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?
On the face of it, our time should be high tide for American pessimism. The economic calamity of 2008 has been succeeded by a precarious stall. Growth is anemic. Unemployment remains very high. The public is in a sour mood. Our president seems to yearn for a low-profile America. And those charged with looking forward tell us that things will get even worse: the aging of our society combined with the imprudent design of our entitlement programs promises to inflate our national debt to twice the size of our economy by the mid-2030s. We have never seen debt on that level, and there is reason to think such debt would make it very difficult for America to be as strong and prosperous as it has been since the Second World War. The stench of decline is in the air.
And yet, my answer to the editors’ question is that I am decidedly optimistic about America’s future. How could I be? Because the list of woes laid out above describes not the demise of the American order but the demise of the liberal welfare state, and we must be very careful not to conflate the two. The economists’ impossibly grim projections only describe what will happen if we don’t change course, and they therefore make it clear that we will change course.
Granted, that will be no simple matter. The liberal welfare state and the vision of social democracy that underlies it have given shape to our public life for a century—providing a roadmap for the left and a foil for the right. Viewing capitalism as an effective but morally dubious engine of wealth, it sought to balance economic prosperity with economic security through technocratic management of key sectors of the economy combined with all-encompassing programs of social insurance. It seemed to work while our population was booming and our postwar growth was strong. But it undermined both of those preconditions for its own success, while also undermining the traditional family, the moral underpinnings of American working-class life, and the dynamism of our economy to boot.
Now the bill is coming due, and a growing segment of Americans can see that the liberal welfare state is a failure. But those voters still want some other way to achieve the goal of the welfare state: balancing growth and prosperity with economic security and compassion for the poor. That means they would be open as never before to a conservative approach to achieving that goal, but they are not open to abandoning that goal—they have not become libertarians. The right kind of conservatism—one that sought to make the benefits of democratic capitalism available to all—could thrive in this moment of challenge and could help America thrive again, too.
The nation, therefore, need not share the liberal welfare state’s grim fate. We have the world’s largest economy, tremendous untapped (and indeed repressed) growth potential, far rosier demographic prospects than those of our competitors, by far the world’s largest and most able military to protect us, and a tradition of economic drive and growth.
A public-policy agenda that sought to encourage such drive and growth would go a long way toward helping us thrive again, and such an agenda is easily imaginable—indeed, it is gradually emerging on the right. If we’re lucky, it could even help us turn things around before a monumental debt crisis, rather than after. And we’re Americans, so we already know we’re lucky.
Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and a Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.