Five Ways to Respond to Societal Decline
What do you do when facing a society in decline?
Imagine living during the time of the decline of the Roman empire. Rome represented many positive things: peace, commerce and material prosperity, technology and infrastructure, great architecture, philosophy and the arts. At the same time, Rome was also an evil empire, one built on conquest, slaughter, and slavery. Economic exploitation was pervasive. It embraced infanticide and a wide range of perversions.
In that situation, how should one think about decline? Is it a bad thing or a good thing on net? And how should the individual or social movements respond to it? Also, while obvious in retrospect, was it clear to the people at the time that Rome was actually in permanent decline?
We might ask similar questions about the United States. There are clear signs of social decline. Life expectancy is falling. Family formation and fertility is in decline. Social trust (such as trust in institutions) is falling. The reliability of the electric system is in decline.
Is the US in decline, or merely going through temporary problems? If it is in decline, how should we view that in light of the mixed bag that is modern America? And how should we respond to it?
I come from a management consulting background, and so creating frameworks to help understand the world comes naturally to me. That’s one reason my three worlds of evangelicalism framework has been so popular. I also wrote a newsletter a while back about how to respond to declining institutions that used a 2x2 matrix to outline various possible responses.
Today I’m going to provide a variation on that, more focused at the societal level, that is a typology of five potential response approaches to long term social decline. These are:
Resist and Reform
Accelerate the Collapse
Enjoy the Decline
Build an Ark
Deny and Proceed
I think what you will find is that no person ever alights on just one strategy. Everyone employs multiple element of these. But by examining these five types of responses, we can clarify our own thinking around these issues.
Number One: Resist and Reform
This strategy involves noting the decline in society and attempting to reverse course by identifying and correcting the root problems. Since the idea of reform is deeply embedded in Western culture, this comes naturally to us.
This strategy has actually been employed successfully (and sometimes less than successfully) multiple times in America. After the Revolution, we tried out the Articles of Confederation, which didn’t work, then created the Constitution. As the limits of the Constitution became clear and a national crisis emerged in the 1850s, we had a Civil War, followed by in essence an updated Constitutional system that created a true single United States for the first time. With the onset of the Great Depression, we adjusted our economic policies to the realities of the industrial age with the New Deal. After World War II we updated our foreign policy to create international institutions and the rules based international order, as well as the US global security architecture. As we encountered the malaise of the 1970s, we responded with deregulation, and later globalization - one major reset that was at best only partially successful.
The United States has repeatedly faced crises where it seemed the nation was at risk, and has been able to successfully respond with an institutional reset. The optimistic case for America today is that it will once again find a way to pull off a successful institutional reset.
This concept of an institutional reset is authentically part of the American political tradition. So someone who proposes major reform or even replacement of much of our current governing structure is not necessarily the anti-Constitution, anti-democracy advocate some might claim. In many cases these people might be operating well within the genuinely American tradition of the New Deal and the postwar global security framework.
In whatever form it takes, Reform and Resist sees decline as real, and puts forth major restructurings in order to reset institutions so that the country can enter a new cycle of success.