November 2, 2009

Yet A Very Good Nation

A couple weeks ago, I read this column by Neal Gabler at the Boston Globe.  It brought to mind two deep and ultimately conflicting ideas that I believe are equally true. The first is that people are pretty much the same, everywhere, and always have been so throughout history. The second is that I am fortunate to live in an exceptional nation. Gabler's column forced me to start thinking about the dissonance between these two ideas.

Historically, I can easily justify the proposition that the United States of America was a special and inspirational nation. It was the first Enlightenment political institution on the planet. It was the prototype of a nation founded on the idea of individual rights, the first government dedicated to the proposition that it should dedicate itself to the vindication of each citizen rather than to the benefit of the citizenry as a whole (or as historically has too often been the case, to the benefit of the governors of the nation). While not mankind's first experiment in a republican form of self-government, it has been the concept of self-government's most spectacular success.

But the bulk of these things are hardly unique to the United States, at least not in today's world.  Most of Europe, most of the Americas, most of Oceania, India, and a decent sampling of nations in Africa and Asia also practice variations on republican self-government.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nations that have followed the example set by the United States have also been the ones that have enjoyed, on average, the most economic success and are more technologically advanced and industrialized as compared to their neighbors who live under more dictatorial forms of government.  Exceptions exist; of course -- Iran and Saudi Arabia are wealthy and industrialized but it would be difficult to support the claim that ultimate political power rests with the people in those nations.  Other nations, for instance the Maldives, are democratically self-governing but such wealth as they enjoy are dependent on single sectors of their economies for such wealth as they do enjoy; even resource-rich democratic nations like Iceland can suffer dramatic economic problems.

So too has the concept of individual rights trumping even the power and majesty of the state gone beyond the North American seaboard where it first transformed the very concept of government in the late 1760's.  The great missionary event of this concept was not the American Revolution but rather that of the French.  Which is not to say that America's example has not been an inspiration to the world; perhaps seeing the bloody excesses to which the French republicans succumbed, others who wished the benefits of self-government found America's example more successful, more palatable, and most of all, easier to implement.  The U.S. Constitution is still the model for written Constitutions all over the world, for existing nations and new ones.

What this tells me is that we've gotten a lot of things right, and other nations and peoples have emulated us as a result. But once we've been emulated, we are no longer unique.  So, then, we can dovetail our historic pedigree as the world's first liberal democracy* and our great military and economic strength into a leadership position -- but again, this makes our nation a leader rather than something different and, dare I say it and offend someone, better than others.

As Gabler points out, we are not the only nation on Earth blessed with abundant natural resources.  Far from it.  Russia, India, Brazil, many nations in Africa, and China all have suites of natural resources similar to ours.  Europe and Australia have abundant resources in the areas that matter most -- agriculture, timber, and metal ores, although they have fewer fossil fuel reserves.  But prosperity is not just a function of natural resources; Japan has some timber and some metal, but its prosperity far, far exceeds its geographic wealth.

Nor are our people the only well-educated and industrious ones.  We are fortunate to have what appears to be the best system of higher education around, so our best-educated people are, on average, better-educated than the best-educated of other nations.  But there are remarkably well-educated people almost everywhere and good universities in pretty much every industrialized nation.

Our workers are the most productive, but Japanese and European workers come pretty close, and this is largely a function of leveraging an individual's labor with industrialization into greater per-worker productivity.  There is nothing about this which is peculiar to America.  We do seem to work more than nearly anyone else in at least one measure -- our workers take the fewest days of holiday or vacation of any industrialized nation.  Compare the standard one or two weeks' vacation workers get here, at least some of which your typical American worker banks every year, to the five or six weeks that French or German workers enjoy.  Seems like a better deal for the French and Germans than for us.  And yet somehow, the Germans and French are productive, wealthy nations despite this behavior, so I must question if the marginal increase industriousness we've achieved in the U.S.A. is really worth it.

