American Exceptionalism
Published on: January 3, 2012
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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I have to disagree; the Government monopoly can never be the efficient organ you describe. As it lacks the all important feedback that competition provides to the capitalist system, and which drives the continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, characteristic of the Free Enterprise System.
    The only way to limit the damage to the economy the Government Monopoly does, is to limit it to only those tasks which only it can perform. The US Constitution, arguably the most brilliant and successful political document in human history, does so limit those tasks to those described in Article 1, Section 8, and further limits them with the 10th Amendment stating that those powers not specifically given to the Federal Government are reserved to the States and People.
    You are also incorrect in your assumption that the European welfare states are more developed than the US. After the US rebuilt Europe the average European per capita income was roughly equivalent to the US per capita income, but after decades of socialism the US has pulled ahead with a per capita 30% greater. If the measure of development of a nation is how successful it has been in making its people wealthier, then the US is clearly the most developed.
    There really is no arguing with success.
    If Socialism and Communism with their powerful invasive freedom stealing justice perverting Governments were the most developed form of human culture and political organization as you advocate, the Soviet Union and Communist China would now rule the world with an iron fist. But they clearly are not, instead it is the according to you, undeveloped unsophisticated improperly organized US that lords it over the rest of mankind as the velvet gloved Hegemon.
    I am always shocked by the Socialists who despite an unending record of failure; continue to advocate that if we just give them the power, this time it will be different, that this time they know how to make things work right. Well I say to the Socialists make one of those European Welfare states grow consistently faster than the US, in fact let’s see any socialist nation take our hegemonic crown, and then and only then will I acknowledge that Socialism is superior. Until then the Socialist states can just eat American dust as we speed off into the future.
    There is no arguing with success.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    I am glad you are blogging again, Frank. On this post, just three small side comments. I have no argument with your overall point.

    First, on the antiauthority predilection of Americans historically, there is an interesting book, published a few years back, by H.W. Brands called The Strange Death of American Liberalism. To simplify a bit, he argues that the antiauthority bias of Americans tends to mellow during times of national security emergencies. Because of the Depression and World War II and the Cold War, Americans came to trust their government in general more than they had in earlier times, and liberalism as we have come to understand it prevailed politically. But when the Cold War was won, Americans reverted to their traditional views. So he ties together as few do the domestic and foreign policy dynamics in our political culture. Not only does he argue that the end of the Cold War hurt liberalism, but he implies, for example, that the civil rights movement could not have succeeded had it not been for the broader context of the Cold War. This is a counterintuitive observation, perhaps, but having grown up and lived through it all, my intuition tells me that he is exactly right.

    A second side point: There are two kinds of “positive” American exceptionalism (I spelled this out in my essay on the 911 decade). One kind is the fortuity version: America is exceptional because of the special circumstances, philosophically, geographically, and biographical, of its founding. Both Spinoza and Locke were born in 1632, perfect timing for the two principal founders of Enlightenment political modernity to have an impact on our founding generation. The religious inheritance of Anglo-American Protestantism, the vast expanse of the new continent, and you know the list. In short, we were lucky and made the most of it, the downside notwithstanding. The second form of American exceptionalism is the revelatory form. This is the form that denies luck or happenstance, and simply decrees that America’s superiority is God’s will, part of a cosmic design in which United States of America plays the starring role as a kind of locus for a new chosen people. The tea party types increasingly, or predominantly, embrace the latter variety of American exceptionalism. I don’t know whether President Obama embraces any kind of American exceptionalism, but he could very well embrace the first and be accused by those who embrace the second of not embracing any kind at all. I suspect that this is the case. (I decline to try to characterize Newt’s version. Knowing him as I do, he would probably claim to embrace either one or the other, depending on who he is talking to, what he last read about it, whether his wife is around, and how he just happens to be feeling that day.)

    I think it’s important to keep this distinction in mind, especially these days, during a political season, when people are more apt than usual to say ridiculous, conflated things.

    The third side point is just that I don’t think traditionally high American crime statistics compared to Europe can be explained entirely or even mainly by the antiauthority bias in our culture. I think there are physical/spatial, demographic, immigration–related and other factors at work. But this is an empirical question to some extent, the answer to which remains to be seen.

  • Mofo

    “It took twenty years to create a national railroad regulator, the Interstate Commerce Commission, in the face of opposition from states and the courts–and this despite the fact that a free market in railroads had produced economic chaos.” [Citation Needed]

  • Richard Fazzone

    American Exceptionalism is at odds with “The End of History.” What better example of liberal democracy is there than Americans freely-choosing to distrust their government? Conversely, what’s more illiberal and undemocratic than government that governs against the will of its people? What suggests otherwise?

