American Exceptionalisms, Right and Left

For the American right, the United States is exceptional for its political commitment to freedom. For the American left, the U.S. is exceptional as an outlier of injustice and inequality relative to other advanced democracies. In a four-part series, I will investigate these claims of American exceptionalism and argue that both have some element of truth but are largely overstated.

In this post I take on the American right. Does the U.S. really stand out as a beacon of individual freedom in the world? We have to distinguish between America’s “core political tradition” and the present-day reality. The Declaration of Independence is a masterful statement of classical liberal principles and citizens’ inalienable right to resist arbitrary power. I also agree with Frederick Douglass’ claim that the U.S. Constitution is overall “a glorious liberty document,” especially when compared with virtually every other constitution in the world. (The problem is that Congress and the courts have colluded to amend the Constitution unconstitutionally over the past 70-odd years.) There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak in the American political consciousness that dates back to Roger Williams, if not to the libertarian self-governance of most Native tribes. In some sense, that American political spirit has never been more worthy of admiration than it is today, scrubbed clean of the fatal scum of slavery, religious persecution, and Manifest Destiny.

The problem is that hardly anyone believes it anymore, not even the conservatives who pay it lip service. Here are some things that almost all my students seem to believe:

  • The mixed economy cures the pure free market and pure socialism of the ills of each and is therefore the ideal system.
  • The Great Depression was a failure of capitalism and was solved only by FDR’s New Deal (liberals) or Second World War (conservatives).
  • We have to be “pragmatic” about pretty much every political issue; “rights” don’t figure in.
  • If rights exist, they’re something the government gives you.
  • The government is just “us”; we can generally trust it to do the right thing.
  • There are vast differences between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s really important who wins elective office (most students), or: There are no differences between Democrats and Republicans, and we need to overthrow the entire corrupt political system & put the working man in charge (the Rage Against the Machine faction).
  • Economic globalization is bad.

Against the backdrop of a population that believes these things, it is unsurprising that American public policy does not discernibly reflect a political tradition of freedom. Here is the 2010 Economic Freedom of the World top 10 ranking:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Singapore
  3. New Zealand
  4. Switzerland
  5. Chile
  6. United States
  7. Canada
  8. Australia
  9. Mauritius
  10. United Kingdom

Meanwhile, on Amnesty International’s government repression index, the United States has scored just average in 2004-2008, compared to a top score in 2000 (the 2009 data aren’t out yet).

If the U.S. is still in the top 10 on economic freedom, then certainly some heritage of freedom seems to have survived, although conservatives may oversell American exceptionalism in this regard. In the next post, I will look at the sources of American exceptionalism. Is American public opinion responsible for its fairly high degree of economic freedom, or are American institutions more responsible? If the latter, it is difficult to see how we could really call it “exceptionalism” at all, because such a result would imply that any country with the same institutions would have just as small a government.

5 thoughts on “American Exceptionalisms, Right and Left

  1. Most students are just too young and lack the life experience to appreciate or comprehend their political circumstances. I found this blog because I’m reading Otteson’s book (AE), and he notes how easily we become accepting of ideas that were once unthinkable just because they have become habit and subsequently the status quo. Now is the time to reemploy some of the old habits that breathed life into this country.

  2. Having lived in both Australia, and New Zealand (and currently working in USA), I find the notion that New Zealand has a greater economic freedom than Australia a remarkable notion.

  3. When did you live in New Zealand, JAA? They made numerous reforms in the late 80s and early 90s, before which they had had one of the most closed economies in the “Western” democracies.

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