On The Nature Of "American Exceptionalism"

In the New York Times on Friday, David Brooks -- allegedly the house conservative -- had a column critical of many current Republicans for their views on "American exceptionalism."  According to Brooks, the defining feature of American exceptionalism has historically been its looking to the future rather than the past, including to the prospective achievements of people not yet here.

America was settled, founded and built by people who believed they were doing something exceptional. Other nations were defined by their history, but America was defined by its future, by the people who weren’t yet here and by the greatness that hadn’t yet been achieved.

I won't quibble with Brooks over whether acceptance of large amounts of immigration is an essential feature of American exceptionalism.   But there is another element of American exceptionalism that Brooks does not mention, an element that is eminently forward-looking, and yet has little to do with immigration.  That element is the role of free markets and limited government.

Free markets and limited government mean that the people "run the country," not the government.  Free markets and limited government mean an economy that is a gigantic exercise in trial and error, which turns out to be a tremendous engine for generating innovation, wealth and widespread prosperity.  Free markets and limited government mean that the country succeeds even as the government fails.  With few exceptions (all of them small), even relatively advanced other countries have the opposite, namely restricted markets and unlimited government.  Restricted markets and unlimited government mean that these countries have most or all of: sluggish and stagnant economies, lack of innovation, and high rates of government dependency.

On September 21 Bret Stephens had a column in the Wall Street Journal, discussing the upcoming visit of Chinese President Xi to the U.S., in which he commented on the difference between the results achieved in a country that allows people to run their own lives and experiment for themselves, versus a country where the supposedly superior elites dictate solutions for all:

Yes, America, perhaps the only country on earth that can be serially led by second- or third-rate presidents—and somehow always manage to come up trumps (so to speak). America, where half of the college-age population can’t find New York state on a map—even as those same young Americans lead the world in innovation. America, where Cornel West is celebrated as an intellectual, Miley Cyrus as an artist, Jonathan Franzen as a novelist and Kim Kardashian as a beauty—and yet remains the cultural dynamo of the world.  America, in short, which defies every ethic of excellence—all the discipline and cunning and delicacy and Confucian wisdom that are the ways by which status and power are gained in China—yet manages to produce excellence the way a salmon spawns eggs. Naturally. By way of a deeper form of knowing.

And yet there is almost no appreciation among American elites of the dynamo effects of free markets and limited government, with the result that those things experience gradual erosion.

Consider President Obama's speech to the U.N. on Sunday on the subjects of poverty and economic development.  OK, most of it is meaningless platitudes, and even I can find much in it to agree with.  But the overwhelming sense from reading it is that poverty reduction and economic development are the responsibility of elites who must provide for the less fortunate, rather than things that can only come about if the people are free to experiment and strive for themselves.  The main way to the goals is that "governments" and "NGOs" and "institutions" must commit "resources" to achieve them:

In just a few short years -- in the areas of health, and food security, and energy -- my administration has committed and helped mobilize more than $100 billion to promote development and save lives.  More than $100 billion.  And guided by the new consensus we reached in Addis, I'm calling on others to join us.  More governments, more institutions, more businesses, more philanthropies, more NGOs, more faith communities, more citizens -- we all need to step up with the will and the resources and the coordination to achieve our goals.  This must be the work of the world.  

And then there's this bit of hubris:

We know the ingredients for creating jobs and opportunity -- they are not a secret. . . .  We know what works.  We know how to do this.

Would that were true.  But if it were true, there is no way that Haiti would still be dirt poor, with the gobs and money and phalanxes of "experts" that are thrown at it.  In fact what happens is that the money goes straight to a corrupt government that uses it to entrench its own position and keep the poor poor.  Obama's speech does contain some sensible statements about the need for investment and encouragement of entrepreneurs.  But I'm not convinced at all that he understands what makes America and its economy exceptional.