Santorum: Social Policy Killed the British Empire

Santorum has an interesting theory about the decline of great powers.

Via CNN we find some odd (to be kind) historical claims from former Senator and GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum:

He spoke of how the British Empire faded because “they accepted the mediocrity of state control.”

“We face that moment right now,” he said. “It is our watch right now.”

He said this after noting:

“We have a president who does not understand what American exceptionalism is,” he said.

He faulted President Obama for telling an audience last month that America “would not be a great country” without the entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare.

I take it from this series of statements that Santorum is arguing that the British Empire fell because of the institutionalization of social welfare policies like the National Health Service, old age pensions, unemployment benefits, and the like.  I will admit that the strained nature of the logic does make it difficult to follow, so perhaps I am misinterpreting.

First, there is the curious association of US exceptionalism and the British Empire.  Is Santorum suggesting that a) we are an empire and/or b) that greatest requires empire?  It is an odd formulation at best, and I am not sure what it has to do, per se, with Americanness.

Or, perhaps it isn’t so odd, as it does seem that a lot of people who extol “American exceptionalism” focus far too much on power than they do on values.

This is important because if relative power to the rest of the world is the real issue that defines the greatness of America, then really the values aren’t the relevant issue.  Surely the things that make America great are ideas like democracy, freedom, equality, etc.

Second, I would question the hypothesis that the British Empire fell because of social welfare programs in the UK.  For one thing, India gained its independence in 1947, but the National Health Service wasn’t founded until the next year.  I suppose we won’t get into that pesky question of whether imperial overreach had anything to do with the fall of the British Empire (not to mention some serious involvement in two World Wars in a  way that US did not).  There is also the niggling fact that the country that eclipsed Britain was the US and the generic fact that the post-WWII era was an era of decolonization in general.  In other words:  the era of empire (as defined by colonization) was done, and not just for the British.

Third, I won’t even try to figure out how social welfare programs like universal health care, old age pensions and the like equals “accept[ing] the mediocrity of state control.”

Also, a parting question:  if the US falls from global hegemony because of Medicare, Social Security, and (presumably) the PPACA, then who is going to take its place?  I guess by the Santorum Theorem it can’t be any European country, what with all their mediocrity of state control and all.  And if it isn’t a European state, it surely can’t be Japan for the same reason.  And, btw, forget China, given that they have a rather substantial amount of state control in their economy in a way that would make event the Europeans blush.

Quite the puzzle, I must say.

Ultimately I find this kind of stuff maddening because a) it conflates power with greatness without thinking about what really matters and b) it is historical claptrap.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Ryan Spires says:

    “American Exceptionalism” is just an doltish way of the joyfulness of being a neocon. And isms are getting old, along with -onomics. My implicit association of Mr. Santorum is quite negative, especially since the Faux News debates. It’s actually kind of sad, that the transformation of the Republican party is always an inch away from a good joke. The incumbents don’t have to be incompetent to lose office, the challengers just have to be weak.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Santorum can’t carry his own state — which just happens to be one of the most necessary of swing states. He’s not going to be the nominee so why shouldn’t he do his Ace Ventura impression and talk out of his ass about history he doesn’t understand?

  3. Southern Hoosier says:

    And, btw, forget China, given that they have a rather substantial amount of state control in their economy in a way that would make event the Europeans blush.

    Didn’t China become an economic powerhouse only after they broke the iron rice bowl?

  4. Pete says:

    I think it is more economic; as in the US became THE industrial giant. With the wealth associated with industrial hegemony came the social benefits. But as the industrial hegemony fades, the ability to afford the social benefits also fades. The US still leads the industrial world, but others are closing the gap and that means the social “buffet table,” which has been well stocked, is beginning to be stocked with spam instead of prime rib. The evolution from an industrial society to a service society is bleeding REAL wealth.

  5. jwest says:

    Santorum is a non-factor on the right.

    This election will hinge on economic issues and be fueled by the enthusiasm of the Tea Party, which isn’t concerned with Santorum’s focus on social issues. The religious right will be along for the ride, but they won’t be setting the agenda or picking the nominee.