Is it our religiosity?  We are the most religious of all the industrialized democracies by a significant margin.  But we are not the most religious nation on Earth.  Religious behavior, itself, is not inherently productive but perhaps it helps foster a higher standard of morality.  If so, we would expect nations with higher levels of religiosity than our own -- Indonesia, say -- to have even higher moral standards than ours.  In practice, Indonesia is no more nor no less moral than the United States, and Indonesians on average no more nor no less moral than Americans.

Ah, some might say, bu the Indonesians are Muslim; they are practicing the wrong religion!  Then let us look only to nations which have Christianity as the dominant religion -- to nations like Italy and Brazil and Romania.  Protestants in the U.S. might argue that these nations are dominantly Catholic or Orthodox rather than practicing "true" Christianity, so then we can confine ourselves to Scandinavian nations or the United Kingdom.  There, one might argue that secularism is really dominant despite what people call themselves, in which case we need to do an apples-for-apples comparison and we find that the United States is not quite so religious as it claims to be.

And it, too, is a lot more Catholic than snobby Protestants might wish for it to be.  And the point here is to inquire about what makes America unique -- the dominance of Protestant Christianity is not unique to the United States and never has been; nor has it really been that much of a reality for several generations.  I would concede that while some parts of the nation were more Catholic than Protestant from the get-go, America was demographically dominated by Protestantism for the first half of its existence.  But westward expansion and acquisition of lands formerly held by Spain, France, and Mexico added large Catholic populations, and so did Gilded Age immigration of Italian, Polish, Irish, and to some extent German workers (northern and western Germans tend to be Protestant; Bavarians and eastern Germans are more likely to be Catholic, so where the German immigrants came from would have affected their likelihood of being Protestant or Catholic).  The result is that for many generations now, Roman Catholicism has been the plurality religious denomination in the United States even as compared an aggregation of the many Protestant denominations.

Geographically, we are fortunate to have two oceans as significant barriers to intrusion; we need only protect our northern and southern borders and only once, in 1812, have we ever had to endure any significant incursion into our land borders.  more dictatorial   The cross-border banditry of Pancho Villa and the destruction of three (admittedly large) buildings in 2001 were both enough to incite us to war, insults which other nations would very likely have endured with, if not equanimity, let us say more restrained reactions than the total mobilization of our military to overthrow the governments of other nations.  Since the sacking of Washington in 1812, the most significant insults to our territorial sovereignty have been the attack on Pearl Harbor and the seizure of a few of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, both at the hands of the Japanese.  The Aleutian seizures were, in fact, a feint and a tolerable setback during the war; the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in no loss of territory (which is not to minimize its strategic or political significance).

So what is so special about the United States of America in the early twenty-first century?  Try as I might, I can think of nothing particularly critical about our nation or our government that is unique.

But -- horrors!  If there is nothing unique about the United States, then there is nothing special about us, and that means we're not special!  It means we're like any other nation on the planet -- that we aren't blessed by God, that we are not the New Jerusalem, that our nation can fall and cease to exist, like so many others before us!  This is an unacceptable result to this meditation!

Well, no it's not. America's potential demise is nothing to be welcomed, of course, but the fact of the matter is that most nations do not cease to exist, they transform themselves. They grow, mature, and evolve. The land doesn't go away, the people don't go away. England has endured in existence as a more or less functional and continuous political unit since the Romans left Britain in the fourth century.  The political entity that holds power over that green and pleasant land, however, is the result of the sum total of its history.  It is hard to pinpoint an exact place or time at which the modern UK was created -- the Union Act incorporating Wales and Scotland and England into the United Kingdom was more of a transformation and recognition of a reality that had happened on the ground already; Magna Charta was, in the grand scheme of things, only an incremental check on the King's previously-absolute power.

