue disagreements lend themselves to resolution via the data.
Renewable energy usage is a curious category. The fact that we use less of it than other countries is likely a good thing rather than an implied bad thing. Renewable energy may someday be efficient and economic. It is not today, or when it is it is so in infrequent situations. That we use less of it than other countries suggests that we squander fewer valuable resources than others. Without government subsidies (more wasted resources), it is likely that we would rank even lower. That would be even better from an economic and presumably social standpoint. Someday the economics of renewable energy may shift and this source of energy may become economic. Until that day, only the religiously-infected enviro-nuts and those gaming government subsidies should want our low ranking to “improve.” When that day comes, there will be no need for government subsidies. Markets work when allowed.
Internet speed is likely similar to renewable energy. Do we rank low because other countries have squandered resources by subsidizing more speed than people would willingly pay for? I don’t have information on that issue, although the ranking may reflect just such a situation. Higher internet speed is better than lower internet speed. However, it is not better at any cost. This truism is demonstrated every day with our consumption choices. I can buy higher internet speed than I currently have, but do not consider it worth the extra cost. Likewise, I consider the BMW a great car, but choose to drive a lower-priced car because of the cost. It is not worth the extra money (at least for me) to have the so-called “best” car. To the extent that governments control spending, they force people to spend resources in manners they likely would not.
Phone penetration of a population is one measure of modernity or progress, but not necessarily mobile phone penetration. Developing countries have lagged behind in land line penetration. In the US full penetration via land lines was accomplished years ago. Much of the rest of the world still consists of areas not well covered by land lines. Mobile phones may provide the only form of available telephone access. Because many Americans choose to stay with their land lines rather than mobile phones does not mean that we are behind in telephone communications.
Regardless of my cautionary comments on interpreting the chart, most will find the results rather eye-opening. The chart does not mean our best days are behind us. It merely means we have lost leads we previously had. Some of the gap closing is good in the sense that it means the rest of the world has progressed. Others reflect deterioration in our society. Most of the reversal in progress in the US can be directly or indirectly attributed to overreaching and oppressive government.
The US opened up substantial leads over the rest of the world without big government. This out-performance did not happen by chance or because we were the “chosen people.” It happened because our government, during the greatest growth spurt the world ever saw, was small relative to other governments. Free enterprise was a reality and people were allowed to keep the fruits of their labor. The innovation and productivity of the US under such circumstances dwarfed that of the rest of the world.
Today, our government is too large and ranks with sclerotic European governments in terms of relative size and philosophy. Gone is the “hands off the economy” and “let people run their own lives” philosophy. Now government believes it needs to regulate the smallest aspects of every aspect of life. Thousands of asinine regulations (e.g. the amount of water that can flushed in a toilet or the types of light bulbs that must be used) plague citizens and businesses.
Government believes it owns your earnings and has the right to decide how much you get to keep. It has reduced everyone’s earnings via taxation and consequently their incentives to strive for greater success. It is in the process of destroying what is left of the free market. Oppressive taxation and regulation are killing the golden goose.
The solution is simple – to fix society, break government. That is, roll it back to levels it was intended to be, performing only those functions it reasonably can do. Remove the barriers and disincentives it creates and society will repair itself. Hayek’s spontaneous order will once again prevail, and the command-economy mentality and its mis-allocations will become history.
Knowing the solution and effecting it are two very different issues. Politicians do not relinquish power willingly. Nor do beneficiaries of government largess. But emasculating government is the only way to turn around our descent into the Economic Dark Ages.