  6. wr says:

    jwest — That was the lie that propelled the Tea Party to power — that they were solely concerned with fiscal matters and not imposing their hard right religious agenda on the country. Since they got into power, they’ve introduced bill after bill about abortion, nothing about jobs, and very little about the economy except for the Ryan “transfer all the nation’s wealth to the top one percent” joke of a budget. No one’s going to be stupid enough to believe it again.

  7. Murray says:

    Santorum, doing everything he can to live up to Dan Savage’s definition:

    “Santorum: The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.”

    In other words, he’s full of shit.

  8. @SH:

    Didn’t China become an economic powerhouse only after they broke the iron rice bowl?

    I am nit sure exactly what you mean, but if you inferring that China has become a free market capitalist system, or that the state is unobtrusive in terms of economics, politics, or society, then you are mistaken. Has China become less communistic? Yes. But the state is far, far, far more involved than anything in the OECD.

    @Murry: could we try and refrain from comments that notihn but profanity? Such comments really do not contribute to an actual conversation.

  9. Eric Florack says:

    I too have my issues with Santorum.
    That said, he’s correct when he says:

    He spoke of how the British Empire faded because “they accepted the mediocrity of state control.”

    “We face that moment right now,” he said. “It is our watch right now.”

    The financial effects of that control is well-documented. Of course, government enforced multiculturalism is also a part of the demise of the empire. It strikes me that the only people in denial on that point of his are those still under the illusion that government is the solution, and not (in fact )the problem.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    Since Rick Santorum is totally irrelevant, what he has to say about anything is also irrelevant. but then again, why any Republican has to say about policy is irrelevant since the Republicans have shown that they are incapable of affecting policy in the U.S.

  11. Southern Hoosier says:

    @ Steven L. Taylor

    The “Iron rice bowl” is a Chinese term used to refer to an occupation with guaranteed job security, as well as steady income and benefits.” was a promise made by Mao the the people of China. It’s hard to have productive workers if you can’t be fired.

    The State’s industrial sector has traditionally assured employment and social security cover for a large share of China’s salaried employees. But in recent years, its pay-rolls have been cut strongly through the privatisation of small companies and the rationalisation of large ones.

    http://www.cepii.fr/anglaisgraph/publications/lettre/summary/2001/let202ang.htm

  12. jwest says:

    Wr,

    There are a group of simple minded liberals who fantasize about an election where Barack Obama runs against an openly racist bible-thumper who believes Jesus rode dinosaurs, advocates throwing the elderly out in the snow and who wants to institute slavery for all poor people.

    If that candidate existed, Obama might stand a chance of reelection. However, a republican like that only exists in the addled dreamland of less-than-astute leftists.

  13. I would note, just as general observation, that the main issue in the post is not Santorum, as it is quite clear he is not going to be nominated.

    The main point of the post is the point to a particular view of “American exceptionalism” that focused more on power than it does anything else.

    Further, the issue at hand would the generally ridiculous nature of his historical claims, the overall thesis of which strikes me as not limited to Santorum either.

  14. Southern Hoosier says:

    @jwest says:
    You for got to add the part about Jesus speaking King James English.

  15. Eric Florack says:

    Since Rick Santorum is totally irrelevant, what he has to say about anything is also irrelevant.

    Untrue on both counts, and may I say your narrow mind is revealed?
    Even the devil, after all, can quote scripture, as the saying goes.

  16. Hey Norm says:

    Yes the Tea Party is not interested in social issues which is why they are passing laws about bestiality and haggis pants in FL.
    The problem with this notion of exceptionalism is that it is so limiting. For instance it prevents the so-called republicans from admitting that other nations get better health care results for less money. So they run around screaming that we have the best health care system in the world and it doesn’t need changing…unless by change you mean abandoning seniors to private insurance companies who won’t cover them.
    But Santorum belongs to a party that, statistically speaking, believes that evolution is a hoax, that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together, that 100% of peer-reviewed climate change science is fake, that tax cuts pay for themselves, and Tha Sarah Palin is honest. Embarrassing as that may be you can’t argue with the stats, so just consider the source.

