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What is the first sin? According to the Bible it was jealousy. J. W. Goethe argued rather that it was sloth. Absolute rest is what people really want, God explains in the prologue to Faust, and the devil’s job is to stir things up. There is something to be said for this view. It accounts quite well for the sin of imperialism. Whole continents have been ruined to maintain their conquerors in idle luxury.
By the same token, it is meaningless to speak of an “American Empire” when Americans incline to sloth less than any other people in the industrial world. Americans worked a fifth more hours in 2002 than in 1970, while Europeans and Japanese worked a fifth fewer, reported the Wall Street Journal last Thursday, citing a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Idle, inherited wealth figures small among America’s rich, whose fortunes mainly derive from long hours and risk-taking.
Americans work hard because the world’s entrepreneurs become Americans in order to work hard. In 1998 one-third of the scientific workforce in Silicon Valley was Asian, according to a 1998 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California; more important, Asians headed one-quarter of Silicon Valley enterprises. No American matches the prototype better than my Asia Times Online colleague Henry C K Liu, who inveighs against “US imperialism” from a New York business address. With all due respect, Henry’s choice of address does more to promote the United States than his invective does to harm it.
Empires fall, we are told, when their subjects become fat and lazy. More accurate would be to say that men build empires precisely in order to become fat and lazy, that is, to “wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” as Abraham Lincoln said of the slaveholders.
Of all the silver wrung from American mines after the Spanish conquests, not a penny remained in Spain, observed the historian Fernand Braudel. It went to China for silk and spices. There it lay like a dragon’s hoard until the 19th century, when China disgorged it to Britain in exchange for opium.
Loot on the service of sloth defines the dead empires of the past. Spain looted the New World to attire hidalgos in Chinese silk; England conquered India and ravaged China so that fortune-hunters could come home as gentry; Rome enslaved half of Europe in the latifundia so that Romans could eat the free bread ration and watch atrocities in the Coliseum; the sugar, tobacco and cotton trades denuded West Africa of a third of its people so that parvenu planters could pose as aristocrats. Imperial Sparta impressed its neighbors as helots to maintain its own population as an aristocratic military caste; imperial Athens exacted tribute from its maritime dependencies to support a leisured elite.
The United States might have turned into an imperial power. It fought a bloody Civil War to stop the Southern Confederacy from turning Latin America into a vast slave plantation (Happy birthday, Abe: Pass the blood, February 10).
Professor Robert E. May, I reported, demonstrated this in The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire (1973). He noted, “The Memphis Daily Appeal, December 30, 1860, wrote that a slave ’empire’ would arise ‘from San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean, thence southward, along the shore line of Mexico and Central America, at low tide, to the Isthmus of Panama; thence South – still South! – along the western shore line of New Granada and Ecuador, to where the southern boundary of the latter strikes the ocean; thence east over the Andes to the head springs of the Amazon; thence down the mightiest of inland seas, through the teeming bosom of the broadest and richest delta in the world, to the Atlantic Ocean.'”
Abraham Lincoln sustained a biblical scale of slaughter to stop men from “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” During the past century the people of the US South have won deserved fame for industriousness and self-reliance. That is no surprise, for the Civil War killed off all the Southerners who preferred to hunt, gamble and duel. As long as talented fellows like Henry Liu denounce US imperialism from New York rather than Shanghai, it is pointless to argue that the United States is an empire, much less that it is overextended.
In what way might one argue that the US is “overextended”? The missions that the administration of President George W. Bush has undertaken strain America’s troop strength. America’s detractors, though, should be careful what they wish for. To eliminate unfriendly regimes and control oil supplies, the US does not need the sort of occupation force it maintains in Iraq. Should the US find its troop strength “overextended,” it is likely to revert to the prescription offered by Victor Davis Hanson, among others, and use bombers rather than ground troops to bring to heel recalcitrant regimes.
More likely than this, Washington might turn away from the will-o’-the-wisp of regional stability, and reinforce local allies such as the Kurdish Peshmerga as a substitute for US forces (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance?, December 23, 2003). Woe betide the adversaries of the United States should it choose to economize on ground troops.
Much is made of America’s balance-of-payments deficit, amounting to more than 5% of its gross domestic product. Americans enjoy a higher living standard and a lower savings rate than otherwise they might because (in part) China sells to the US at or below cost. But does that speak to America’s weakness, or China’s? As long as Chinese entrepreneurs like Professor Liu prefer the security of the United States to the vagaries of the Chinese economic regime, China’s labor and currency will remain cheap.
For that matter, no wealthy Asian I know puts all his eggs in a local-currency basket; few of those who did survived the 1997 financial crisis. One may deplore the fact that Asians lend money to Americans to buy sport-utility vehicles rather than invest in their home economies, but it is hard to see what will cause this to change.
If China manages to keep its entrepreneurs and scientific talent occupied at home and produce for the home market rather than for US shopping malls, a great transformation will occur in the world economy. Americans then will pay more for Chinese goods, to be sure, but will have more opportunity to sell into the Chinese market. How does that undermine the US economy? US resources would flow toward investment and away from consumption, which implies higher economic growth in the medium term.
So many obstacles lie in China’s path toward economic normality, however, that no one can predict when such a transformation might occur. For the interim, the United States will continue to flourish by absorbing the world’s talent and capital, and its detractors will grind their teeth and curse in vain.