“Managed decline” is one of the favorite catchphrases of the American right. Briefly, it’s an accusation that Democratic politicians and the Obama administration – i.e., the “extreme left” – have decided to let the U.S. decline economically and militarily, with government “managing” that process to protect special interests like unions and public employees.

This argument is now heard everywhere on the right, from radio talk-show hosts to semi-respectable academics to the text of Rep. Paul Ryan’s House budget resolution. Stripped to its specific public-policy recommendations, it’s an appeal to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other social spending and shift those resources to the military.

Let’s tale a closer look at the rhetoric. Because I’m going to make the case that there is some reality behind the notion of managed decline – just not the one most often fed to us.

It’s always hard to tell where these things start, but the “managed decline” scenario certainly wasn’t an obscurity once Rush Limbaugh let loose with this tirade in March of last year:

These people are on the march, and they have only one intention, and that’s to manage America’s decline and see to it that it happens, because they think we deserve to be a nation in decline.

Financial speculator George Soros fanned the flames some months later, when he called for a “managed decline” of the U.S. dollar. That, predictably, spawned another outpouring in the conservative blogosphere, where Soros assumes the role of the moneybags behind the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy and a lower dollar exchange rate appears tantamount to “debasing” the currency in the manner of imperial Rome.

Perhaps the American people do not want a “managed decline” of the U.S. dollar. Perhaps the American people do not want any part of a new “global currency”. Perhaps the American people do not want any part of a “New World Order”.

Slightly more respectable voices put it in slightly less conspiratorial terms. Here’s National Affairs, the recently launched conservative quarterly, referencing the government rescue of the auto industry:

Sold as a means of revitalizing the economy, [the auto bailouts] are in fact a means of transforming the relationship between the state and the market in a way that empowers large players at the cost of economic growth. The overall effect of such state capitalism is a kind of controlled stasis, in which the preservation of old jobs takes priority over the creation of new ones. Managed decline, rather than dynamic growth, is the defining feature of the Obama economy.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity, the blueprint for this spring’s House budget resolution, is more than a set of numbers. It’s a fascinating essay in solidifying the “managed decline” scenario, casting the Republican Party as the heroes of a valiant attempt to restore the Republic of Virtue in place of the Democrats’ Republic of Defeat and Moral Squalor. The text is laced through with invocations of moral decline, epitomized by the Obama administration’s supposedly heedless expansion of government and failure to rein in the deficit.

Ryan caricatures Obama’s health care reform package as “bureaucrats managing the decline of a government-run system on the verge of bankruptcy.” But he goes further:

The United States is facing a crushing burden of debt – a debt that will soon surpass the size of the entire U.S. economy and ultimately capsize it if left on its present course. This is not the future of a proud and prosperous nation. It is the future of a nation in decline – its best days come and gone …

Will this be remembered as the Congress that did nothing as the nation slouched toward a preventable debt crisis and irreversible decline? …

We face two dangers: long-term economic decline as the number of makers diminishes and the number of takers grows and, worse, gradual moral-political decline as dependency and passivity weaken the nation’s character and as the power to make decisions is stripped from individuals and their elected representatives and given to non-elected bureaucracies.

Ryan has a reputation as something of an intellectual. He knows his Ayn Rand. But he also knows his Niall Ferguson – the right-wing popular historian who made a name for himself a decade ago by trumpeting the need for America, post-9/11, to assume the mantle of the world’s imperial overlord.

Last year in Foreign Affairs magazine, financial historian Niall Ferguson surveyed some of the great empire declines throughout history and observed that ‘most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. All the… cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt. Alarm bells should be ringing loudly… [for] the United States.’

This is wrong: The danger from the U.S. government’s debt burden is debatable, and has been overstated in some circles to the point of absurdity. In any case, most empires have fallen not because of fiscal crises but military overreach, undermined either because they lacked the resources to maintain their grip or because outside forces made it too costly to hold onto their dominions. The 19th century British empire was surprisingly cheap to build and maintain. The American military overlordship today is far more expensive.

His status as a Foreign Affairs author, however, marks Ferguson as a card-carrying member (despite his UK birth) of the U.S. public-policy elite. So it’s always good to remind ourselves what his imperial vision means for the American people. In Colossus, the book that put him on the Beltway required-reading list after 9/11, he argued that putting Washington’s fiscal house in order was necessary for the U.S. to make the long-term investment needed to set up a large number of overseas protectorates, mainly in the Middle East.

