Exceptionalism as Limit to Options

On the question of American exceptionalism (subscription required), James Bennett puts aside conservatives’ emphasis on abstractions like “freedom, prosperity, and innovativeness” as well as liberals’ emphasis on “America’s unique evil or guilt.” Rather, he looks to culture and history to explain how the United States differs from other countries in a substantive way.
His analysis comes down, essentially, to three factors: family structure, geography, and narrative. On the first, America follows other English-speaking nations in its traditional liberty of family structure. Adults in the Anglosphere have long chosen their own spouses, sent their children out into the world to do the same, and minimized expected structures of inheritance such as primogeniture, the result being as follows:

… The individual in the English-speaking world has always been psychologically more independent and less willing to place himself under the control of others. He expects to be on his own, with a spouse of his own choosing, to make his own way in the world, and if possible to live in a home of his own.

America is then uniquely defined by the effects of the American continent on the variations of English-speaking peoples who arrived on its shores during and after the Age of Exploration:

America’s uniqueness can be explained in two main ways. First is the “frontier thesis” of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. In the 1890s Turner wrote that early settlers in America underwent a psychological transformation because of the constant lure of open land to the west, which turned deferential, class-conscious Englishmen into egalitarian, assertive, republican Americans. The other view, most recently stated by David Hackett Fischer, is that, in essence, all the ingredients that made Americans what they are today were present when the first colonists left the British Isles. According to Fischer, what the Americans brought to the wilderness was at least as important as what they found there.

Subsequently, the circumstances and methods of our national founding institutionalized these attributes in the legal language of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and subsidiary documents. All three factors — culture/family structure, geography, and institutional narrative — have carried the uniquely American character into the present time. One significant consequence is the inadvisability of emulation of picked and chosen attributes of other countries:

The Anglosphere in general is poorly adapted to large-scale, planned, centrally directed state enterprises or invasive measures to promote equality of outcome. Governmental mechanisms have been and will continue to be used on a pragmatic basis, but they are not immune to public-choice problems, as can be seen in the regulatory capture of the home-mortgage industry, or the taxpayer bailout of the auto industry. Our history is filled with short-term successes of government action that eventually succumbed to these public-choice problems and required reform or abolition. The government financing of railroad construction after the Civil War was a scandal-ridden disgrace, for example. When we try to be like the French, Germans, or Japanese, we are particularly liable to poor implementation, because our cultural structures are dissimilar to theirs. Government-run enterprises in those countries are likely to work better than they would here. Even if it were desirable to imitate them, we would not be able to do as good a job.

To put it in analogy, one cannot drive a bulldozer like a motorcycle. Bennett points out, as a contrary example, that the French are more comfortable with meritocracy in government, so the state bureaucracy has developed a practice of identifying talented students and channeling them to itself. One can see an attempt at emulation in President Obama’s plan to forgive the (government-owned) debt of college graduates if they go into “public service.” America’s discomfort with the government’s picking winners, though, requires us to use generic acquisition of a college degree as the evenly applied criterion, while at the same time making college degrees universally accessible. The attempt at institutionalized meritocracy therefore will fail.
Broadly stated, the factors that have fostered the United States’ dynamism do not fit well into a statist public structure. That helps to explain why civic statists are so frequently simultaneously social liberals. It’s possible (if functionally deluded) to be an economic conservative and social liberal; by contrast, socio-cultural conservatism generates habits of mind at odds with economic liberalism. A person acculturated to strive for the good of his own family will resent the attachments of economic dependents to his or her estate without his consent. That same person placed within a bureaucratic milieu will not be an effective socialist because, in effect, his capitalistic individualism will color his judgment.
ADDENDUM:
I’d further suggest — if I had the time to go that far beyond Bennett’s argument, just now — that the American system more closely comports with human nature. That is to say that cultures that are better suited to socialism are merely papering over individualism. Personal interests will ultimately corrupt such systems, leading to economic malaise and civic turmoil.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

I do wish Americans thought better of themselves.
Comparisons to Europe make me quake. In the last century it was the English speaking peoples who combated evil and restored peace to Europe, and giving a new birth of freedom. As Colin Powell recently quoted “we ask only a place to bury our dead”. The French “resistance”, and other groups, all want a part of this; but read your history.
The Japanese? It was the English speaking peoples who created their democracy. They are forever in our debt.
Has no one else heard the concern voiced in Britain and Australia that America will become a Spanish speaking country? A great bond, important to the progress of the world, may be broken.

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

So, your point is that British, who we patterned our Government after…and the Canadians with National Health Care…..are somehow not suited for individualism? Or that their systems do not align with Human Nature? The reason that we speak English is that Brits largely settled and populated the USA. Our government was patterned after the best of the best, that being (according to the founders) the British System…with parts of others mixed in. Of course, the Greeks and the Romans and many others influenced the Brits….who were pretty much pagans when the Greeks had a Senate……and a democracy. “Athens is regarded as the birthplace of democracy and it is considered an important reference point of democracy” Again, inconvenient facts….. As to “The Anglosphere in general is poorly adapted to large-scale, planned, centrally directed state enterprises” – this is a pretty funny conclusions! The Brits ruled the world primarily BECAUSE they adapted to large scale Government enterprises……the most well known of them being the MILITARY….i.e. Navy. The US built the Atomic Bomb, the Telegraph, the Transcontinental Railroad, Moon landing, won WWII, etc. etc. – because of how well we “adapted to large scale government enterprises”. Very inconvenient facts…It would amaze me if your readers were as unfamiliar with history as you seem to be. A lot of the reason that Brits (and English speaking people) colonized the earth was their familiarity with GUNS….because of their discoveries of coal, iron deposits and the technology (Sheffield steel, etc.) for hardening it. The British Military was extremely “statist”, operating under Government control, giving government pensions, rewards and lots of booty to those who would attack, kill or discover other peoples and places. An honest question, Justin. Do you read history? Or do you just read subscription only web sites and assume the writers are telling… Read more »