  17. JKB says:

    Well, social policy did hasten the decline of the British empire, but not the entitlement programs, which are simply a symptom. The Progressive tendencies that peaked in the early 20th century led to the bureaucrats, who had run the empire, turning on the empire in hopes of reshaping it into a socialist utopia. This, with the independence of India, led to the stopping of the Indian indentured laborer (Coolie) policy that this documentary labels Britain’s reinvention of slavery. The loss of cheap labor broke the planter control of the government and set thousands of colonial bureaucrats adrift as their postings were lost.

    Just as this was happening, state strangling control of business was asserted or continued after the war. Britain manufacturing entered mediocrity and decline during the burgeoning 1950s clearing the way for Japan and Germany’s far more decimated industries to arise.

    America is today headed for this strangling control. The EPA bureaucrats, having accomplished some good, now move to expand their influence by strangling rather than guiding business. The NRLB, DOL and DOT all are moving to crush the ability of business to operate in a free manner absent payoff to connected groups.

    It is possible some other country will achieve the balance of government/business necessary for a productive future and America will remain mired in red tape and bureaucratic cronyism. I believe a far more likely future it that America with here unique ability to tweak the system will throw off the bureaucrat masters, grind them to dust and force government back to its small, supporting roll since ultimately survival is the basest of instincts. The alternative is for the Left to throw off the Green, go full Red and permit connected commissars rape the natural resources using the lash to force labor from their “supporters.” It is the only way for the state-controllers, they can dig coal and minerals with oppressed labor but you cannot beat an iPad out of someone. It must be coaxed by supporting freedom and retention of wealth.

  18. I’ve always thought of “American Exceptionalism” as more of a goal than a state of being. That we, as a nation, should always strive to be more than just another nation.

    And a big part of that is doing what’s right, even if it’s not in our immediate best interest. But the “might makes right” sort of foreign policy advocated by men like Santorum is then the opposite of Exceptionalism. By constantly advocating we just do whatever we like if no one can stop us from doing so, we are acting just like every other powerful nation in history.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    Haha autocorrect changed baggy pants to haggis pants…too funny.

  20. Hey Norm says:

    “…. The NRLB, DOL and DOT all are moving to crush the ability of business to operate in a free manner absent payoff to connected groups…”
    I’d just love to hear more about this. No really. Tell us. Please…

  21. An Interested Party says:

    My goodness…some people are actually clutching the pearls and claiming that America is doomed because of multiculturism, the EPA, NRLB, DOL and DOT, among many other things, no doubt…of course these people agree with Santorum…since he has no shot at the White House, who will speak for them next year…

  22. ponce says:

    “Further, the issue at hand would the generally ridiculous nature of his historical claims, the overall thesis of which strikes me as not limited to Santorum either.”

    To be fair, the claims Republicans make these days are no more silly than, say, “We owe our fruitful harvests to the human sacrifices we’ve been making!” or “The sun only rises in the morning because you pay tribute to me.”

  23. anjin-san says:

    “American Exceptionalism” in the context Santorum is using basically boils down to “let’s give ourselves a nice pat on the back for the things our grandparents did”.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    What you’re defending is governmental power.
    Are you really sure that’s what you want to do?

  25. Southern Hoosier says:

    anjin-san says:
    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 13:24

    “American Exceptionalism” in the context Santorum is using basically boils down to “let’s give ourselves a nice pat on the back for the things our grandparents did”.

    Which is not the way Comrade President is doing things now.

  26. superdestroyer says:

    Eric,

    Does Santorum have any chance of every having elected office again? What policy could Santorum possibly affect? The Republicans as a whole are incapable of affect policy in the U.S. How can one loser who lose his seat in a rout and has no chance of holding office again going to affect policy.

