American exceptionalism is the notion that the United States occupies a unique position in the world, offering opportunity and hope to others by its unique balance of public and private interests and constitutional ideals of personal and economic freedom. The phrase, often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 Democracy in America, offers Romney an opening wide enough for a truck: If America is exceptional, why must we fundamentally transform it as Obama promises? Instead, we need a steady-hand Mitt to restore America’s greatness.
Romney can easily demonstrate that Europhile Obama wishes to turn the United States into a European-style welfare state that refuses to defend itself from external enemies. If this were not true, why does he push so hard for government health care, a larger state, and income redistribution? Why is Obama’s electoral platform the same as Europe’s leftist parties? Obama cannot admit outright he wishes America to become Europe. Instead, his subliminal message is Europe is doing just fine; it truly protects those in need; and there are no real differences anyway, so the debate is phony.
My checklist of American exceptionalism demonstrates that the differences between Europe and the US are real, that America is truly exceptional, in a positive sense, and the better the American people understand and value American exceptionalism, the more they will support an American-exceptionalist candidate like Romney.My discussion does not cover U.S. military might and its role on the world stage. That is the subject for a separate essay.
Americans are prouder and more patriotic than Europeans
Americans are three times more likely to answer that they are proud of their country’s democracy, political influence, economic, scientific, literary, and military achievements, history, and fair and equal treatment of others than are French or German respondents. Americans remain patriots, while the French and Germans are conditioned to be proud of Europe, not of their own countries. The deluge of criticism by America’s detractors, both at home and abroad, have not dulled American patriotism. Remarkable!
Americans believe in limited government
While Europeans take for granted a powerful, intrusive state, the U. S. Constitution protects citizens and their property from an over reaching state. The focus of the U.S. Constitution is the individual and the inherent rights the state cannot take away (what Obama calls “negative liberties”). Americans agree with this constitutional principle. Polls show 62 percent agree that they should be “”free to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” versus 33% of Germans and French. Note that this figure leaves 38 percent who favor state interference.
Americans believe in self reliance
The settling of the U.S. by adventurous immigrants and the westward expansion into the vast American frontier created an American culture of self reliance, which persists to the present. French and Germans are twice as likely as Americans to agree that the “state should guarantee that no one is in need.” Also 60 percent of French and Germans, but only 36 percent of Americans, believe that “success in life is determined by factors outside our control.” Self reliance remains the American way, despite persistent messages that Americans need a strong helping hand from the state due to discrimination and life’s other disadvantages.
Americans give more to charity than other countries by a wide margin
Americans give more to private charity than any other nation. In 2005, U.S. citizens gave almost two percent of GDP to private charities. Germans and French gave a miserly one third and one half of one percent. With German and French GDP at about one fifth the United States’, the private philanthropy of U.S. citizens is overwhelming. Most Americans still believe more in private philanthropy than in a government that distributes entitlements from tax dollars. “Helping people to help themselves” has been a hallmark of US history. For Europeans, the state is there to help those in need.
Americans fear big government but trust public officials more
A larger percentage of Americans (31 percent) than Germans (10%) and French (22 %) believe “that we can trust people in government to do what is right.” The French and Germans accept a greater role for government but paradoxically have little trust in the public officials who carry out state policy. Separate polls show that Americans trust government closest to them, and reserve their fear for “big government” – namely Washington D.C. A remarkable two thirds of Americans believe that “big government is the greatest threat to America.”
Americans have restrained the size of government (so far)
American support for limited government is expressed in public choices on the size of government as measured by the share of output spent by government. The United States limited the share of government spending to one third of the economy in the period 2000-2009, while the French and German shares averaged half of GDP or more. The United States remains the largest affluent country that has opted against the pervasive European-style welfare state.
Americans have a major political party that favors limited government
In “old” Europe, the major contending left-of-center and right-of-center parties have accepted the European welfare state as a given. No major party campaigns on a platform of reversing the welfare state, only trimming it around the edges. As Chancellor Merkel declared famously: All of us accept the “social state” (Sozialstaat). In the United States, the right-of-center Republican Party campaigns against the establishment of a European-style welfare state. (When presented with actual hard choices, it retreats on occasion for political expediency, much to the chagrin of hard-core supporters).
