Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Beautiful Dream of American Exceptionalism

President Obama taught us all a lesson a while back.  When asked about American exceptionalism in 2009 he replied:
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Yeah.  In other words, it's a nationalistic fantasy.

But, of course, the president is wrong: the United States is an exceptional nation.  It was founded upon an idea, the rising idea of its age, of republican self-government, on the Axial Age concept of the "responsible self."  From that idea came the whole exceptional package: limited government under law, separation of powers, the "Dutch finance" of Alexander Hamilton, the whole idea of civil society, of a middle ground of free association between the government and the individual.

But there is one brute fact about exceptions.  They are exceptions to the rule.  If the United States was born as an exceptional nation, then it stands to reason--and experience--that the United States will eventually become ordinary: "regression to the mean" is the official term.

Our liberal friends, of course, think that American exceptionalism is a bad thing: nationalism, anti-intellectualism, the gun culture, Babbitry, boosterism, the money culture.  They want to get back to being a normal nation, like the Europeans and their social democracy.

The libertarian "instapundit" Glenn Reynolds likes to quote the science-fiction author Robert Heinlein at this point:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as "bad luck."
The point is, of course, that "extremely small minorities" are people like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs; they appear for a moment, like a blinding flash of light, and then they are gone.  Sometimes they are revered; often times, as in the case of a Rockefeller or a Morgan, they are reviled.  Then the world reverts to the mean.

I like to say that the United States is founded upon the exceptional idea of "Dutch finance" in which the government bases its finance on promoting the health of the rest of the financial and credit system.  The normal way of government finance is "French finance" where the government games the financial system to ward off the consequence of its overspending.  Dutch finance builds a strong nation; French finance leads to sovereign default, hyper-inflation, riots and revolution.

Under President Obama the US is heading as fast as politically possible down the path of French finance.  That is the meaning of unsustainable entitlements; that is the meaning of cheesy "fiscal cliffs;" that is the meaning of trillion dollar deficits.

And it will be the "little people" who will end up "eating the paint off the walls."

All exceptions come to an end.  But it is a bitter thing to be living through the end of one so glorious and luminous as the American Exception.

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