The Death of a Nation

Over the past few days I have been engaged in an interesting exchange over at The Committee of Public Safety, an excellent site on strategic thinking and history. As the topic of this exchange is both timely and thought provoking, I would like to extend this discussion to the general readership of the Stage.

The discussion began with a Committee post titled “Institution vs. Instrument”. The post highlighted historian Carroll Quigley‘s theory of institutional decay, termed in this discussion as the “institutional imperative.” According to this imperative, organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions – organizations who exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role.

Quigley’s institutional imperative can apply to any organization composed of human beings. Government bureaucracies are the first that spring to mind, but the rule is not limited to them. Neither corporations, religious hierarchies and congregations, NGOs, scientific bodies, international organizations, or sovereign states are exempt from this creeping institutionalization.

Along the lines of that last category, I left this comment on the Committee’s post:

I was looking over my notes of Ralph Sawyer’s translation of The Seven Military Classics when I came across this passage from the Wei Liaozi:

“The state of a [true] king enriches the people; the state of a hegemon enriches the officers. A state that merely survives enriches the high officials and a state that is about to perish enriches only its own granaries and storehouses.

(Trans. Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, p. 249.)

Does not the Wei Liaozi seem eerily similar to Quigley’s words? It certainly made me think about this rather differently — the Wei Liaozi applies the institutional imperative to the state itself. If we are to then move forward in history and apply the equation to our own state, what do we find? Does it serve the interests of the people, or does it simply stock its storehouses? Is the United States of America an instrument, or an institution?

It is an unsettling question.

“Joesph Fouche”, the proprietor of the Committee, authored an extensive reply to this question. While I recommend you read the full thing, I will excerpt only the few sections that have prompted this response.

It is an unsettling question. History suggests that unsettling questions raise even more unsettling answers. An instrument that has decayed into an institution is, by its very nature, blind. The truth is not in them and, whether they like it or not, the truth will set them free. The outside world sends rain on instrument and institution alike. Instruments in robust youth or institutions in decrepit old age must bend or they will break. Smart money says that institutions will break, their tragedy only compounded by their surprise at their end.

A state at its most instrumental has the vigor to adapt to internal and external pressures. While an institution retains considerable vigor to guard against internal threats to its share of what’s in the “granaries and storehouses”, it retains less vigor to maintain itself against external threats. Even if it suppresses internal threats, those threats will fester, becoming liable to explode.

The United States was conceived as an instrument but is rapidly decaying into institutionalism. It’s political system is ineffective and gummed up. Factionalism has paralyzed the functions of the state. This faction or that faction actively seeks alliances with foreign interests. The foreigner is considered less threatening than a fellow countryman. The only thing the state does well is distribute resources to those who have won their place at the feeding trough. American elites cannot see the looming reality of the world. The only choice they offer a gelded and thoroughly domesticated populace is a choice between equally dangerous delusions.

A state is an instrument but it is only an instrument. It can be discarded if it ceases to be useful and becomes an end only for itself. Poland the state died but Poland the nation lived on. In the course of events, Poland was able to reacquire a state of its own. A nation acquired a state as its instrument. Similar to Poland, while the United States as a state apparatus may disappear, America the nation will endure. Constitutions are parchment. Laws are words on a page. Speeches are wind. Politicians are dust. Bureaucracies are passing. The empires of the past built merely on state power passed away eventually. Political communities built on surer foundations endured. Language endures. Land endures. Religion endures. History endures. Peoples endure. The American nation is a rock and upon this rock the true instrument of state will be built. If it isn’t the United States, it will be something else better adapted to our situation. Is the United States an instrument or an institution? The times we are in will tell.

While surely meant to inspire, I find Fouche’s conclusion frightening. It has provided me with a framework to organize the scattered thoughts of my own mind, and what has emerged causes little within me but anguish for the state of my Republic.


St. John de Crèvecoeur’s question,What then is an American, this new man?”, was asked in the recognition that “American” is an epithet of a most unusual nature. One is not an American, Crèvecoeur realized, in the same way that one is a Spaniard or Frenchman. Little has changed in the two centuries since Crèvecoeur first asked his question. Americaness, if such a term may be used, has no basis in blood or geographic localities. Americans openly celebrate this: we are a nation of immigrants, an indiscriminate conglomerate of ethnicities, races, religions, and peoples. This has been true since the Republic’s founding: even in days of revolution, America’s diversity was an integral part of her identity. E Pluribus Unum.

