Let’s talk for a minute about American exceptionalism. I’ve heard about it for years. When Barack Obama compared American exceptionalism to British and Greek exceptionalism, he was lambasted for considering that the way Americans feel about their country could be similar to the way other people feel about theirs. His aligning of the two missed the point of the uniqueness of America, in that it was founded on a grand experiment in self governance.
However, regardless of what a country was founded on, we have to look at where we are today. In the two hundred and some-odd years since America’s founding, the country has changed dramatically. Government power has grown so much that the United States today only vaguely resembles the country that declared its independence from Britain in 1776. “Self-governance” is seen as wishful thinking. Those of us who long for the extremely limited government of the past, one that spent 3-4% of GDP as opposed to our current 25% of GDP, are considered radicals. “Conservatives” used to want to “conserve” the values of pre-New Deal America. Philosophers like Russell Kirk who immediately followed the times of FDR are today seen as ideologues with nothing practical to contribute to contemporary political conversations.
It is time to face facts. What made America great: the freedoms we used to have, the entrepreneurial spirit, the want for government to just leave people alone and let them live their lives… That’s not the America we live in anymore. American exceptionalism is dead.
One way in which this has become very apparent to me is how the American worker increasingly calls for government to protect him/her from foreign competition. In order for Americans to do well in the global market, government needs to step in and “level the playing field”. Granted, in the 18th century international trade wasn’t what it is today. There was far less competition in that time. There is still a huge takeaway from this though. Government was not seen as the answer in the past. Today, in order to “save jobs”, unions, workers, and big-government elitists cry louder and louder for government intervention in the market.
It is true that the American worker (or what the media defines as “the American worker”) has been hit with what was perceived as unseen (and therefore predictably unprepared-for) competition from abroad. However, if we look only at the wages and tax rates of other countries we lose what truly made America great.
It was not our low taxes or our low regulations that made America great. What made America great was its culture – that of being independent, making your own way in the world, working like a madman to realize your destiny. It is this culture that has been lost here, and is alive and well in other countries, that is the real competition from foreign business. Yes, Japan has a lower tax rate than America, but that isn’t why their country is “stealing” our jobs. They aren’t stealing our jobs at all, in fact. They have incorporated parts of America (free markets, for instance) with their own culture – hard work, taking pride in any job you do, and believing that it is not up to anyone but yourself to make you a success.
On a recent trip to Japan I was amazed at how people took pride in their jobs regardless of its prestige. One morning at a McDonalds I observed this in mind blowing fashion. I placed my order, and when it was ready I was greeted by a young lady who handed me my tray with a bow and said “arigato” (Thank You). I ate the food, which tasted better than McDonalds in America (less greasy, less salty, more flavorful) but before I did I was taken aback by how the food actually looked like the food on the overhead menu!
In America I’m rarely even greeted when I order, pushed aside, my tray is slid on the counter after someone shouts out a number, and no one checks to see that I actually pick it up. The food tastes mediocre at best and looks nothing like what I thought I was ordering. All the while, these terrible and rude employees are demanding $15/hour without taking the least amount of pride in their work.
This is a microcosm of America. Since the end of WWII we’ve had the advantage of being one of the only developed countries that didn’t see massive destruction of its domestic industries. We’ve drifted on that advantage and grown lazy, thinking that no one would or could possibly catch up to us. Now that they have, both Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters are demanding that government step in to protect the lazy, dumb, and unproductive American worker from foreign competition.
American exceptionalism did not come from government, therefore government cannot revive it! American exceptionalism came from the spirit of the people, and this spirit can only be brought back to life if it is faced with unrestricted competition. It is under the heaviest of pressures that diamonds are made. Without that pressure, bones of the past are turned to dust and nothing more.
It is not China or Japan or Mexico that have “taken” our jobs. It is the Chinese worker, the Japanese worker, and the Mexican worker who have quite simply OUTWORKED us. Government plays a small role, and we should not rely on government to save us. To save the American worker, we need to revive American exceptionalism.