Tell me, would we? Could we?”
Okay, we’re not talking about slavery, or robber barons or Jim Crow or any of the other agonies of our long and sometimes painful history. We’re talking about the once unique aspects of American character that made us, as a people, exceptional. Millions of individuals walking, more or less, to their own beat, free to choose, to think, to worship (or not), to speak, to dream, to work and to succeed (or fail) based, largely, on their own ability and determination. They changed the world, and, unquestionably, changed it for the better. Tens of millions abandoned the lands of their birth (and that of countless generations of their forbears) and fled to our shores, drawn to America because of those very freedoms and, generally, little else.
There are many, count us among them, who believe that American Exceptionalism is what made our nation great – lifted tens of millions out of poverty –made America the envy of the world. And as we become less exceptional we become less great.
Sadly, American Exceptionalism has become a much-maligned term, often abused by zealots on both the right and the left. Either out of malevolence or ignorance it is often equated with a state of unbridled arrogance by the left, and a state of patriotic perfection by the right. It is, of course, neither. Even President Obama managed to mangle the meaning of American Exceptionalism when he began with “I believe in American Exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Alexis de Tocqueville gave us the term in his extraordinary “American Democracy” published in 1835 following his extensive travels throughout the America of the early nineteenth century. He was not, by any means, an American sycophant. He had his concerns (and strongly voiced them) about the weaknesses and dangers inherent in this new experiment in governance, and he worried mightily about the potential tyranny of the majority. But he understood the essence and the potential of what our remarkable founders had created. He saw a nation in which men and women frequently banded together to solve community problems, take care of their own, and promote their self-interest. He saw a land where people were free to pursue the betterment of their station in life. These were the qualities and virtues that, in his view, made America exceptional. De Tocqueville, an aristocrat, came to America in 1831 shortly after the election of Andrew Jackson, as earthy and unaristocratic a politician as had, or has, ever won the White House. De Tocqueville must have been both aghast and amazed at Old Hickory’s ascendancy to the pinnacle of power in the new world.
He came to see in American democracy what Adam Smith, only a few years earlier, saw in his unique view of economics. People free to choose make better decisions than those whose choices are managed by government. De Tocqueville expressed the view that, “the American is the Englishman left to himself.”
He observed that American Democracy…”includes the annihilation of the feudal system and the vanquishing of king and has led to the advantage of democracy… and to the general equality of conditions, of men who now stand equally in their political and economic opportunities (not in their economic condition) in life.“ This, de Tocqueville writes, “is a general progress and evolution that history has never yet experienced.” He found “no parallel to what is occurring before my eyes.”
Although his words were penned nearly 180 years ago, they still resonate clearly today. Listen to de Tocqueville…”There are some…that are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village…they think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government”…they are so divorced from their own interests that…they wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid…when a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.”
Daniel Hannan, in his recently published book, “Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World” echoes much the same sentiment about much of Europe. “They look to the government to solve their problems, and when the government fails they become petulant. That is the point that much of Europe has reached now,” he writes. “Greeks, like many Europeans spent decades increasing their consumption without increasing their production. They voted for politicians who promised to keep the good times going and rejected those who argued for fiscal restraint. Even now, as the calamity overwhelms them, they refuse to take responsibility for their own affairs by leaving the euro and running their own economy. It’s what happens when an electorate is systematically infantilized.”
As we wrote earlier in this essay, de Tocqueville was no sycophant for America. He understood the dangers that lurked on both ends of the political spectrum. “I cannot help fearing” he wrote, “that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.
In describing 19th century Europe, de Tocqueville writes as though he is a member of today’s American Tea Party. “It (the governments of Europe) covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
American Exceptionalism, as de Tocqueville saw it was not, in his view, a panacea for the ills of the western world. It was simply a phenomenon without precedent that exuded great potential and harbored more than a few pitfalls. The potential was palpable and did, indeed, propel the nation from a distant and isolated backwater to the world’s dominant industrial and economic power with breathtaking speed. The magic of American Exceptionalism, then, was simply found in the industriousness of men and women who are, as the late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote, simply free to choose.
The streets weren’t lined with gold and the living wasn’t easy. Virtually all of the newcomers worked as hard as they had ever worked, but with few exceptions they loved their new land. They loved it because they were free. America was a virtual emporium of freedoms. While none of them would have ever heard of American Exceptionalism, that entirely unique American quality is what attracted them. The Levi Strauss’s, the Jakob Bests (Pabst) the Joseph Pulitzers, the Milton Hersheys, the Steinway Brothers, even Charlie Feltman, who settled in Coney Island, New York and started selling sausages wrapped in a bun. We know his product as the Coney Island hot dog. American Exceptionalism was and still is, the phenomenon that gave us Google, AT&T, Goldman Sachs, E- Bay, Radio Shack, Kohls, Comcast, Yahoo, Nordstrom’s, Colgate, Sara Lee, DuPont, Kraft Foods, Pfizer…and the list goes on and on.
America became the world’s greatest incubator for innovation because it placed the fewest stumbling blocks on the path to individual and commercial success. But the biggest growth enterprise in America today appears to involve the promulgation of new government rules and regulations – many simply represent new hoops that regulators devise through which businesses and individuals must jump. In 2011, a year in which all state legislatures were in session, 18,562 new laws were passed according to StateScape, and, to add icing to the cake, the federal government promulgates approximately 4,000 new regulations a year according to the Heritage Foundation.
Regulation-happy bureaucrats at all levels of government largely govern us. That’s why Steve Jobs lectured President Obama about the myriad of rules and regulations that drove him to manufacture his Apple products abroad. Sensible regulation is, of course, a necessity in a complex competitive society such as America. There is, however, a thin line between the rules and regulations that promote a healthy business climate and those that stifle it.
There were once few entitlements in America, other than our incredible array of freedoms. Freedom, in all of its manifestations, was the essential entitlement that brought so much genius and so much prosperity to America. But now material entitlements have become the primary business of America. Well over 60% of our national budget goes to providing a wide array of entitlements, some of which are essential, some of which are not so essential including many that go to profitable businesses, and some of which are just plain wasteful. All are provided (those that are worthy and those that are not) at some cost of self-reliance.
John F. Kennedy’s admonition, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” would not resonate today as it did 53 years ago. To many, it would represent the wrong narrative, almost extreme, almost too right of center.
There was a time when freedom and equality of opportunity were the most prized coins of the realm. Those days may be over, but maybe not.
“If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?”