This could best be accomplished by cutting Social Security and Medicare, which in turn would help achieve another important goal – ending the cushy lifestyles of the American working class so they could form a new mass of the jobless, convicts, undocumented immigrants, and others with no alternative but to fill the overseas imperial armies needed to maintain the new Pax Americana. Just as landless, impoverished Scots and Irish filled the ranks of the British army and navy in the 19th century, so African Americans could be “the Celts of the American empire,” Ferguson suggested.

Social Security and Medicare accomplish only one thing, Ferguson argues: adding to the nation’s indebtedness. And that spells danger for his idealized American global imperium. In the same Foreign Affairs article Ryan cited, Ferguson warned,

There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary.

Meaning this will only get worse, because programs like Social Security have no spending controls, while the military is always vulnerable to cutbacks. But there are major holes in Ferguson’s case – and in Ryan’s, and in Limbaugh’s.

First, military spending is discretionary only in name. Real cuts in the Pentagon budget are politically unthinkable in Washington – and besides, Congress this past decade has found a neat way to avoid them. The Middle Eastern wars launched by Bush and continued under Obama – with no real end in sight – are funded by special appropriations outside the official budget process. Congress, despite its obsession with cutting the deficit, has yet to turn down a single one of these requests.

Medicare benefits, by contrast, have been cut repeatedly, while beneficiaries now pay premiums that have only become stiffer over the years. As for Social Security, thanks to the 1983 Amendments to the Social Security Act, workers reaching age 65 in 2025 will get retirement benefits some 19% lower than they would have received otherwise. That’s partly because the ’83 Amendments mandated a gradual rise in the retirement age, and partly because they imposed a tax on benefit income. The payments that retirees receive every month are getting smaller and smaller, meanwhile, since those Medicare premiums are deducted off the top before they go out.

Social spending, then – even when it doesn’t come out of general revenues but from dedicated contributions by workers fro their paychecks, as with Social Security and Medicare – is eminently cuttable, while military spending isn’t. The same goes for public employees and union members, who have seen their bargaining leverage deteriorate for years. While that decline has been arrested from time to time by some – by no means all – Democratic administrations in Washington and the state capitals, the laws enabling workers to organize legally have been steadily eroded for more than 60 years.

So what, if anything, is managed decline?

What is it, if not the conscious decision by elites that the country in question has no economic future, and therefore isn’t worth the investment in education, productive capacity, or the personal well-being of its people?

What is managed decline if not a refusal to nurture and protect new manufacturing industries and technologies that could employ those people?

What is managed decline if not a decision that those people’s only worthwhile use is as cannon fodder?

Who were Ferguson’s “Celts,” the people who stocked the army and navy that controlled the seas in the 19th century and enforced British rule over a vast colonial empire? For the most part, they were Scottish and Irish people who had been systematically robbed of their lands, their traditional economy shut down, many if not most of whom had been left indigent and forced – sometimes explicitly – to move to the U.S. or one of those colonies their English overlords were eagerly establishing.

Who are the “New Celts” of today, the ones serving in America’s imperial armies? Mostly, just as Ferguson says, they are African and Hispanic Americans and whites from economically hollowed-out portions of the country. Thirty years of laws and treaties geared to open up the American market to cheap goods from abroad have afflicted them with wage stagnation, while round after round of marginal tax cuts for the wealthy have helped create the “zero-sum game” that Ferguson describes – and which he appears happy to live with, so long as military spending continues to expand.

The center-right policy elite’s relentless focus on deficit reduction ensures that new investment in infrastructure, basic research, and public health that could improve non-military prospects for the “new Celts” will be postponed, again and again. Meanwhile, the hard right’s contempt for any collective social provision other than law enforcement and military defense guarantees that the State increasingly will mold itself – so far as most of its subjects are concerned – as an instrument of repression and enforcement, and little else.

What is managed decline, then? It’s the devolution of a society into a starkly divided hierarchy of elites and dead-enders, even as more and more of that society’s treasure is expended on propping up a doomed imperial regime inside and outside its borders.

Since the elderly, if current political trends don’t change, will certainly be one of the largest groups to feel the impact, let’s close with a quote from another, more distinguished British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee:

The lifespan of any civilization can be measured by the respect and care that is given to its elderly citizens and those societies which treat their elderly with contempt have the seeds of their own destruction within them.