E Pluribus Unum and Our Finest Hour

by Mike Kimel

E Pluribus Unum and Our Finest Hour
Cross posted at the Presimetrics blog.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940

Assuming, as many do, that the British Empire ended some time around the handover of Hong Kong, it did not last a thousand years. (Britain and its Commonwealth, of course, are still going strong.) Nevertheless, I suspect many would say that Churchill got his way, and that the Battle of Britain and the remainder of World War 2 was, in fact, the finest hour of the British Empire.

What about the American Empire? If we define that institution as existing from some time around the Spanish American War (1898) to the point where it was overextended and became unable to impose its will on friend or foe alike (i.e., some time around 2005), what was its finest hour? What were its most impressive achievements, those that will be written up in history books a thousand years from today?

I am not a historian, but I have a few guesses, in no particular order: (below the fold)

1. Serving as the arsenal of democracy in WW2
2. Putting people on the moon and bringing them safely back to earth.
3. The development of mass media and long distance communications.
4. Almost eradication of polio (yes, a worldwide effort, but just about every significant piece of the project was done in the US)
5. The Green Revolution (a little less US-dependent than the polio effort, but US entities played the biggest role)
6. The Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear energy
7. The early development of genetic engineering (I suspect US dominance in this field will be ending very soon)
8. Construction of the Panama Canal
9. Airplanes
10. An automobile in every driveway
11. The electric grid

I’m sure I’m forgetting something important, and there are, no doubt, things we regard as small that will be viewed as important one day. Still, I would be surprised if what is eventually viewed as the greatest achievement of the American Empire is not on that list. However, not all of the items listed will survive the test of time. Some will be forgotten, some may prove more or less irrelevant over the long haul, some will come to be viewed as a facade and some will be decried by our descendants. Still, its probably not a bad list, and I think its good enough for the purpose of this post, which is to note: the role of the private sector tends to play a relatively small role when it comes to the big achievements. Furthermore, the piece of the private sector that contributes the most to the big advancements, the ones that will be remembered, is the not-for-profit piece of it.

With the possible exception of 3, 9 & 10, the for-profit private sector played the role of sidekick or supporting actor. The main role, the driving force, the entity that either provided the original vision and/or drove that vision through to completion was the government, with much of the remainder provided by academia (heavily funded by the state whether public or private) or NGOs. But even where the private sector led the charge, the government’s role was huge. Henry Ford may have revolutionized the production of cars, but without the government producing roads (not to mention the freeway system), their development would be limited to where they could be used for local transportation. Most of the big achievements, and, I am comfortable making this statement, the finest hour of America, whatever that is judged to be a thousand years from now, are driven by government policy, government actions and government grants.

Why is that? After all, the private sector, after all, makes up the biggest chunk of the economy. Size alone doesn’t isn’t enough to create achievement – the most significant achievements in the private sector usually aren’t those produced by the biggest companies. Similarly, its hard to construct a story that involves the government coming into a field and bigfoots over the early efforts of the private sector. Instead, the government is providing a role that the private sector simply isn’t, cannot, and will not. Why? I have a guess. I suspect it comes to the profit motive. Projects of this nature are risky and costly and hard to make money off of for a very long time, all of which are factors that discourage the private sectors. But the private sector has another problem with “finest hour” type accomplishments, which is evident when you think of Britain and Churchill’s speech. Britain may have been, to Hitler, little more than a “nation of shop-keepers”, but those shop-keepers were willing to fight for an idea, a cause they all had in common. However, its hard to imagine a company providing a vision that unites a nation. Occasionally, a company is able to inspire its employees to greatness – think Hewlett Packard before Carly Fiorina and the era of continuous layoffs. However, even then, the reach of its vision, its ability to bring others on-board, is generally limited to that company itself. This is due to human nature. The geniuses – the Einsteins and Borlaugs and Salks aren’t in it for the money, and the rest of us aren’t going to get the warm and fuzzies from increasing the profits of a company for whom we don’t work and in which we don’t own stock.

The only force that can unite the country, that can create a cause around which everyone will rally around, and then only certain circumstances, is the government. E pluribus unum. But that is why the American Empire has been petering out. We are less than two months shy of thirty years from the day when Reagan told us the government is the problem, and we have bought into that mantra hook line and sinker. And in the Tea Party era, it is hard to see how that can be turned around. The long, slow decline is becoming inevitable.