01 January 2008|
Is there a reason for Americans to be patriotic anymore? It's a question worth examining.
Certainly, the old excuses that we're taught in elementary school of why "America rules!" are gone. Freest country in the world, you say? Hardly. America's Sarbanes-Oxley act, for one example, is so statist that Europeans, who are used to every conceivable regulatory strong-arm of business, think it's too stifling even for them. Hong Kong and Singapore have freer overall economies, by objective measure, and countries in Europe and elsewhere are freer in certain, specific ways. America outlaws far more nonviolent, personally-questionable activities and expressions, and also incarcerates the highest percentage of its people in the developed world. All this without even mentioning the Patriot Act!
Highest total standard of living? Not even close. America has slums and ghettos that would only be seen in the museums of some European countries. America's health insurance system is pricing a substantial segment of the population out of the market, depriving them of a primary good. Most of America's public schools provide empirically far weaker education versus their counterparts in other Western countries. For an objective measure, the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality within a country, puts the US well down on the list of industrialized countries - and we're sliding.
Beacon of truth, freedom and justice? Couldn't be farther from the truth. America's standing in the world has plummeted, both by the increasing influence of anti-American regimes and ideologies and the self-defeating behavior of our own nation in the War on Terror. Our deliberate suspension of American principles in the morally aberrant examples of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have severely damaged the American reputation around the globe. America is losing respect, plain and simple. This sad fact has been confirmed by numerous opinion polls.
Impartial and spotless arbiter of world affairs? Nope. The CIA has backed, and very publicly failed in backing, some nauseatingly shady regimes all over the world, such as the Janjaweed, Augusto Pinochet, Chiang Kai-Shek, and brutal Somali dictators (whose value were derived solely from the fact that they weren't Muslim). The list is long, and embarrassing. In the pursuit of our own ends of realpolitik, America has sacrificed its ideals of truth and justice.
What should we do in this environment? Are Americans to be shamed? Are we supposed to loath our own nation, embarrassed and afraid of the sight of Old Glory waving valiantly in the breeze?
1) History matters: Americans enjoy a national ethic and legal framework that promotes justice, freedom and equality
Every country has its demons. Germans have Nazism, France has Algeria, The Netherlands and Portugal have their globe-trotting imperialistic exploits, and Japan has the rape and pillage of nearly half the Asian continent, and those are just the obvious ones. America, from slavery to Japanese internment, has her share as well.
But what sets America apart is that we have a national identify, codified in our Constitution and integral to our founding. It says that every single one of America's worst mistakes are bad because they are simply anti-American. Abu Ghraib is a departure from the humanitarian principles of post-combat that were perfected by, Americans in World War II. Vietnam, et al., was a departure from the lesson that Americans learned first in the Revolutionary War - America fights only for her own existence, and is neither an effective invader nor a colonizer. (For those of you who are clueless, the lesson was learned by our utter obliteration at the hands of the Canadian army when we twice tried to invade that supposedly toothless country.)
America was founded on the rejection of foreign control, the opposition to tyranny, the celebration of freedom, and the universal recognition of human rights. Abraham Lincoln spoke of how emancipation of slaves would be aligned with true ethic of the American founders. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Jefferson to critique segregation. This is because no country exemplifies a greater belief in liberty and justice in its constitution than the United States of America.
It was anecdotally reported that during World War II, foreign solders preferred to be captured by Americans because of the humane ways they were treated. In the initial Arab-Israeli crises of the 1950s, America's objective and just hand was sought by both sides to mediate the dispute. Judging from our recent behavior, it's hard to believe that we're the same country.
The extent to which we've abandoned these core principles, while unnervingly vast, only reinforces the fact that it is only a departure from true American behavior that is worth censure. The golden standard is still coterminous with what America holds as its core values.
The American way is still the ideal, even if America itself has recently forgotten its own values.