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Stuart,
While you were reading history, did you notice that in the time frame neing discussed, England had a lot of competition. Notably, France and Spain. The English succeeded where they did not.
It is interesting to wonder why Canada, the U.S. and Australia succeeded, while Spanish speaking South America is still a hell hole. This despite significant land area and mineral resources.
I have noticed that while the English speakers use “make money”, the concept does not appear in any other European language. For instance Spanish speakers “get money”. The Spanish implies that the “pieces of the pie” are finite, the English implies that the “pie” can be enlarged.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Quite a bit has happened to human culture since Athens, Stuart, and quite a change in notions of freedom and individual agency. I see you bring your usual methods of reading and analysis to this topic.
That the government periodically accomplishes a task doesn’t mean that it is best suited to do so or that the task could not otherwise have been more effectively accomplished. If you’d read a little more closely that which you so arrogantly criticize, you’d have noticed that Bennett uses one of your example as one of your own in one of the quotations that I cite:

Our history is filled with short-term successes of government action that eventually succumbed to these public-choice problems and required reform or abolition. The government financing of railroad construction after the Civil War was a scandal-ridden disgrace, for example.

Most of all, though, you misconstrue the purpose of these posts in a way typical of liberals. My objective in citing and discussing that which I read is to raise interesting points for consideration and conversation, not as gospel truth that must be accepted and taken as leading to a handful of prescribed conclusions.

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Justin, even human endeavor – as you well know – is fraught with corruption, tragedy, etc.
To state such a case is like saying the sun came up this morning.
One should always remember that the name “Anglo Saxon” refers to two Germanic Tribes. We should also consider that Germany was considered one of the most advanced “modern” and developed nation on the earth….before the Hitler period…….
Point is, hubris is dangerous. I’m not sure if Catholics subscribed to Pride being a deadly sin, but in the case of race and language it probably is. …or could be…..
IMHO, it is best to appreciate all the various forces which combined to allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants. For you and I, Justin, it means what are WE doing as an encore. Pointing to ones ancestors as greats might just show us that we are mere shadows.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

“That the government periodically accomplishes a task doesn’t mean that it is best suited to do so or that the task could not otherwise have been more effectively accomplished.”
Simply stated “The government shouldn’t do anything you can find in the Yellow Pages”.
I thought of this the other day when I became the 25th car in line at the town compost pile, all of us awaiting a municipal employee to open it. When this occurs at a Wal Mart, it is on the news.
“Justin, even human endeavor – as you well know – is fraught with corruption, tragedy, etc. ”
This does not seem to be the attitude currently taken with the BP oil spill. It is all about “who’s to blame”.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

History?What about the Dutch and Portugese?Not to mention the Chinese.
You all need to read a little out of the mainstream.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Joe writes:
“History?What about the Dutch and Portugese?Not to mention the Chinese.
You all need to read a little out of the mainstream.”
Good point Joe. I left out the Dutch because they actually “took control” only in a small area of the South China Sea. Although later they did expand into South Africa. The Portugese did make significant voyages of exploration. After the Pope divided the unknown world between the Spanish and Portugese (Treaty of Tordesillas) the Portugese seem to have slacked off. They did expand in Brazil, but that has not turned out so well.
Owing to the destruction of records prior to the Ming Dynasty, little is clear on the Chinese. It does a appear that they built a very large fleet and made extensive explorations (there is credible evidence that Columbus used a Chinese map to get here). I read the recent book about it (“1421” is it?). The first part is basically what everyone knows, they second half is a little shady. For instance the author suggests that the Chinese made the inscriptions on Dighton Rock and visited the Pope. I suppose all opinions are equal on Dighton Rock (I prefer the Vikings) but if they had visited the Pope with a large fleet, I suspect everyone would know it.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

1.The “overseas Chinese”communities all over Asia are evidence in themselves of an expansionist period.
2.I’d hardly call the current country of Indonesia or a good portion of New Guinea a “small area”.
Don’t forget the West Indies and Surinam.
3.Portugal also had extensive holdings in Africa-Moazambique,Angola,Guinea Bissau,and Cape Verde.
Also Goa in India.
If you collect stamps you learn these things.

OldTimeLefty
11 years ago

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat…
There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”
Attempts to Anglicize the economies of the East are fated to either entirely destroy Islamic culture or end up smashed to pieces in the land of The Prophet. Neither prospect appeals to me, nor should it to any sane person.
MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute has many quotes from the Islamic Affairs Department on its site, among them the following:

“Today’s false idols, which dominate over the entire world, are Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism and Communism. Islam instead calls for a Khilafa (Caliphate) based on consultation, and a just economic system based on Zakat and a prohibition of usury.”

Hardly a resounding call for free market economics and libertarianism.
OldTimeLefty

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Joe wrotes:
“Portugal also had extensive holdings in Africa-Moazambique,Angola,Guinea Bissau,and Cape Verde.
Also Goa in India.
If you collect stamps you learn these things.”
I do collect stamps, American of course.
I had forgotten about Angola. I used to know a cop who worked in a gun store in Attleboro. He fought as a mercenary in Angola, his wife sent him a case of Chef Boyardee twice a month. As he explained to me, after Viet Nam, all he knew how to do was kill people. He was disabled off the Attleboro police with a substantial payment (a dog bit his private parts). Hoping to “invest” his disability money, he went into the drug business. A year, or so, later he got in a gunfight with the Miami police and was killed. That was late 70’s.
Name was Robert Ferguson, I think.

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