David Brooks' comment today that it's countries like Germany, not big stimulus spenders like us, who had better economic fundamentals going into our economic crisis. That Europe has been instructive to America on one of the two big issues on which we have long enjoyed global superiority, the free market (military is the other), is an observation that more and more people make.
Today, we feature an article by British Chancellor George Osborne in which he explains the tough choices the British coalition government has made to get Britain's fiscal house in order as a pre-condition for growth. The implication of the article is clear: America can learn from Britain in this regard. The reaction among political leaders to the Bowles-Simpson recommendations shows that there is some opportunity for the kind of consensus we need to tackle spending as Britain has, but it has also shown that we're a long ways off.
David Ignatius reported last week in his column that that America's inability to act on its economy signals to other countries that we are a nation in decline, and then they behave accordingly.
Are we still an exceptional nation?
We are. The left doesn’t like this. President Obama once said that he believes in American exceptionalism the same way that Brits believe in British exceptionalism or Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. It was an apologetic frame of mind useful for endearing oneself to the resentment crowd and overseas elites, but it doesn’t even make sense.
Despite our economic doldrums, the United States still cannot sneeze without the world knowing. America moves, and the rest of the world feels it. But it's not our economic might that makes us exceptional any more than our economic malaise makes us unexceptional. American exceptionalism is rooted in the nation's character. Some on the right don’t like to think too much about this much more than those on the left do. But we have to.
American exceptionalism isn’t something to apologize for. It’s something to understand and use as a basis for policy.
American exceptionalism matters for three reasons. I haven’t made these up. I’ve distilled them from my reading of a wonderful 2006 essay by James Q. Wilson, “American Exceptionalism”:
- A built-in buffer against statist control of domestic affairs. Our constitutional nature demands that we protect both liberty and equality with a near-gridlock system of checks and balances. What other nations, such as those Ignatius is referring to, see as a weakness is part of our strength. When we reach consensus on tough issues, it means we've really had to work at it.
- A diplomacy of emulation. It is in our national DNA to export our democratic norms. Our popular culture is embraced by other nations, but this probably works against us more than we think. It gives an appearance of progress without the real thing. Millions of young people in China watching American basketball doesn’t get us across the goal line. What really matters is America’s expectation that our trading partners around the world will protect citizen rights, promote the rule of law, and share core economic values. This makes it less likely we’ll war with these nations and more likely that we’ll be allies in global affairs. Backing away from this aspect of our exceptionalism is dangerous.
- Spiritual entrepreneurship. This is Wilson’s term. America’s aspirational culture, rooted in religious commitment, is basically unknown in the “developed” world. It is statistically related to upward mobility, generosity, crime reduction, and health improvements in America. Talk of “values voters” cheapens this aspect of America’s exceptionalism. It is difficult to differentiate America’s history of growth and enterprise from its spiritual entrepreneurship.
These three distinctives suggest a few things, respectively:
- Expect gridlock. Our constitutional system forces us to compromise and negotiate more than parliamentary systems. We want to repeal Obamacare, but more realistically, over the next couple years we will likely have to engage in the art of persuasion, and keep taking good policy to the public and relying on them to force the right kind of change. We can’t win with a politics of rant. We need to win hearts and minds.
- Articulate foreign policy goals above spending goals. There is a strong urge to curb military spending in some wings of the conservative movement. This is understandable. Nothing should be off-limits when it comes to deficit reduction. But cutting spending alone is not a policy. We are engaged in a global battle for hearts and minds whether we like it or not, and we need to act accordingly.
- Invest in spiritual entrepreneurship. What does THAT mean? Innovation in education, challenging Americans to change expectations to prepare for entitlement reform, keeping America’s tradition of giving intact, enlisting the help of religious groups – these all matter. How we do as an aspirational nation is hard to measure and yet has concrete outcomes. It is perhaps best seen when middle class families are characterized by high levels of confidence that they can make a future for themselves and their children. America's spiritual enterprise is related to people's willingness to take risks and try new things.
As Foreign Policy's Will Inboden points out today in Big Ideas, we cannot afford for America NOT to be providing global leadership on critical matters such as Iranian instability and Asian ambition.
Beyond this, though, I think Wilson's spiritual enterprise point is significant. It gets at the heart of the relationship between incentives in economic policy and incentives borne out of our habits of aspiration, which form the bedrock of entrepreneurship.
That people are motivated by more than economic reasons, as David Brooks so aptly puts it today in his column, is a central tenant of ConservativeHome that we'll be returning to in the future.