Americans allow their most successful citizens to keep the fruits of their efforts
Compared to Europe’s affluent countries, the U.S. economic and political system generates a more unequal distribution of income both before and after taxes and benefits. After state redistribution, the German and French distributions are more equal than the United States by a quarter. Germany and France engage in 35 percent more state equalization of the distribution of income than the United States. More telling, U.S. citizens are comfortable with a more unequal distribution of income, despite the drumbeat of injustice and unfairness. Although we lack comparable statistics for France and Germany, 52 percent of Americans today believe that “inequality is an acceptable part of the economic system,” – a substantial increase since 1998, despite the rise in inequality over the past decade. According to data from the early 1990s, Americans were 30 percent more likely to attribute poverty to morals, effort, and ability than Germans, who are no slouches with respect to work ethic.
U. S. institutions permit individuals to amass wealth (and lose it as well) and to do so in a single generation. Upward mobility keeps the “American Dream” alive. Those who have an opportunity to become wealthy are not as envious of others as most Europeans are.Americans allocate capital by the market rather than politics
U.S. companies raise capital through an impersonal capital market, which decides who should get capital based on economics. If the impersonal market decides your company does not deserve capital, you will not get it. In affluent Europe, companies also get capital through government owned or influenced banks (such as French state owned banks or German Landesbanken). European companies are also associated with house banks who are also major shareholders. In a time of crisis, they will lend using non-economic criteria.
The political allocation of capital has increased under Obama with his administration’s distributions of political capital to Detroit and to failing green energy ventures.
Americans have a strong venture capital market and a high rate of new company creation
The United States has a uniquely vital venture capital and private equity market, which starts up new firms and restructures floundering firms. The United States venture capital market supplies three to four times the amount of venture capital to start ups than all of Europe. The well-organized U.S. venture capital market gives birth to more new companies than in European economies. Of the 524 U.S. corporations on the Forbes top 1000 world corporations, 245 (almost half) were founded after the war. Of the 113 French and German companies in the top 1000, 27 (less than a quarter) were founded after the war.
Americans have more scientific and technological creativity
The United States is the world’s major source of scientific invention and innovation. Since World War II, it has replaced “old Europe” as the home of most of the world’s Nobel laureates, a large number of whom were attracted from elsewhere. The United States accounts for almost 90 percent of the top inventions that have changed the way we live our lives over the past half century. The US scientific and technological leadership results from less government control, private funds devoted to research, and a competitive system that rewards entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Americans host the world’s top universities
Although higher education was born on the European continent, the highest ranked institutions of higher education are now located in the United States. The United States is unique in combining private and public education, which compete with one another and among themselves. According to an authoritative ranking, 51 of the top 100 universities are in America versus 17 for the European continent.
Religion plays a more important role in American life
Half of Americans believe that religion is a “very important” part of life versus 16 percent of French and Germans. More than half of Americans believe that faith in God is a necessary foundation of morality and good values. The greater importance of religion in the United States is reflected in church attendance figures. Some 43 percent of Americans attend church regularly versus an average of 8 percent for France and Germany.
The headline of my checklist is that, yes, the United States of America is exceptional and Americans are proud of it. Other countries share many of the features of American exceptionalism (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), but they do not have the presence on the world stage of the United States.
My second headline is that the rest of the world is the major beneficiary of U.S. exceptionalism. It was U.S. technology that fueled the postwar booms in Europe and Japan and supplied the technology that spurred China’s rapid growth over the past three decades. It is America that gave the rest of the world the IT products that have changed the way people live as far away as Africa, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan. U.S. exceptionalism created the venture capital market that made Facebook, Apple, and Google possible.
The objective fact is that, in a free economy where people can keep the fruits of their labor, the result is higher growth and productivity for all. The “objective” trade off made by Europeans is more equality, more government, and less productivity and growth. Consider the fact that many of the Silicon Valley start ups (and even start ups in private space exploration) have been financed by super-wealthy entrepreneurs, who have invested (often at risk of losing it all) in new ventures.
It is heartening that a majority of Americans understand the essence of American exceptionalism. Again, we have a case of the common people understanding basic facts better than politicians and pundits. But a significant minority rejects the principles of American exceptionalism. Obama’s main election strategy is to target this minority with policies of class warfare and convincing people that the success of a small minority is at the expense of others.
Throughout much of the world, moreover, U.S. exceptionalism is viewed with disdain and almost with hatred. The “American model” is shrugged off with a sneer. Its best days are over. We now have China’s state capitalism to replace it – a system run as it should be, by experts.
“Imagine” (as the Beatles’ song) said a world without the United States. It would be a worse place.
- Fast & furious, security leaks, the election and American Exceptionalism (texasprep.wordpress.com)