U.S. state capacity is actually pretty high
A divided society is not the same as a declining nation.
There’s a widespread narrative out there that the United States is a nation in rapid decline — perhaps even terminal decline. In fact, I myself bought into and promulgated that narrative. For example, in March 2020, after witnessing the U.S. fail to scale up Covid testing, I wrote the following in Bloomberg:
But perhaps no advanced nation has responded as poorly as the U.S. Perverse regulation, a bungled government test and fragmented supply chains held back testing for crucial weeks, allowing the epidemic to spread undetected. Abdication of leadership by the federal government left the job of shutdowns to state and local governments…[T]he widespread nature of the failures suggest that coronavirus has exposed a deeper decline in the U.S.’s general effectiveness as a civilization.
And in a follow-up post three months later, I wrote about the idea of decline in more general terms:
The U.S.’s decline started with little things that people got used to. Americans drove past empty construction sites and didn’t even think about why the workers weren’t working, then wondered why roads and buildings took so long to finish. They got used to avoiding hospitals because of the unpredictable and enormous bills they’d receive. They paid 6% real-estate commissions, never realizing that Australians were paying 2%. They grumbled about high taxes and high health-insurance premiums and potholed roads, but rarely imagined what it would be like to live in a system that worked better…[T]he decline in the general effectiveness of U.S. institutions will impose increasing costs and burdens on Americans.
I wasn’t nearly the only person worrying about American decline, and many still do so. My friend Balaji Srinivasan, in a response to a post of mine, labeled it as a deficit of state capacity:
Noah Smith 🐇🇺🇦 @NoahpinionPutin's invasion of Ukraine has given us a moment of moral clarity. We can no longer afford to indulge the illusions we spun for our own consumption during the Long Peace. https://t.co/1JnbD4UOLZ
In fact, “state capacity” is a better way to frame it. “Decline” has an over-dramatic and antiquated sound to it, while also being fairly vague (Does it mean relative or absolute decline? Decline in what? Etc.). State capacity, on the other hand, is a fairly concrete concept in the social sciences — it means “the ability of a state to collect taxes, enforce law and order, and provide public goods”. Basically, it means the state’s ability to actually accomplish the goals it sets out for itself.
And this is an important but subtle point. In the two years since I wrote those glum posts about “decline”, I’ve come to have a much more nuanced opinion about U.S. state capacity. In those years, I’ve seen the U.S. make startling displays of effectiveness. And watching other states flounder has given me a new appreciation for U.S. effectiveness in previous years, which I took for granted before. This has convinced me that much of what appears to be declining state capacity is in fact a manifestation of social division — a country that can do big things, but usually doesn’t know what it wants to do.