And that is what, with the benefit of ten or more generations of American autonomy, we can see happening in the arc of our own history as well.  The United States is not immune from historical trends, not immune from changing economic pressures, not immune from evolutions in its social structure and even its morality.  Compare the United States of George Washington's day to our own.  In the 1790's, "African Negroes" were second-class citizens; today, a black man is our President.  Women can vote and own property and be government defense contractors.  And wear pants.  Most of the changes we've had throughout our history have been good ones, ones that have taken us closer to our ideals.

Not all of them have been.  Notably, we've succumbed to the lures of big government.  Our best guardian against that power knuckled under to political pressures and allowed the Federal government to grow into something that the Framers would have thought excessive and dangerous.  In the meantime, we as a people have grown accustomed to and comfortable with this expanded Federal power.

Still, even those of a conservative bent -- who say, rightly, that we should be cautious, incrementalist, and sparing with our changes -- need not resist change merely for the sake of resisting change.  We should be cautious about change.  But at the same time, we should not fear it, either.

And more to the point, even if we are no longer unique, we're still good.  Great, even.

We are very much a nation that respects and promotes the rule of law.  And our laws, and our government, are based on the idea of freedom and liberty. We sometimes fall short of our ideals, and sometimes find the results of enacting those ideals unappetizing.  But our ideals have not, in my estimation, diminished substantially over our history.

We are a nation that resolves its political differences peacefully and through the political process.  It seems as though some people have a hard time accepting the legitimacy of the election to power of those with whom we disagree.  But at the same time the hard feelings have not yet erupted into the kinds of more serious problems other nations must confront.  A look at Afghanistan today demonstrates that.  Sometimes I despair of the hyper-partisanship and polarizaiton in our politics.  I wonder today, though, whether that too is simply a sign of a people growing more mature in its collective existence.  After all, there are sharp, polarized differences between political parties all over Europe.  Labourites and Tories in the UK do not see eye to eye on nearly anything, but they manage to keep a civilized country with little more than name-calling going on across the aisles of Parliament.
 We are a people who are ethical and moral and generous and kind.  We have less of a sense of history than do most others, which if anything makes us quicker to forgive the kinds of transgressions and offenses which would result in centuries-long rivalries and grudges elsewhere.

We are a people who work hard, who care about education and who generally respect the diversity within our ranks.  Yes, there are moatdiggers and xenophobes; yes, there are those who seem to sneer at education and rationalism.  But they are yet in the minority.

We are wealthy and prosperous.  To be sure, we are not managing our money well as a nation.  The day of reckoning on that score will need to come, and we will find it unpleasant.  But we will find it so simply because we have grown so used to a generous and beneficent government, because we have such strong impulses to help others out.  It feels cruel to say to old people and homeless people, "No, you can't have public help for your problems."

Like all maturing nations, we have our ambiguities, imperfections, and complexities.  But we should not fear the process of maturing as a nation; we should not despair.  We are yet smart and rich and powerful enough to seek and achieve solutions to our problems, and to propel ourselves further and better in the future.  We are not unique, no -- but that is because we have been so successful and so good that we have been emulated.  We should be proud that we are no longer unique.  We should remember that which makes us good, that which the rest of the world envies and imitates.

* Not the world's first democracy; the Greeks were democratic long before any of the existing nations on earth were created; Iceland has a Parliament that dates back to the year 1000.  But these were overt democracies, with little if any functional limits on the power of the government over the individual.  So too was the Republic of Venice a generally successful exercise in limiting the powers of government, but it was fundamentally a serial dictatorship with dictators chosen by increasingly indirect and arcane methods of selection of an elite to be dictator (or, at various times in La Serenissima's history, a council serving as the collective dictator) and the selection was made by the elites rather than by the people as a whole.


zzi said...

What sets us apart is our freedom. European freedom is usually used as not being obliged to do something, here in America it is usually the right to do something.

Burt Likko said...

I would phrase it as "limiting the government's power to stop you from doing something." But I think we're getting at the same idea.