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If I were to make a list of my favorite political pundits, John Derbyshire would be very near the top, perhaps even number one. For those whose knowledge of punditry stops at Stephen Colbert or Rush Limbaugh (or even for those whose knowledge extends to encompass George Will and Paul Krugman) that name is probably unfamiliar to you. And if you have heard the name it was most likely in connection with his 15 minutes of fame after he was defenestrated from the National Review for thoughtcrime back in April of 2012. As someone who aspires to be a thought criminal, I immediately sent him some money when that happened and have continued to religiously read his stuff ever since. Including his 1068 page novel, Fire From The Sun, which was excellent, and Prime Obsession, his book on the Riemann Hypothesis. Which must make him some kind of triple-threat.
This long introduction is necessary because I’m going to base most of this blog on an observation The Derb had back in 2006, and in properly giving him credit the question would inevitably emerge as to what side of the fence I was on vis-à-vis the aforementioned defenestration, and I wanted to make it clear right up front that I’m on Derb’s side of the fence. As last caution, I would urge you to make neither too much nor too little of that.
With that out of the way we can turn our attention towards Derbyshire’s observation. As I said, he made it all the way back in 2006, which means that it was interesting enough and surprising enough and most of all counterintuitive enough that it has stayed with me during the intervening decade and made a significant contribution towards informing my worldview and skepticism since then. He begins things by pointing out that his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica lists 152 countries, he then asks:
How many of those countries made it from 1911 to today, nearly a century later, with their systems of government and law intact (allowing for minor constitutional adjustments like expansion of the franchise), without having suffered revolution, civil war, major dismemberment, or foreign occupation?
Before we get to the answer let’s examine what is meant by these four categories, or perhaps more properly these four calamities along with some examples:
- Fundamental change to the system of law or government – As Derb mentioned, he’s not talking about giving women the vote, or merely passing a Constitutional Amendment. This would be more something like a military coup, or if some president decided to skip an election (as the far-left fears of Trump and as the far-right feared of Obama). Of course sometimes this sort of thing is not that obvious. Did Russia change from a democracy to a dictatorship in 2008 when Putin went through the charade of having Medvedev assume the Russian presidency for four years? Putin obeyed the letter of the law by not serving more than two consecutive terms, but no one had any doubts that he was and still is in charge.
- Civil war or revolution – This is one of the items on the list the US has definitely experienced, though it was before 1911. When people offer up the worst case scenario of our current political climate this is it. More recently, if you’re looking for an actual civil war there is of course the Syrian Civil War, which if nothing else shows both how bad civil wars are, and also that it is not something which only happened in the past.
- Significant loss of territory – This category is at least as fuzzy as the change of government category, and perhaps moreso. Obviously if one of the states successfully seceded I think that would count, but looking farther back in history would it have applied to Russia when they sold us Alaska and to France when they sold us Louisiana? What about Ukraine’s recent loss of Crimea? (Particularly given the fact that Crimea’s status has always been all over the place.) Do we count the UK losing most of Ireland in 1922? I’m inclined to say no, yes, and yes, respectively, but that could depend on the day you ask me. But if Texas or California seceded I think that would fit the definition of a calamity for the US.
- Foreign occupation – This is one area in which the US has been exceptionally lucky. There are only a few instances where there has even been a foreign attack on US soil. And there’s never been an occupation. If you want to find modern examples of this happening then you just have to flip things from the US being occupied to the US being the occupier. In this case there’s been quite a lot of it recently. As I’ve pointed out it’s worthwhile to occasionally view things from the other side. It’s difficult to imagine the US being occupied, but it would obviously be humiliating if it happened, just ask the Iraqis and the Afghanis.
It should be clear that if any of these things happened to the United States that it would be a big deal, or a catastrophe, if you prefer. And here we finally turn back to the original question. How many of the 152 countries listed in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica avoided all four of these catastrophes over the last 100+ years? I think, based on what I’ve already said, that we can feel fairly confident in saying that the United States did, but who else?
Turkey? The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1922, after the Turkish War of Independence.
How about Uruguay? There was a Coup d’etat in 1933, and a 12 year long military government from 1973 to 1985.
France? Oh yeah, the Nazis. And, of course, it wasn’t just France. World War II eliminates a lot of countries from contention. Basically everyone in continental Europe, and all of southeast asia.
Obviously I’m not going to cover every country. The point is after all is said and done, by The Derb’s calculations (and mine as well) only six countries escaped all four of these catastrophes: The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland.
Part of the inspiration for this post was an email I got from one of my readers who took issue with an assertion I made in a previous post that all civilizations eventually collapse. Specifically he mentioned China, and argued that it had never collapsed. And while it’s true that there is still a nation called China, just as there has been for four thousand years (depending on how mythical you want to get), the current nation of China has very little in common with the Chinese nation of a thousand or two thousand years ago, other than the name. Thus saying that China has never collapsed is true only if your definition of collapse is very narrow, but I will grant that by using generic words like “collapse” and “catastrophe” I open myself up to criticism from people whose definition of the word is less (or more) strict than my own. As I reflected on this criticism it reminded me of the 2006 article by Derbyshire, and his standard of whether a nation has survived intact.