2) The American Dream, battered and bruised, lives on
America, throughout the Cold War, stared down the Soviet Union and dared it that its democratic capitalism could outperform and outlast the Soviets' unique brand of socialistic-dictatorship. America was right, and now the world grudgingly concedes it. The European Union's Lisbon Agenda tacitly embraced the lesson America had been acting on for centuries - the private sector outperforms the public sector. The IMF routinely recommends to developing countries that they privatize and deregulate to assist economic growth. Most politicians around the world, populist leftists in Latin America notwithstanding, quietly embrace the free market as a generally beneficial force.
America's economy has always been steeped in this recognition. The impressive economic machine in the world, in the esteemed opinion of The Economist, still remains the best wealth-creating machine on the face of the planet.
And American economic growth, the envy of the rich world, has helped to preserve the American Dream. It is our unique ethic that says that anyone can achieve anything they want to given hard work, that one can raise his or her family in a more prosperous situation than his or her parents had, and that prosperity can be had by anyone who is willing to work for it.
3) Despite inequality, the best in the world still comes from the USA
In a country as large and diverse as America, it is impossible to expect "most" Americans, or even the "average" American, to represent a world-class standard of brilliance or culture. The disturbing levels of obesity, laziness, ignorance, among our population is the inevitable result of a large and diverse nation.
America has long recognized no inherent disadvantage to inequality, as long as everyone has the chance to move up the ladder. America is more accepting of inequality, as long as it's earned equality. By and large, that's what it is. The globally competitive market has made the idle rich a scarcer species. In America in 1916, only about 20% of the richest 1% made their wealth directly through paid work. Today, over 60% do.
For many reasons, Americans have an unusual love for superior performance and superior products. Examples among many include Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Teddy Roosevelt, Jimi Hendrix, Shaun White, and the "Miracle on Ice". American companies like Apple, Google, GE, Boeing and Nike lead the world with authority, innovation and brilliance. Seventeen of the top 20 universities in the world are American, as are 35 of the top 50. American universities employ 70% of the world's living Nobel prize-winners, produce about 30% of the world's output of articles on science and engineering and 44% of the most frequently cited articles. In fact, the US has produced 270 Nobel Prize winners, while second-place England has produced only 100. Even our health care system, with all of its distributive flaws, still is the most innovative and responsive in the world. Where would the world be without American pharmaceuticals? Hate the hegemony of the American military, but recognize that it's the world's most powerful. Pick nearly any field, any sector, or any subject, and there's a good chance an American is near the top.
America is not great because every American does great things - America is great because there are Americans who do the greatest things. Certainly, allowing everyone to do average things would be more "fair", but such redistribution of talent also precludes excellence. Greatness, in the American ethic, is creating the gross inequality that others deride.
4) Globalization: What America doesn't do well naturally, it imports with ease
America is indeed a nation of immigrants, and despite the protestations of conservatives, this has been to the unequivocal benefit of the United States. A world-leading liberal immigration policy fused with responsible assimilation has brought considerable economic benefits to this country. Studies show immigrants start small businesses at a much greater rate than natives, and anecdotal stories of bootstrapping immigrants achieving great success abound.
Some of these American immigrants were some of the greatest geniuses and achievers the world has known: Albert Einstein, Joseph Pulitzer, Rudolph Valentino, John Muir, Madeleine Albright, Elie Wiesel, Bob Hope, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Lennon are among them, to name a few. All of them were once working for their home countries, before they brought their peerless talents to America.
America also is a net importer of goods in the global economy. Contrary to the protestations of liberals, this is also beneficial for the nation. Americans consume the best of the world's products - German and Italian automobiles, French wine and fashion, Japanese technology, African diamonds, with unparalleled strategic internationalism. We skim the best of the world's offerings because we're skilled in doing so.
Our economy has developed to the point that very few of us are working in manufacturing, farming, and other production of basic goods. We now work in service industries, financial industries, and other white-collar careers. As a result, we don't make the basic goods anymore, but we make plenty of money to buy them from everyone else. This should not be criticized; it is simply an example of America's robust economy and prosperous citizenry.
Not only has American proven itself in the past to be keenly capable of using globalization to its advantage, but given the continuing future globalization of society and economics, it has also shown itself to be ready to maintain its global competitive advantage well through the 21st century.
So go out and light up some fireworks America, you deserve it.
The above work is the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of the Prometheus Institute.