The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
The year I was born, the nonviolence champion Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet, touching off race riots in more than 100 American cities that left 46 people dead and a trail of physical destruction still visible to the naked eye. It was the deadliest year for the United States in the Vietnam War, with more than twice as many servicemen dying than have succumbed, combined, in every U.S. military action since. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, Americans elected a future crook as president, and most right-thinking people were convinced by Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, that “hundreds of millions of people” would soon “starve to death,” particularly in India.
The year I turned 21, elite anxieties had moved on to Japan’s imminent takeover of the U.S. economy. Entire American cities (including New York City) had been given up as lost causes, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner in apartheid South Africa, and then all at once the world as we thought we knew it fell on its head. As predicted by no one, imperial Communism collapsed largely without a shot, proxy superpower wars all over the globe gave way to fragile but lasting peace, and a decade of unparalleled prosperity and freedom tumbled happily forth.
The year I write this may prove to be the most momentous for human freedom since that annus mirabilis of 1989, with one authoritarian regime after another in the Islamic world coming under intense pressure from decentralized protesters demanding more liberalized lives. Even before the Arab Spring, we had already seen the number of “free” countries, as rated by Freedom House, rise from 29 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 2010 (and “partly free” countries rise from 25 to 31 percent) and 44 new sovereignties enter or reenter the family of nations. Former mass-starvation candidates India and China are now producing yet another wave of American neuroses over competing with Asiatic foreigners, even though U.S. per-capita income, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1968.
It requires a surplus of myopic self-regard to gaze upon this undeniable and thrilling human advancement and proclaim a wasteland of impending decline, but we Americans have always had a difficult time distinguishing between our market share of global responsibility and the overall health of the world.
The apparently uncomfortable truth is that people everywhere are, on balance, seeking more and more freedom, and they don’t necessarily need or even want heavy American involvement in that quest. Which is fortunate for us, because we can no longer afford to take care of ourselves, let alone the rest of the world.
Like it or not, the near future will be marked by a relaxation of American geopolitical control and a resurgence in local and regional responsibilities assumed by the people who actually live there. For those of us who truly believe in the virtues of responsibility and competition, and who have an enduring faith in the irresistible lure of freedom, it is the very best of times to be alive.
Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents (Public Affairs).