For my purposes this is a better standard anyway. What any given person is interested in, is not whether in 500 years the country calling itself the United States is the same country that exists today, or whether it collapsed in 2256 when the Quebecois sacked Washington DC and made everyone start speaking French. No, what people are, or should be worried about are the calamities which might occur in their lifetime, or to put it another way what negative black swans should we be worried about? Any of the four calamities I mentioned above would be large negative black swans, the kind of thing that would make everyone nostalgic for the peace and harmony which reigned during the early days of the Trump administration. Which means that yes, there might be some very narrow standard under which you could say that China has existed continuously for 4,087 years since the reign of Yu the Great, but under the Derbyshire standard, the current nation of China has only been intact since 1949 when the nationalists retreated to Taiwan, which actually makes China younger than the NBA.
Before we go too much further with the Derbyshire standard it should be noted that it is also open to interpretation. Even one which was very narrow would have to include the Communist Revolution, but a broader interpretation might go so far as to count the restructuring undertaken by Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao as a change in systems from communism to capitalism (albeit a limited and very Chinese version) as something which violated the Derbyshire standard (i.e. after Deng the Communist China of Mao was no longer intact.) And of course I already pointed out how the various large land purchases undertaken by the US in the 1900’s are in a grey area. The point being that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with something like this, the real question is whether it’s a black swan, especially a negative black swan. I would say the Deng’s reforms were definitely a black swan but a positive one.
All of this is to say that whether or not a civilization will “collapse” under some arbitrary definition of the word, is less useful than knowing whether a major political upheaval is likely and what form it might take. And if we’re using the Derbyshire standard for that, we can say, at least in the past, it’s been exceptionally rare for a country to go 100 years without some sort of upheaval.
We might, at this point, try and do a survey of the 152 countries which existed in 1911, or of the 190 countries with undisputed sovereignty which exist today, and attempt to come up with a figure for the average time a nation remains intact. And from there arrive at some estimate of how overdue the US is for something like this. But of course lumping all 152 or 190 countries into a single data set only works if you assume that Sudan and Syria, which both suffered disruptive events in 2011, are just as stable as the US. Such a calculation would also assume that 2017 is as chaotic and disruptive as 1917 or 1945. And at first glance both assumptions seem pretty ridiculous, and for that reason the exercise is probably pointless. But even if it’s not worth doing, I still think it’s worth examining those two assumptions I just mentioned because they may not be as ridiculous as they first appear.
Starting with the first assumption, even if we agree that some countries are more stable than others that doesn’t get us anywhere unless we understand why that is. If stability is based on sunspot activity or astrology than the US might be stable only as long as Jupiter is retrograde in Virgo, and Syria might only be unstable only for as long as we’re in Sunspot Cycle 24. This would make predicting things a lot easier, but unfortunately it’s obviously not either of those things. However, this does illustrate the point that whatever it is, it could change, and unless we know what it is we don’t know how likely it is to change.
I touched on this briefly in a previous post, but for the purposes of this discussion all we need to determine is whether the cause of the instability is something people take with them when they emigrate from unstable countries to stable ones. If they do, if stability is not 100% a function of the location of the unstable country, then immigrants are going to bring the remaining percentage with them. And remember that on top that instability there’s the additional instability created in the interaction between immigrants and the population which is already in place.
You may argue that just not having to worry about food and death diminishes the instability carried over from the initial country. I’m sure that’s true, and it falls under the general topic of how well immigrants are at assimilating the stability of their destination country. But if any of that instability remains unassimilated then we have a situation where assuming that France and Syria have the same levels of stability becomes less ridiculous as France becomes more Syrian. We have in fact seen a fair amount of instability in France, but I assume that only a tiny amount is due to France becoming more Syrian, but when you combine all of the instability generated by immigration in general and the imported instability of dozens of countries, not just Syria, it becomes reasonable to ask if France’s stability might be changing. We can only hope that the answer is no.
The second assumption I mentioned and one which is often used to dismiss overdue political upheaval in the US, is the assumption that 2017 is less chaotic than 1917 or 1945 (or even 1848 for that matter.) But in making this assumption people have a hard time restricting themselves to 2017, which, to be fair, is reasonably calm, by historical standards and, also, half over. No, instead they want to extend the calm which exists in 2017, and which has existed for the last few decades, forward into 2018 and 2020 and even 2030. It is certainly possible that those years will be as calm if not calmer than 2017, but there is of course no way to know, and given how rare it is for a country to go 100 years, as we have, without any of the four calamities, (remember just 6 out of 152!) Are we really that sure this time it’s different?
