2cornucopias

Is America Exceptional? Part II

In 13 History on 2012/11/09 at 9:40 AM

So far as liberty is concerned, until recently no one but libertarians have been arguing that we were insufficiently free in the United States. If anything, some conservatives, dismayed by such phenomena as the spread of pornography and sexual license, thought that we had too much freedom for our own good. But thanks to modern liberalism’s barely concealed hostility to the free market, not to mention the threat posed by Obamacare to religious and economic freedom, many conservatives are now echoing these libertarian arguments, if in a milder form.

Judging by what they say and the policies they pursue, modern liberals are not all that concerned about liberty. What they really care about, and what they assign a higher value to, is economic equality (as reflected in the now famous phrase, “spread the wealth around”). Yet here is what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1976 about this very issue in connection with the redistributionist ideology then regnant at the United Nations:

And equality . . . what is the record? The record was stated most succinctly by an Israeli socialist who told William F. Buckley, Jr. that those nations which have put liberty ahead of equality have ended up doing better by equality than those with the reverse priority . . . . This is our case. We are of the liberty party, and it might surprise us what energies might be released were we to unfurl those banners.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan came along to unfurl those banners. And just as Moynihan predicted, the result was the release of new political and economic energies that reversed the political and economic decline of the Carter years and that led to our victory in the Cold War.

Of course, the party of liberty Moynihan was talking about was the United States of America and the party of economic equality was the socialist countries of what was then called the Third World. But within America today, an analogous split has opened up, with the Republicans constituting the party of liberty and the Democrats more and more becoming the party of redistribution. Hence the Democrats never stop claiming that the rich are failing to pay their fair share of taxes. Yet after surveying the numbers, the economist Walter Williams of George Mason University asks an excellent question: “What standard of fairness dictates that the top ten percent of income earners pay 71 percent of the federal income tax burden while 47 percent of Americans pay absolutely nothing?” To which an editorial in the Wall Street Journal replies: “There is nothing fair about confiscatory tax policy that reduces growth, denies opportunity, and keeps more people in poverty.”

Then too there is the assumption, blithely accepted by the party of economic equality, that the gap between rich and poor—or even between the rich and the middle class—self-evidently amounts to a violation of social justice. Yet far from being self-evident, this assumption stems from a highly questionable concept of social justice—one that rules out or minimizes the role played by talent, character, ambition, initiative, daring, work, and spirit in producing unequal outcomes in “the pursuit of happiness.”

Furthermore, both the assumption and its correlative concept of social justice run counter to the American grain. As study after study has shown, and as the petering out of the Occupy Wall Street movement has recently confirmed, what Tocqueville observed on this point in the 1830s remains true today: Americans, unlike Europeans, he wrote, “do not hate the higher classes of society” even if “they are not favorably inclined toward them . . . .” Which is to say that most Americans are not prone to the envy of the rich that eats away at their self-appointed spokesmen on the Left.

Nor are most Americans subject to the accompanying passion for economic egalitarianism that made for the spread of socialism in other countries. What explains the absence of that levelling passion is that it has been starved by the opportunities America has afforded millions upon millions to better their lot and the advantage they have been free to take of those opportunities—which in turn explains how unprecedented and unmatched levels of prosperity have been created here and how they have come to be shared more widely here than anywhere else.

Tocqueville also put his finger on a second and related reason for the persistence of this particular feature of American exceptionalism: “The word poor is used here in a relative, not an absolute sense. Poor men in America would often appear rich in comparison with the poor of Europe.” A story I was once told by a Soviet dissident provides an amusing illustration. It seems that the Soviet authorities used to encourage the repeated screening of The Grapes of Wrath, a movie about the Great Depression-era migration of starving farmers from the Dust Bowl to California in their broken-down pickups. But contrary to expectation, what Soviet audiences got from this film was not an impression of how wretched was the plight of the poor in America. Instead they came away marvelling that in America, “even the peasants own trucks.”

Tocqueville further observed that in America, “the poor, instead of forming the immense majority of the nation, as is always the case in aristocratic communities, are comparatively few in number, and the laws do not bind them together by the ties of irremediable and hereditary penury.”

As the great economist and social critic Thomas Sowell has demonstrated time and again, it is still the case that the poor in America “are comparatively few in number.” And except for the black underclass—whose size is generally estimated at somewhere between two and ten percent of the black community and whose plight has thus far resisted every attempt at alleviation over the past 50 years—it is also true that penury in the United States is neither irremediable nor hereditary. As Sowell shows, of those who live on the next rung of the economic ladder, more of whom are white than black, only three percent get stuck in the bottom fifth of the income distribution for more than eight years.

Elaborating on Sowell’s analyses, the economist Mark Perry writes:

In the discussions on income inequality and wage stagnation, we frequently hear about the “top 1%” or the “top 10%” or the “bottom 99%” and the public has started to believe that those groups operate like closed private clubs that contain the exact same people or households every year. But the empirical evidence . . . tells a much different story of dynamic change in the labor market—people and households move up and down the earnings quintiles throughout their careers and lives. Many of today’s low-income households will rise to become tomorrow’s high-income households, and some will even eventually be in the “top 10%” or “top 1%.” And many of today’s “top 1%” or top income quintile members are tomorrow’s middle or lower class households, reflecting the significant upward and downward mobility in the dynamic U.S. labor market.

No such mobility can be found in any of the member countries of the European Union, or anywhere else for that matter. Even in the dismal economic state our nation has fallen into today, it is still exceptional where the degree and the distribution of prosperity are concerned. But to this, modern liberals are willfully blind.

With all exceptions duly noted, I think it is fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at America today is injustice and oppression crying out for redress. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a complex of traditions and institutions built upon the principles that animated the American Revolution and that have made it possible—to say yet again what cannot be said too often—for more freedom and more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society in human history. It follows that what liberals—who concentrate their attention on the relatively little that is wrong with America instead of the enormous good embodied within it—seek to change or discard is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating, and defending.

A similar divide separates liberals and conservatives as to the role America has played in world affairs. Consider the many apologies President Obama has issued for the misdeeds of which he imagines Americans have been guilty in our relations with other countries in general and the Muslim world in particular. Never mind that the United States has spilled blood and treasure to liberate and protect many millions of people from the totalitarian horrors first of Nazism and then of Communism, and that since 9/11 we have spilled yet more blood and treasure fighting against Islamofascism, the totalitarian successor to Nazism. And as to the Muslim world in particular, never mind that, as the columnist Mona Charen puts it, “of the last six wars in which the United States was involved (Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya), four were undertaken to rescue Muslims and the other two (Afghanistan and Iraq) had the side benefit of liberating Muslims —to what end remains an open question.”

In spite of all this, the liberal community seems to think that the rest of the world would be better off without the United States, or at least with it following the policy of “leading from behind.” Admittedly there are paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and libertarians like Ron Paul who agree on this point, but most conservatives do not believe that a radical diminution of American power and influence would be good for us or for the world.

Shortly before the election of 2008, then-candidate Obama declared that his election would usher in “a fundamental transformation of America.” The desirability of such a transformation—which would entail the wiping away of as many more traces of American exceptionalism as it will take to turn this country into a facsimile of the social-democratic regimes of western Europe—is the issue at the heart of our politics today. And in the long run, I hope and trust, Americans will reject such a transformation, and elect instead to return to the principles that have made this nation so exceptional—yes, exceptional—a force for good both at home and abroad.


Copyright © 2012 Hillsdale College. The opinions expressed in Imprimis are not necessarily the views of Hillsdale College.  “Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: