American Exceptionalism

Guest blog:

by Alex Burwasser

What is American Exceptionalism? Is it some flawed concept based on naiveté, hubris, or a misplaced sense of patriotism? Or does it have factual basis that all Americans need to understand?

This issue received prominence not long ago when Barack was asked whether or not he believed in American Exceptionalism. As those readers who remember this encounter will recall, he was clearly uncomfortable with the question and evaded it by saying that he believes in American Exceptionalism in the same fashion that Britons believe in British Exceptionalism or that Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism. 

I had to laugh at this revealing exchange. Given Barack’s wild and reckless spending and incompetent leadership, this country is facing the prospects of a big dose of “Greek Exceptionalism” where, like Greece, we are on the cusp of permanently high unemployment, exploding debt, long term economic decline, and social unrest. 

Barack has plenty of company, however, as most Leftists are uncomfortable with the concept of American Exceptionalism. Many Leftists I speak with say it does not exist. I then respond with this question: “Do you believe it is unexceptional for a nation having only 4% of the world’s landmass and 5% of the world’s population to produce 25% of world GDP?” 

This question invariably catches Leftists off-guard. After considering this for a moment or two, Leftists will often retort that this has happened only because America has exploited the rest of the world and stepped on the necks of “people of color.” In other words, our success was achieved illegitimately. 

My response to this absurd claim is as follows: “When I first listened to Radio Moscow and other communist propaganda shortwave stations in 1963, this was exactly the rhetoric I heard. When I listened to these stations in 1973, nothing had changed. Ditto 1983. In 1993, after the fall of the communist bloc, this rhetoric had disappeared. Is it possible that these former communists learned a hard lesson that you modern Leftists have somehow missed?” 

So back to our original question – what is American Exceptionalism and what has been responsible for it? Is it caused by something in the air we breathe, or in the food we eat and the water we drink? Did it come about as a result of the luck of the draw, or because our number just happened to come up? 

Obviously not. Actually, the answer is far less subtle. All nations that became great by means other than violence and conquest and remained great over time did so because they granted their citizens liberties. This concept was pioneered mostly by Western civilizations. Greece and Rome became great by prioritizing individual liberties and democratic values. Britain became great in the same fashion, beginning with the Magna Carta. 

Although these liberties were very modest by today’s standards, their enormity was stunning for those times and gave those nations great advantages over nations with less freedom. 

Interestingly, these nations lost their greatness when the abandoned their original values and embraced statism by persuading their citizens that they could trade off their liberties for security (i.e., socialism). This was the essence of the Roman “bread and circuses.” 

America’s rise to greatness is grounded in the same roots as those nations that preceded us. Our rise was more spectacular than that of our predecessors, however, because we more fully-embraced these Western civilization concepts and multiplied their effectiveness through a political system that better emphasized limited government and rule of law. 

We were also very fortunate in having the benefit of the wisdom and efforts of our Founding Fathers. Although much maligned by the Left (they were white, they were males, and some were even slave holders) and had some very human flaws, they had the rare experience of living both under tyranny immediately before and in liberty immediately following the American Revolution in a short period of time. As a result of this defining experience and their collective brilliance and wisdom, they had a collective understanding of the relationship between the government and the governed in a free society that has never been matched. 

The unparalleled success of this country was thus achieved by a very enlightened and carefully thought out paradigm of balance between individual liberty and rule of law as codified in the Constitution. Individual liberty is always the key ingredient for a successful society.

 Free people work harder, take more risks, are more innovative, are more generous, and are more self-fulfilled than those who live under tyranny. To put this in plainer language, slave labor can never compete with free labor. 

This freedom must be balanced, however, by transparent rule of law under limited government. Otherwise, “might makes right” and anarchy results. Anarchy is far worse than even the most repressive form of government. 

As conservatives, we understand that freedom has two essential and inseparable components, one being political liberties and the other being economic liberties. Statists, on the other hand, believe that political liberties can survive even if economic liberties are curtailed through over-taxation, over-regulation, wealth redistribution, and all the other economic infringements necessary to build the welfare state. This, of course, is untrue – without economic liberties, the power of the state becomes too expansive with the inevitable result that political liberties also become curtailed. 

I argue that this country began to run off the track when this balance began shifting in favor of excessive and more corrupt rule of law (i.e., bigger and more intrusive government) at the expense of individual liberty. More specifically, political leaders have encouraged Americans to demand more government services, which in turn can be provided only by expanding government at the expense of individual liberty. This process has been facilitated by expansive and creative “interpretations” of the Constitution that are clearly exercises in double-speak. The truth is that unlike most modern-day politicians, the Founding Fathers were true statesmen who wrote the Constitution in a manner to clarify rather than obfuscate the relevant issues. The Constitution is written in plain English, not Mandarin, and it requires very little “interpretation” (other than by those who dislike its provisions and want to subvert them). 

In general, great nations decline and fall as a consequence of abandoning those core values that made them great. Unfortunately, American Exceptionalism is neither unconditional or permanent. It will exist only as long as we embrace our core values. 

The statists have been very successful over the past 100 years in persuading many Americans that we can trade off our liberties for increased security. Unfortunately, history is not at all subtle about the trajectory of this path – people who give up liberty for security ultimately end up having neither, and also suffer economic decline and lower standards of living as a result. Anyone with historical perspective will understand that the existing welfare state is nothing more than the modern version of the old Roman “bread and circuses.” 

Our political leaders have repudiated the ideals of the American Revolution. It is now evident that in the fullness of time and the benefit of hindsight, rather than shedding the yoke of tyranny we have instead simply traded masters – rather than the states being colonies of the Crown in London, they have instead become colonies of the statists in Washington.

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