  • R.C.

    Fukuyama is not a dimwitted man, but in this essay he seems unable to grasp that the things which he is describing in a disapproving tone are exactly the things that the wisdom of future civilizations will look back on approvingly.

    Let me say that again: The Libertarian impulse is that on which future civilizations will look back approvingly, much as we look back approvingly on the abolition of slavery or the discovery of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    Our cultural allergy to centralized statism indeed is that cultural hallmark which makes America literally “progressive” — that is to say, not “progressive” in the sense that the word is usually used, indicating an addiction to the unsophisticated and retrograde statism that characterized the worst mistakes of the 20th century, but “progressive” in the sense of actually making beneficial progress.

    Europe has centralized nationalized health care: Well, I’m very sorry for them, poor saps, because that’s unsustainable (as they’re learning) and inefficient.

    Europe has centralized control of railroads: Too bad for them, I really pity them the inevitable consequences, long-term, even though in the short-term, such moves always do (ahem) get the trains running on time.

    People who talk as Fukuyama does have not yet grasped the fundamental problems of excessively centralized power, and the corresponding strength of a culture which values Subsidiarity and practices only voluntary forms of Solidarity.

    People who make decisions that drastically affect other people’s lives are a danger in that they may make decisions which produce a beneficial outcome or a detrimental one.

    Producing beneficial outcomes more frequently than detrimental ones is a function of (a.) the good intent of the decision-making person, (b.) the access if the decision-making person to all the relevant information required to make the decision, (c.) the sufficiency of the “processing power” of the decision-making person to correctly analyze the relevant information.

    That much is straightforward. But so is these observations:

    (1.) The more centralized a government is, the greater its “distance” from the facts on the ground which represent the relevant data it must “process” in order to make correct decisions;

    (2.) The more realms of life in which a government may exercise compulsion, the more its processing power is divided amongst disparate problems about which it must decide correctly;

    (3.) The more that a government is empowered to compel the persons it governs in all aspects of life, the more government position will be sought by persons with a will to power;

    For these reasons, it is vitally important to the success of a human society that the compulsory power of government be broken out into a Federal system of local and state subsidiary governments, and divided amongst branches of government, and limited by law to very narrow spheres of life, even at the occasional cost of such inefficiencies as competing standards.

    For while inefficiencies of that kind can be annoying, and they tempt us to bring the government in to fix them quickly; still, the cure is worse than the disease: Once power is granted to government, it is very hard to take it back, and excessive centralization leads in general to bad decisions for the reasons given above. The government inevitably doesn’t know what it needs to know to make decisions correctly, doesn’t have the problem-solving processing power to correctly analyze the data it does possess, and is populated by people who, because they are mostly insulated from the painful consequences of their own bad decisions, don’t really give a damn.

    That is a major truth of the human condition.

    The Founding Fathers of the United States understood this: The best government is an all-powerful absolute monarchy…if, and only if, the ruler is omniscient and entirely good as well as omnipotent.

    But barring direct rule by God Himself, the safest government is ten thousand town governments which affect our lives most of the time, a state government which affects our lives rather less but when necessary, and a federal government which affects our lives rather less than the state governments.

    To put it more succinctly: When compulsory authority to handle a particular problem can plausibly be wielded by more than one level of government, it should be wielded by the lowest level. And the levels, by the way, do include “the People”: When it’s plausible that a certain issue ought not be the duty of government but rather of the individual citizen, then it should be the duty of the individual citizen.

    • timothy straus

      The comments to this very disappointing essay, from a mind I once held up in awe, are terrific. More importantly, they are dead right. Unfortunately, perhaps he has been ensconced within the ivory towers and the Washington power circuit for so long now that he has lost his objectivity. Excellent replies to a very weak essay.

      Would like to be a tad more prolific here, but I am typing with one finger with a Labradoodle on my lap and on my other arm! Thank you.

  • a nissen

    One assumes your thoughts are advancing with events and the years (long live history), but I and apparently others are having a hard time confirming that, and if so just how.
    Good thing you have resumed blogging.

    First, please define which version you intend of words that have switched meaning over time, e.g., liberal, liberalism.

