CASES HAVE been made that the 1980s are the 1950s revisited -- another Eisenhower era -- or that Ronald Reagan is a reactionary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But as usual, we are not going back far enough in our analogies. What we are living in, I submit, is a new Edwardian era.
The first Edwardian era was, technically, the reign of Britain's Edward VII, 1901 to 1910; it is generally extended to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Our times increasingly resemble this now-remote era, of which almost no one today -- not even Ronald Reagan -- has any personal memory. Curiously, Reagan resembles in some respects Edward VII, who loved ceremony but was restless at detail and, in the words of a respectful biographer, was "a personality which rose superior to intellectual gifts by reason of robust manhood and intuitive insight into men's motives."
We think of the Edwardian era as a simpler, easier time, yet it was not. Nations on both sides of the Atlantic plus Japan were industrially advanced, connected by instantaneous communications and tied together by rapid transport. Industrial dynamism and technological innovation were taken for granted.
Of course the everyday life of ordinary people has improved extraordinarily in the last 80 years. They now have central heat (even in Britain), electricity and indoor plumbing, kitchen appliances and washing machines, videotape recorders, and microwave ovens. But the life of the elite, and the problems they deal with, are strikingly similar.
What were the major features of the Edwardian world that we see again today? I can think of three.
First, imperialism. Today imperialism has a bad name -- and it did in Edwardian times too: J. A. Hobson's "Imperialism" was published in 1902 and Lenin was writing his Marxist critique of imperialism a few years later. But there was a lot to say, and a lot was still said, for imperialism in what turned out to be the high-water mark of European empires. Britain had India, South Africa, and plenty of clout in the dominions; most of Africa had just been divided among Britain, France, Germany, and King Leopold of Belgium (he personally owned the Congo); the United States had just helped itself to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and was on the verge of sending Marines to Caribbean and Central American countries.
The case for imperialism rested not on the military strength of the West but on its moral superiority. Leaders of colonizing countries had plenty of reason to believe they could rule Third World peoples better than Third World leaders could.
North America and Europe had advanced, growing economies, democratic governments, and civil liberties to a substantial and impressive extent. They had not had a lengthy, major war for nearly 100 years. The colonies before colonization were the opposite: economically stagnant, politically despotic, brutal and intolerant, constantly at war. It was the British, acting against the wishes of the locals, who abolished widow-burning in India and slavery where it was carried on by Arabs in Zanzibar.
The empires' confidence in their moral superiority was destroyed by World War I and its aftermath. The deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians, the terrible damage to European economies, and the creation of totalitarian regimes undermined fatally the notion that the Western system was more peaceful, prosperous, and tolerant than what the colonies could do for themselves. In the 1950s Nehru's India -- even Nasser's Egypt -- thought nothing of lecturing the United States as moral superior to moral inferior. They were nonviolent and we were bloody; they were egalitarian and socialist and we were stratified and capitalist; they were nondiscriminatory and we were racist. The colonizers were in retreat; the ideas behind imperialism had vanished.
Now, though the empires are not back in so many words, imperialism and the confidence behind it has returned. If the West's record in the 40 years after 1914 seems morally suspect, its record in the 40 years following 1945 seems, in comparison to that of the Third World, clearly superior. The West has not had a major war in 40-plus years. It has exceedingly prosperous economies with affluence almost universally dispersed. And the United States has has changed its racial attitudes for the better more rapidly than any other society in history.
The Third World doesn't stack up so well by comparison any more. Leave aside the egregious cases, like Idi Amin's Uganda. Mobutu does not rule the Congo any better than that most exploitive of imperialists, King Leopold. Increasingly, Americans are refusing to blame their country for the problems of the Third World. It turns out that Ethiopia was impoverished and Latin America misruled for many years before the United States and the West took a part in their affairs.
So we are regaining the confidence that, on balance, we do more good than harm abroad -- the confidence that is a necessary ingredient of a successful imperialism. The United States has just gotten finished with bombing Libya, helping to unseat tyrants in Haiti and the Philippines, and fostering democracy in South America. France has military forces on the ground in Chad and is blowing up vessels in the Pacific because they allegedly are trespassing on nuclear-testing zones. Great Britain, which withdrew from South Africa in 1910, the rest of Africa in 1956-63, Suez in 1956, Aden in 1968, and the Persian Gulf in 1971 -- in almost every case with a resulting decline in civility and civil liberties -- has now reasserted its sovereignty by defending the Falklands and helping to topple a vicious regime in what was once its commercial colony of Argentina.
The military, political, and economic reach of the advanced countries is not contracting, but expanding. And more Third Worlders might like it that way. Some Democratic congressmen assumed our soldiers would be greeted as unfriendly alien conquerors in Grenada. But the Grenadans, given the choice between a bloodthirsty and incompetent Marxist dictatorship and an American-sponsored alternative, preferred the latter, as any sensible people would.
No one likes to use the word, but what we're seeing today is a revival of imperialism, minus the vicious racism, and minus most of the nasty effects of military policing that so repulsed George Orwell when he worked as a policeman in British Burma. We have confidence that we have something to teach less developed countries and a determination to impose our will on them. King Edward VII surely would have approved.
The second way this era smacks of Edwardianism is immigration. Passports weren't required for travel in the Edwardian world; they were one of the evil inventions of World War I. Gentlemen were allowed to cross borders as they pleased, and even impoverished and backward peasants were able to immigrate as they would, limited only by health regulations such as those the United States tried to impose on Ellis Island. Given the still widespread prevalence of tuberculosis, cholera, and deadly influenza, stringent health regulations weren't a bad idea; they may not be today, either, in this age of AIDS.
