Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tom Friedman: Is American Exceptionalism Just Empty Rhetoric?

by Michael Kaplan

But Friedman does make an important point about how the idea of American exceptionalism can be abused. Too often today American exceptionalism had been reduced to empty rhetoric; boasting that America is number one, even as we are in real danger of decline. American exceptionalism does not, and never did, mean that Americans are superior as human beings to people of other nations. The average American is just as selfish, greedy, and lazy as the average Chinese, Russian, Iranian, or European. It is not a license for empty and vulgar narcissism. American exceptionalism is the concept that America is a culture uniquely devoted to liberty and the empowerment of the average citizen, who can make the most of his God-given talents and abilities, take charge of his destiny, and live his life without kowtowing to his supposed social superiors. This commitment to liberty and the rule of law was enshrined in our founding documents and institutionalized in our constitutional republic. The unique circumstances of how America came into being, on a continent without mortal enemies and free from many of the burdens of the history of the Old World, made this exceptional libertarian culture possible.

Friedman is right is arguing that American exceptionalism is not an excuse for complacency. We do have to work at being exceptional, at maximizing the potential of the American people for creativity and innovation. Especially now that other nations, like China, are learning to play our game and are ready to do what it takes to beat us at it. But it was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first called America exceptional and qualitatively different from other nations. As he wrote in Democracy in America:

I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features. . . .
When men living in a democratic state of society are enlightened, they readily discover that they are not confined and fixed by any limits which force them to accept their present fortune. They all, therefore, conceive the idea of increasing it. If they are free, they all attempt it, but all do not succeed in the same manner. The legislature, it is true, no longer grants privileges, but nature grants them. As natural inequality is very great, fortunes become unequal as soon as every man exerts all his faculties to get rich.
(Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 1, Chapter 9.)

Fifty years earlier, another Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, made a similar point. “What then is the American, this new man?. . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” Tocqueville believed that America was exceptional for being a newly formed settler society that lacked a feudal past, discouraged social deference, and so emphasized democratic equality, opportunity, pluralism, and individualism. British Dissenting Protestantism and America’s continental size were also critical in the formation of an exceptional society.

Friedman is correct in warning that Americans can’t take exceptionalism for granted. We have to work as a nation to continually renew it, to prevent it from becoming empty rhetoric. We have to get the American economy back up to speed to meet the challenges of globalization in the twenty-first century. Where I think Friedman errs is in looking to the government and a mandarin elite of technocrats to lead the way in reviving America. Wise government technocrats would guide the private sector through a national policy of targeted incentives and punishments. Friedman would like the government to promote the development green energy and technology and punish fossil fuel use through increased gasoline taxes. I believe it would be better if the government and the technocratic elites stayed out of the way and let the American people in the private sector, especially those in small businesses, take the lead to do what they do best: innovate, create wealth, and pursue happiness.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan