We're #1 -- Ten Depressing Ways America Is Exceptional
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American exceptionalism must also include our unique advantage in having two oceans separating us from potential enemies. After 1815, no foreign troops ever again set foot on American soil. Indeed, America has benefited mightily from foreign wars. Arguably, the conflict between France and England had more to do with our winning independence than our own military efforts. In the first half of the 19 th century, European wars led political leaders to peacefully sell huge quantities of land to the United States for a pittance (e.g. the Louisiana purchase of 1803 doubled the size of our infant nation).
A century later foreign wars again dramatically benefited the United States. “In the twentieth century the American economy was twice left undamaged and indeed enriched by war while its potential competitors were transformed into pensioner”, notes historian Godfrey Hodgson. After World War I the United States became the world’s creditor. After World War II Europe and Japan lay in ashes while the United States accounted for a full 40 percent of the world’s economy.
The list of exceptional advantages must also include our vast reserves of fossil fuels and iron ore. For our first 200 years we were self-sufficient in oil. Today we still export coal and are largely self-sufficient in natural gas.
Making a Sow’s Ear Out of a Silk Purse: The Culture Born of American Exceptionalism
Americans became the richest people on earth not because we were endowed with inherently superior national traits nor because we are God’s chosen people, nor because we have an elegant and compact Constitution and a noble sounding Declaration of Independence. We became rich because we were exceptionally lucky.
But the myth that we became richer than other countries because of our blessedness encouraged us to develop a truly exceptionalist culture, one that has left us singularly unequipped to prosper when our luck changed, when inexpensive land and energy proved exhaustible, when the best and the brightest in the world began staying at home rather than emigrating to our shores, when wars began to burden us and enrich our economic competitors.
The central tenet of that culture is a celebration of the “me” and an aversion to the “we”. When Harris pollsters asked US citizens aged 18 and older what it means to be an American the answers surprised no one. Nearly 60 percent used the word freedom. The second most common word was patriotism. Only 4 percent mentioned the word community.
To American exceptionalists freedom means being able to do what you want unencumbered by obligations to your fellow citizens. It is a definition of freedom the rest of the world finds bewildering. Can it be, they ask, that the quintessential expression of American freedom is low or no taxes and the right to carry a loaded gun into a bar? To which a growing number of Americans, if recent elections were any indication, would respond, “You’re damn right it is.”
Strikingly, Americans are not exceptional in our attitudes toward government. In a survey of 27 countries, two thirds of the respondents on both sides of the Atlantic answered yes to the following question, “Does the government control too much of your daily life? Is it usually inefficient and wasteful?”
What makes us exceptional is our response to the next question. “It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the difference in income”. Less than a third of Americans agreed while in 26 other countries more than two thirds did.
Citizens in other countries are as critical of their governments as we are. But unlike us they do not criticize the importance of government itself or the fundamental role it plays in boosting the general welfare. They do not like to pay taxes, but they understand the necessity of taxes not only in building a public infrastructure but also in building a personal security infrastructure.