This inclusiveness is not without dangers. Not built upon the rocks of blood or belief, the American nation has as its foundation the most ephemeral of things – an ideal. What else binds us together? Ours is a nation composed of ideas. Our ties are only those found in a shared heritage, history, and devotion to the great experiment that is America.

It is thus a daunting task to maintain America’s nationhood. Each generation must be taught anew what “America” means. The perpetuation of the American nation is dependent upon this process. Despite the overwhelming importance of this endeavor, I see little indication that America’s elder ranks have given the matter much serious thought or effort.

This neglect has not been without its consequences.

In the summer of 2008, the Bradley Project released a report on America’s national identity titled “E Pluribus Unum”. The report opened with an alarming statement:

To inform its work, the Bradley Project asked HarrisInteractive to conduct a study on Americans’ views on national identity. While 84 percent of the respondents still believe in a unique American identity, 63 percent believe this identity is weakening. Almost a quarter—24 percent—believe we are already so divided that a common national identity is impossible. In their minds, it is already too late. And young people—on whom our continued national identity depends— are less likely than older Americans to be proud of their country or to believe that it has a unique national identity.

If the American nation is a rock, it is a rock eroded by time and warped by unrelenting exposure to hostile elements. A “surer foundation” it is not, nor will be.

That America’s ruling class has not moved to protect the American nation is unsurprising. The upper classes’ isolation from their fellow citizens and identification with other members of the transnational elite play a part in this, I am sure. Yet there is a more fundamental reason for the upper classes’ disengagement: perpetuating the American nation is simply not in the elite’s best interest.

As discussed in this space before, those who hold the reigns of the Republic are, for the most part, members of an unaccountable rentier class whose illusions of their own beneficence and ability cause them to believe that they are entitled to an elect position in American society. Naturally, these men and women do not shy from squashing movements, attitudes, or organizations that might threaten this position. Such men and women have little use for the nation. As Tocqueville states in Democracy in America:

“Despotism, suspicious by its very nature, views the separation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence and usually does all it can to keep them in isolation. No defect of the human heart suits it better than egoism; a tyrant is relaxed enough to forgive his subjects for failing to love him, provided that they do not love one another. He does not ask them help him to govern the state; it is enough that they have no intention of managing it themselves. He calls those who claim to unite their efforts to create general prosperity “turbulent and restless spirits” and, twisting the normally accepted meaning of words, he gives the name of “good citizens” to those who retreat into themselves.

(Alexis de Tocqueville, trans. Gerald Bevan, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. p. 590)

It is not in the interest of the institutions that be to strengthen the ties between the men they govern. Nationhood is one such bond. It is not the only bond – but how have the rest of these bonds fared? Religious participation has declined steadily for decades. So too has enrollment in volunteer organizations. Engagement in local and state politics has limped into oblivion. Like it or not, Modern America is a country bereft of social capital. Exceeding the bounds of individualism, our tieless masses are a race of aliens. They breath the same air, live in the same space, but are aliens to each other nonetheless. Traditional ties stripped away, the American citizen lies naked and powerless before his government.

This is perhaps the dismal irony of the institutional imperative. As an organization corrupts, losing both its instrumental utility and its ability to respond to outside challenges, an organization’s ability to guard against internal threats only gains in strength. The result is a hollowing out where the beneficiaries of an institution become utterly dependent upon it. For a nation that is as much an instrument as the state that governs it, this process has been a catastrophe. In enriching its granaries the Republic has riddled holes in its own foundation.



E Pluribus Unum: The Bradley Project on American Identity
The Bradley Project. June 2008.

An important report on America’s national identity. It surveys both the American people’s identity and others suggestions as how to best reinvigorate the national spirit.

The State Despotic
Mark Steyn.The Wall Street Journal. 1 July 2009.

Steyn chronicles the decline of American civic engagement and the concurrent rise of our despotic system of governance.

Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.

Rauch provides a lucid description of the institutional imperative as seen in modern democracies. He labels this affliction Democlerosis.

ADDENDUM: JF has written a reply to this post over at the Committee of Public Safety. You can read that here. I will most likely respond to his newest post in the comments thread on that site.

Leave a Comment


Thoughtful post. I would be the last to say that the US Government does not show the strain you speak of. And the imagery of decaying from an instrument to an institution is illustrative.

