The United States is not a Failed State

It is now fashionable on the American far right to describe America as a “failed state.” Though this blog is mostly about developing countries, it is worth taking a look at this libertarian-influenced assertion. What these U.S.A.-as-a-failed-state claims confuse are ideology and institutional effectiveness.

Over the last four years – roughly coinciding with the onset of the Great Recession and the beginning of the Obama presidency – the libertarian fringe of American politics has awakened. The Tea Party movement is a force to be reckoned with, despite the fact that a clear majority of voters disapprove of most key libertarian positions. Not least, the Tea Party movement has influenced many Congressional primaries in 2010 and 2012, and pushed the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to adopt positions that are now giving him trouble in the general election.

Beyond these electoral impacts, though, the libertarian fringe has popularized a discourse about state failure that confuses many. From a libertarian worldview, most government programs and initiatives are ineffective, and “failures.” At the extreme, some radical activists are seeking to withdraw from the jurisdiction of sovereign states and establish pure libertarian utopias on the high seas.

Thankfully, this libertarian worldview is not the majority view in the United States (or virtually anywhere). A narrow fringe may dislike many of the features of modern states, but that preference is not to be confused with the majority view of citizens. Effective states – the opposite of failed states – are those that benefit from popular legitimacy and deliver on basic expectations of governance. On these counts, America is definitely not a failed state. American governments – at local, provincial, and national levels – provide effective policing, a strong system of courts, physical infrastructure, and other basic public goods. And despite widespread frustration with elected officials – currently exacerbated by the effects of the financial crisis – most Americans have deep reverence for the Constitution and our system of government. There are also no serious efforts to fragment American territorial unity.

That said, the United States currently has some significant dimensions of political dysfunction (see a recent book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein). If unchecked over the next decade or two, these problems could lead to more serious institutional decay. In particular, control of the federal government is frequently shared between the two major parties. And these parties have recently been more interested in running perpetual campaigns, rather than accept their duties to govern. Divided government can work, but it has not been working very well in the last decade. (Parliamentary-type systems of government often do not have this type of dysfunction.) Even as the country is faced with an intensifying demographic imbalance, Republicans and Democrats seem to be more interested in demagoguery than in fiscal compromise.

In short, the concept of “state failure” is useful and highly relevant to our 21st century world. Countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen can accurately be called failed states. Though the United States is currently far from being a “failed state,” it is also true that any state can experience institutional decay and loss of popular legitimacy. Americans in particular should set aside hubris and ethnocentrism and recognize troubling trends in our own politics.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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