    Second, please don’t present us with half truths that become lies because you don’t define which Americans are responsible for your verbs, e.g.:

    “When Americans tried to construct the sort of modern, centralized bureaucratic state that already existed in much of Europe, they met with huge institutional and cultural resistance.”

    The missing half of the half truth is that it was the class that set up the U.S government to best advance its own interests resisted, not the greater number of Americans, the majority of whom were not even allowed to vote. In fact, the tale of how that all changed, but didn’t is the real and ongoing history of the United States.

  • Kris

    Throughout this post, you argue that Americans are inherently anti-authoritarian. But then you finish by stating that “Americans don’t want to expand the state because they have such low expectations for how it will deliver services.” Which is it?

  • wwd

    The European model is not “progressive”, it is regressive. It constantly trends toward authoritarianism places the needs of the “state” over those of the citizens. The living standards of citizens in Greece are just the latest to be sacrificed for the greater good of the State.

    The track record of the world political elites from 1900 to the present is simply atrocious. The US bankrupted itself in 60 years. The USSR destroyed itself in 70. Europe physically destroyed itself twice in 50 years. From Korea to Afghanistan the Americans have lost every major conflict they have involved themselves in – in spite of their earth shattering military superiority. The number of people killed as a result of state actions approaches a billion in the last 100 years. These are not the results of successful leaders.

    Relieving them of as much power as possible, and limiting their ability to do damage to the smallest scope possible is what is needed. A truly modern world would devolve form greater centralization of power to the distribution of it. The

    • a nissen

      Well said. My guess is that you are a “hold-my-nose” Ron Paul supporter. Pretty slim pickens though.

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  • There is an interesting parallel here with US constitutional theory.

    Since 1788 the “official” theory of US constitutional law is that the Constitution derives its authority from the “will of the people”, following Locke’s theories of popular sovereignty, and contra Hume (who derided it as “delirious”). Seeing government as a delegate of the people tends to lead to conclusions that government intervention should be the last resort to social problems rather than a legitimate tool. Because government is seen as an implied social contract, there is a tendency to import doctrines of implied contract familiar to general contract law, under which power to act will only be implied if it is “necessary” to make the contract work.

    Such theories of popular sovereignty are arguably also “exceptional” to the United States. Few other countries take them seriously, and some reject them entirely. In Australia, for example, although the High Court flirted with constitutional theories of popular sovereignty in the early 1990s, it subsequently backed away, and reverted to more conventional theories that the Constitution has authority because of a continuous chain of legal delegation: it is part of a system of law, and governance through such systems is (usually) pragmatically better than the alternatives. Under such a theory, there is less presumption about the role of government: the value of government intervention is more a pragmatic judgment about whether it is better in the circumstances than the alternatives.

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  • Tim

    I appreciate this post. As a more Burkean conservative, I have always felt the ultimate test of a government is does it “work?” In general, does it function as its constituents want it need it to function? Whether it tends towards socialism or a more free-market, multi-party or monarchy, the effectiveness of the “government” and the consent of the governed, should be the test. Every system, in every country has its flaws and every nation has its “sins” of both omission and commission when compared to other nations. Our American obsession with searching the precise paradigm our Founding Fathers intended is an interesting academic exercise, but wields a negative influence on our politics. A nearly religous committment to our “exceptional” nature has the same, negative impact when it creates enemies out of neighbors whose interests ought to be similar. I am puzzled by so many “conservatives” whose commitment to a theory of founding, or paradigm for governance, seems to be more important than simple, effective governance.


  • Jane

    The US is one nation, versus a Europe of many nations with a recent federal veneer. Therefore, national level social programs in the US happen at a very large scale across all regions, while the rise of these systems in Europe happened in a lot of smaller countries. Comparisons between these two histories will always be flawed by this fact.

  • Stephen

    “It took twenty years to create a national railroad regulator, the Interstate Commerce Commission, in the face of opposition from states and the courts–and this despite the fact that a free market in railroads had produced economic chaos.”

    Indeed, by comparison such a commission would now require but the blink of an eye to institute; but, the transcontinental railroad would now require substantially more than 20 years finishing – if built at all – and not for lack of regulation. And, the overall history of those modernized and centralized bureaucratic states in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century until the present time (the time frame of this post) have exacted a pretty high price for universal health insurance. It takes a rather blind eye to ignore the violence that inhered to those very same systems labeled as modern. To put it bluntly, less efficient our polity may be, but our body count over the same period encompassing civil war and crime is considerably less than those modern systems of Europe: or, put differently, how many broken eggs is universal coverage worth?

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