Long time readers of this blog will recognize that as the question I refer to over and over again. Are we different in some ongoing and fundamental way from the past? Do people, particularly in the US, no longer have to worry about revolutions or foreign occupation, or sessession or dictatorship? I would say no, and I suspect that more people worry about it now than worried about it two years ago, or twenty years ago. Also I hope that this time around as I ask these questions, that by keeping in mind the tiny number of countries which have avoided upheavals, that we might approach the subject more soberly. I think it’s also helpful to take the discussion out of the somewhat ambiguous realm of collapses and catastrophes into the more concrete realm of the Derbyshire standard.
As I already mentioned, I think the election of Trump, and specifically the political infighting and instability which attended the election has definitely increased the worry for most people. And in closing I’d like to examine each of the four calamities (as I’ve been calling them) from both sides: first why it won’t happen, and second how it might happen and how likely that is. Though as a general note I think all of them are more likely than they were in 2006 when the original article was written.
1- Fundamental change in our the system of government
In modern times the most common tactic for turning democracies into dictatorships, or at least oligarchies, is to mess with the elections. You can prevent certain parties and individuals from running, or you can rig the election, or you can put up puppet candidates like the aforementioned example of Putin and Medvedev. But in the end what you want to create is the illusion of choice while maintaining the same power structure which existed before the election. You can say many things about Trump, but no one is going to claim that he represents business as usual in Washington and you’d have to be insane to think that he’s a continuation of the Obama or even the Bush presidency.
On the other hand, these days, systems of government change gradually, and it may be that we have been imperceptibly migrating to a new one in the same way that the frog is boiled, slow enough not to be noticed. If I had to pick a candidate for this change I would say that we are gradually transitioning to a system where we’re ruled by the judiciary. Certainly they’ve already stopped Trump from doing many of the things he wanted to do, and just yesterday there was an article in Slate pointing out that as the swing vote, the success of Trump’s travel ban basically comes down to a single individual, Justice Kennedy. Just in case it’s unclear, when a single, unelected individual has the final say on everything that’s not a democracy…
2- Civil war or revolution
For most people this seems more likely than the last item. Though once again it’s hard to see how things come to violence, which is the defining characteristic separating this calamity from calamity number three. In evaluating this possibility it’s helpful to review past civil wars and revolutions. Fortunately, I’ve been a regular listener of the Revolutions Podcast since it’s inception and he recently covered the July Revolution (one of the many French Revolutions) and what’s interesting about earlier revolutions is the relative parity in weapons between the revolutionaries and the military, a parity which definitely wouldn’t exist now, no matter how many NRA members you have. Of course this doesn’t stop irregular organizations like ISIS from putting up a pretty good fight, but it’s hard to see anyone in the US adopting the tactics of Assad, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough.
However, when we turn to the other side, perhaps the examples of the various revolutions (French or otherwise) are closer to our own situation than we want to admit. One thing we see over and over again are students in the forefront of past uprisings and revolutions. When one looks at current campus climate it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that something similar might happen again.
3- Significant loss of territory
There’s been a lot of noise about secession, and not just in the US. Many people think that Scotland might secede from the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. Or that Catalan may break away from Spain. Inside the US there are of course worries about Texas or California seceding. In assessing the likelihood of a state seceding it’s important to acknowledge the differences between the positions of, for example, Scotland and Texas. Scotland had hundreds of years as an independent nation, Texas was independent for only 16 years, and that’s if you count the Civil War. The UK has already gone a long way towards making Scotland into a separate entity by devolving power. Nothing of the sort has happened with Texas. Scotland’s biggest political party is a specifically Scottish party whose primary goal is independence. Texas is still mostly Republican. Despite all of this, the last time Scotland held a vote they voted against independence. All of this would seem to indicate that Texas still has a long way to go before it’s truly in danger of seceding.
Still, it’s hard to deny the spirit of secession and fragmentation which appear to be in the air. And unlike the UK, which has bent over backwards to devolve power and keep Scotland in the Union, the US federal government has done very little to accommodate the individual states and federalism appears to be dead. It may be just as Princess Leia foretold, that the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.
4- Foreign occupation
I would hazard to say that despite my normal habit of hedging my bets and searching for calamities that others might overlook that on this final count we probably don’t have to worry about foreign occupation (Red Dawn notwithstanding). In this one case I will admit that the world is different, I think our enemies wouldn’t bother to invade, they would just nuke us.
And so, whether or not you agree with my assessment on how likely any of these scenarios are, I hope that I’ve at least given you a better idea of the kind of calamities I’m worried about and the nearly unique position the US occupies in having avoided all of these calamities for the last 100 years when most countries have not. A position I hope that we continue to enjoy, but one which I think is more precarious than people suspect.
Of course I didn’t cover the greatest calamity of all, if this blog went away. You can help make sure that calamity doesn’t come to pass by donating.