Immigration to the United States was huge: in 1907, the peak year, 1.7 million immigrants arrived in a country of 86 million inhabitants. Nor was immigration solely a U.S. phenomenon. Huge numbers of immigrants went to Canada and to Argentina. There was vast immigration within Europe, from rural areas to major industrial and metropolitan areas and across national boundaries as well -- Eastern European Jews to Vienna, for example. There were exceptional movements as well of coolie labor -- those who performed heavy work for little pay. Japanese went to Hawaii and Brazil, Indians to East Africa and the West Indies, and Chinese all over Southeast Asia.
The Edwardian era saw more voluntary immigration than any other time in human history. Our new Edwardian era may be seeing the second most. Guestworker immigration began in labor-short Western Europe in the '60s. Oddly, just as the American economy was slowing a bit in 1968, vast Latin and Asian immigration began into this country. It is not at Edwardian levels, partly because of flimsy legal restrictions but, with the help of the Mexican economy, it may get there yet.
It should be apparent, as it was before 1914, that immigration vastly stimulates economic growth. Essentially immigration exports people from countries that can't use them to countries that can use them to maximize gross national products. Immigration helps everyone, as Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith agree; it maximizes the world national product.
Immigration in particular compensates for the birth dearths of advanced countries. American-stock birth rates were already dipping in the early 1900s. The states that attracted the most immigrants in the Edwardian years not coincidentally had the fastest-growing economies and highest incomes. Americans -- explicitly in the Edwardian era and implicitly today -- welcome immigrants in large numbers, and enjoy vast economic growth. European countries let in guestworkers only grudgingly and refuse to grant them full citizenship; they reflexively closed the doors and sent such guestworkers as they could packing during the oil-crisis recession of the 1970s. They have seen their economies stagnate as a result. Anyone who wants his Social Security and old-age pensions fully funded in the 2010s should welcome into his country in the 1980s any young worker with the enterprise and ambition to come.
The third similarity is the way Western economies increasingly resemble Edwardian economies, with rapid but uneven and unsettling economic growth, and wider disparities in income than we have been used to.
Such income disparities are hard to avoid when, as in 1914 in most advanced nations, you have strong industrial growth with substantial percentages of population still living at agricultural subsistence levels, largely outside the cash economy. Since not everybody rises from subsistence at the same time, those who are left behind in a given year are going to be far, far behind the affluent middle class, much less the very rich.
This was true even though the Edwardian era was not so laissez faire as you might think. Germany had pioneered social insurance in 1888 under Bismarck. Britain got it in the Lloyd George budget of 1909. The United States was getting, state by state, workmen's compensation and income taxation and was using antitrust laws to break up its biggest corporations. Substantial numbers of workers belonged to labor unions and unions sometimes staged successful strikes.
Today, income disparities again seem to be growing larger. Unions are in sharp decline. Welfare state protections have stopped growing and have been cut back. And the labor force is less secure and more disciplined. There are, for the young adult starting out in an advanced economy, a wider range of possible economic outcomes. In Edwardian times, these tended to depend on fate and luck -- an accident, an illness, the death of a husband could permanently blight a family's economic chances. Now the odds depend more on personal choice: the decision to divorce is now a crucial determinant of income.
The persistence of economic growth -- and it is vividly apparent in parts of every major nation -- holds out the promise of possible affluence and riches. Continued economic stagnation -- also apparent in parts of every major nation -- presents the threat of decline and a threadbare old age. We have not abolished the welfare state altogether; the welfare states we have remaining are bigger than their Edwardian counterparts. But we no longer think that they should get more and more generous. Like the Edwardians, we have more trust in markets, even as we concede that, the results for some people will be unpleasant.
Is our new Edwardian era a good thing? You might as well have asked King Canute whether he approved of the tide coming in. It is more useful to look at the positive and negative sides of each trend.
Imperialism: Remember that it is possible, in managing other countries and cultures, to do good but it is also easy to do bad.
Immigration: Freedom of movement helps economic growth, but only if the increase in cultural variety doesn't place too much of a strain on the receiving nation.
Economic growth and disparity: The existence of widely differing rewards will spur economic growth, but the downside risk for individuals may in time prove politically unpalatable and the ethic of getting rich is not enough to hold a society together.
These are already the stuff of our everyday politics, of the debates over Nicaragua and immigration and taxes.
Beyond that, we need to remember what turned out to be the central weaknesses of the Edwardian societies -- intolerance of cultural variety and the possibility of war.
In the United States, variety proved a source of strength. But it was a source of vicious conflict in Central Europe.
And the Edwardians had their own arms races, especially the battle for naval superiority between Britain and Germany. They were living nearly 100 years after the last general, protracted war, and the people who danced in the streets as troops were mobilizing in August 1914 were confident that any conflict would be over, with relatively few casualties, by Christmas.
Our Western societies have avoided general war with our adversaries for more than 40 years now, and nuclear deterrence seems stable and enduring. But there is always the possibility that something could go terribly wrong.
Edward VII recognized both dangers. He made a point of hobnobbing with Jewish merchants, Indian princes, and actresses; he encouraged the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France. But otherwise he enjoyed himself, presiding at ceremonies, hunts, races, parties and meals.
While we need to recognize its dangers, we might as well enjoy our own Edwardian era. It has its blemishes and shortcomings and structural flaws, but it is also a time -- certainly in comparison to the 30 years that followed the original Edwardian era -- of tolerance, freedom, prosperity, and peace.