    The only relevant politicians are those than can affect policy and virtually all Republicans are irrelevant since they just do not affect policy. All Republicans seem capable of doing is porking up budgets and failing to follow through on what they promise,

  27. steve says:

    The rise of the US (see Washington Naval Treaty) and the loss of their position as leading naval power started their decline. WWII finished it. The UK was broke after WWII and needed a loan from the US to keep things afloat. They did an especially bad job of defending their territories in the Pacific in WWII. Besides, the colonial era was over. One could actually argue that it was, partially, the UK’s acceptance of ethical behaviors towards other countries that helped bring down the empire.

    Steve

  28. Eric Florack says:

    Does Santorum have any chance of every having elected office again? What policy could Santorum possibly affect?

    And that has what, exactly, to do with what I said he got right?

  29. john personna says:

    Santorum’s wrong. He sees the British socialism as a root cause rather than itself a response.

    It’s a response to the great depression and importantly … the still powerful British class structure.

    We didn’t have class division to the European extreme, so our dabblings with state control were small in comparison.

  30. Southern Hoosier says:

    The Atlantic Charter went a long way in dismantling the British Empire. “….all peoples had a right to self-determination” had originally applied to counties in Europe that had been occupied by the Axis powers. It was later applied to European colonies that occupied by the Axis powers as well. Burma, Malaya, and Indonesia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_Charter

  31. anjin-san says:

    What you’re defending is governmental power.
    Are you really sure that’s what you want to do?

    Says the guy who spent the last decade arguing the government must have the power to torture, spy on us and maintain gulags.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    As steve and even Southern Hossier (of all people) show, the decline of the British Empire had to do with very different things that what Santorum is talking aboiut…this all just proves that Santorum’s little theory is full of…Santorum…

  33. Eric Florack says:

    Says the guy who spent the last decade arguing the government must have the power to torture, spy on us and maintain gulags.

    Had you forgotten that defense of the country is a constitutional mandate?

  34. anjin-san says:

    Had you forgotten that defense of the country is a constitutional mandate?

    Defending the country in a dangerous world kinda requires a powerful government, no?

    What you’re defending is governmental power.
    Are you really sure that’s what you want to do?

    It’s certainly not the first time that your tortured attempts at logic have resulted in your contradicting yourself in a thread…

  35. Eric Florack says:

    Defending the country in a dangerous world kinda requires a powerful government, no?

    In limited areas, yes. But it most certainly doesn’t require a welfare state. ANd, Anjin; THat’s no contradiction.

    Santorum’s wrong. He sees the British socialism as a root cause rather than itself a response.

    It may have been a response, but the socialism didn’t solve anything. It never has, and never will, it simply makes problems worse. Granted that following WWII, the UK was in serious poop. But, the socialism they applied as a fix, rather than making things better, sealed their fate. So it is here in the states, as well.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    But, the socialism they applied as a fix, rather than making things better, sealed their fate. So it is here in the states, as well.

    Oh absolutely! The VA, Social Security, and Medicare are sealing our fate! We’re doomed because of these things…oh, by the way, your acknowledgement that the British Empire was already damaged by the end of WW II adds further proof that Santorum is wrong…the socialism came after the empire was already at an end…

  37. CB says:

    Granted that following WWII, the UK was in serious poop. But, the socialism they applied as a fix, rather than making things better, sealed their fate. So it is here in the states, as well.

    ah yes, because as we all know, after they instituted the grand progressive scheme, the UK descended into the depths of poverty and pestilence and plague, where it remains today, a weak, impotent, empty vessel of a country.

    i mean, really?

  38. Rob in CT says:

    Coupla things:

    The fall of the British Empire was a good thing. I’d argue that it was a good thing even for Britain.

    Santorum is good for some laughs, of course, but the real topic here is the crazy meanings people can pack into the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” I absolutely loathe that term. What it seems to mean, for most who use it, is basically a mindless USA! USA! USA! #1! We’re different (in a good way).

    The idea of the USofA is a bit exceptional, but emphatically NOT if it follows in the footsteps of Empire.

  39. Eric Florack says:

    The VA, Social Security, and Medicare are sealing our fate!

    So they are, indeed. You may have noticed we cannot pay for them. It’s been in all the papers. Raising taxes is no longer an option.