But I think you sell too short the idea of Americans as being believers in an ideal. I find that far superior to the accidents of race and geography.

As long as some still live for the ideal, they can use the protections provided by the originators in the Constitution to peruse it. That alone is a step above — sadly — every other nation at this time.

Excellent post. I quoted from it at my blog and came to the below conclusion (as you can tell your post dovetails quite extensively with my own views).

"If America fails to find once more a tie that binds, its eventual descent into a torpor of self indulgence that may even border on irrelevancy will continue. It may take two or three more generations for a "Rome" like collapse, but the outline of a looming catastrophe cannot be in doubt. The American people and our leaders are sleepwalking towards an end goal that will lead us to a very bad place.

Unlike many who assume that as America falls as the lone "Superpower" someone else like China or a consortium of sorts made up of the newly rising powers like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India China) will fill the void, I believe this end of American preponderance will usher in a neo-Middle Ages of chaos. While something catastrophic will not happen all the time, with the proliferation of dangerous technology, when something catatrophic does happen, it will be shocking and destructive on a large scale.

America, as much by default as by design (perhaps, even more so by default), is the relative guarantor of stability. We must find the strength within ourselves to guarantee that we do not allow this scenario to play out. There will be no globalized governance that will make the mass of humanity sing from the same hymn book, there will only be anarchy without a Leviathan.


Perhaps I am too pessimistic here. My thoughts, however, mirror this passage from the Steyn piece linked to above:

"When President Bush used to promote the notion of democracy in the Muslim world, there was a line he liked to fall back on: "Freedom is the desire of every human heart." Are you quite sure? It's doubtful whether that's actually the case in Gaza and Waziristan, but we know for absolute certain that it's not in Paris and Stockholm, London and Toronto, Buffalo and New Orleans. The story of the Western world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and government "security," large numbers of people vote to dump freedom every time"


I concur, ours is the short path to destruction. I am less sure what might follow this collapse. Prophesy is a game in which few succeed; I make no pretensions that my vision is less clouded than those who have tried before.

What may come if the Republic falls away? I do not know. We may see a slew of rising powers engaged in a world-spanning great game, we may see an Empire arise out of the ashes of what once was America, or as you suggest, the world may find itself enveloped in a downward spiral towards a new medieval age. Of these possibilities (or the many more left unsaid), I cannot be sure which will come to pass. Only time will tell — hopefully it will not have to.

"The chief purpose of a bureaucracy is to enlarge itself." The theory you discuss dovetails with experiment.

While governments are fleeting and nations (and peoples) endure, quite a large number of individuals lose their liberties and/or their lives in the transitions. The U.S. Constitution sought to "secure the blessings of liberty" indefinitely, though an active participation by the lovers of liberty was acknowledged at the time. Most of us who consider ourselves in that group have believed that participation in the electoral process was sufficient for that purpose. An ever growing number of us are now learning how wrong that assumption was.

While Steyn is correct that "large numbers of people voted to dump freedom every time" I do not believe they did it with intent. Instead, they were sold a bill of goods. The movement has begun to return that merchandise to those who peddled it – the Progressives.

I wasn't aware of the Bradley report on US nat'l identity – appreciate the link; I may look at it at some point if I find the time, though I'm quite sure I will disagree w/ it.
One short comment — if you're going to apply words like 'tyranny' and 'despotism' to the US state or system, what labels will be left to describe regimes that actually are despotic or dictatorial?

Aya! Forgive me for not replying to these comments earlier.


Instead, they were sold a bill of goods. The movement has begun to return that merchandise to those who peddled it – the Progressives.

Perhaps, though I do not know if the evidence supports this. To take an easy example – nobody likes the stimulus, but most people like what is inside it. Take a close look at the table at the second link. If that doesn't scare the bejeebuz out of you, I do not know what will. There was not a cause whose spending more than a third thought should be cut!

No, I have little doubt that most Americans still see government as a place to grab a bill of goods.


One short comment — if you're going to apply words like 'tyranny' and 'despotism' to the US state or system, what labels will be left to describe regimes that actually are despotic or dictatorial?

A fair question. I think I will devote an entire post to its answer, actually. You should see it within a week.

Logically, those who most promote the idea of a proposition nation ought to also accept on principle that the rate of immigration would need to neccessarily be limited to the rate of assimilation to the national proposition.

That they don't implies to me that they don't really believe it and are simply using the idea to wage economic warfare.