Why America is a unique country – Part 1

America is a truly unique country. But not for the most commonly held reasons: “Come to America ,so that you will have a great chance to make money and be rich”. In truth, throughout the world America is viewed (sometimes with envy, sometimes with contempt) mostly as a country of great economic opportunity for those who are willing to push forward with determination, grit, passion and sometimes heartless aggression. America is the Promised Land where making money, advancing one’s social position, and building a better future for oneself is easier than elsewhere.

The other side of the coin is that America is viewed as the country where only money and material achievement are worthwhile goals, pursued singlehandedly by most people, sometimes in a heartless and unscrupulous (and at times even illegal) manner. According to many critics, because of this narrow focus on getting rich, the Americans have created a materialistic and somewhat decadent, soulless society. Some of this, both the positives and negatives, may be true.

But this is not what America, at its core, is about.    

It is all about Freedom

Indeed, both admirers and critics of America get it wrong. They focus on outcomes –material success—and neglect to appreciate and understand what inspires people to engage in activities. In other words, they do not understand the deep drivers leading to prosperity.

The truth is that material success in America is possible because all citizens know that, thanks to the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the US Constitution, they are truly free citizens.

And individual freedom, of course, includes economic freedom, that is freedom to engage in profit-oriented enterprises. When motivated people engage in enterprises without the constant fear of arbitrary obstacles placed on their way by a tyrannical, unaccountable government, economic success, while certainly not guaranteed, is more likely.

So, here is the thing about America. The fundamental idea at the foundation of the United States of America was not and is not “Come here to America to Make Money”. The main idea was and continues to be “Come here to America to be Free”. From this perspective, prosperity (again, possible, aspired to, but not guaranteed) is a welcome outcome of a life in which the individual, being free from state-imposed coercion, has the luxury to focus his/her efforts on the pursuit of his/her passions.

“In America you have a better chance to prosper because you are truly free to pursue your own dreams. You are free because you enjoy the protection of basic Individual Rights provided by the US Constitution. As the US Government protects your Freedoms, in America you do not have to worry about a rapacious, arbitrary government interfering with your affairs, or punitive regulations and taxes that will ultimately suffocate your enterprise”.

Indeed, it was this single fundamental principle –achieving and securing Freedom for all Americans—that inspired the Revolutionary War of 1776 and subsequently the creation of the US political institutions whose primary purpose is the protection of Individual Liberty. After the Constitution of 1787 established the institutions aimed at securing and protecting political and personal Freedoms, millions of Americans, old settlers and new settlers, could peacefully unleash their personal creativity without any fear of interference by the state, confiscatory taxes or other impediments to private sector economic activities so common in Europe at that time.

Freedom to do

So, having secured “Freedom from Tyranny”, the Americans could unleash their collective “Freedom to Do”, freeing up individual creativity, (if it was and is exercised within the boundaries of the Law). And, as we know, creativity often turned into innovation and entrepreneurship. Over time, entrepreneurship and the pursuit of commercially viable innovation made millions of Americans into successful professionals, inventors and business owners. 

In a word, in America, widespread prosperity is the welcome consequence of constitutionally guaranteed Individual Freedoms. Individual Freedom is at the foundation of economic success. America became rich not because becoming rich was the declared goal; but because it upheld and protected the Freedom of its citizens.

The European intellectual roots of the American political culture

How did America come to embrace this unique notion whereby government’s primary purpose is not to get on with public administration and “get things done” but to protect individual liberties? The answer is in the enthusiastic embrace by the intellectual elites in the British Colonies in North America of the ideas elaborated by European political philosophers who belong to the intellectual current known as the “Enlightenment”.

Indeed, the XVIII Century is generally known as the “Age of Light”. Yes, this was the age of the “Enlightenment”. Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, d’Alembert and Diderot are among the mostly French and British thinkers and authors of that prolific era.

The Enlightenment started with a renewed and vigorous focus on science, the rigorous observation of nature, experiments and emphasis on physics, mathematics and geometry. Many educated people, especially in France and Britain, over time developed the firm belief that the Universe surrounding human beings is a beautiful, harmonious whole designed by a Benign Creator, according to clear mathematical principles.

From this perspective, while much about the Universe was still unknown, everything was deemed to be knowable. Provided consistent effort and a keen desire to educate oneself about the proper ways to open the secrets of the natural world, eventually everything would become clear.

This is the meaning of “Enlightenment”, literally a process leading to expanding the light of knowledge. In turn, this approach would bring the light of science-based knowledge into the world –for the benefit of all human beings. Hence the emphasis on engaging in new scientific endeavors, described in many new books aimed at the general public, and education. Most fundamentally, via education, all people, including the common man of modest means, would become enlightened. 

Rational Man

According to most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, rationality and reason –the essential organizing principles of the physical universe– are also essential human features. If men often behave irrationally, this is due to ignorance, lack of education, or bad teachings that instill superstitions, false ideas, and bigotry.

But for all these ills there was an excellent remedy: proper, science-based education. Education inspired by rigorous science would offer precious, scientific knowledge to all human beings, this way strengthening man’s natural foundations of reasoned thinking, rationality and even handed tolerance vis a vis other humans. 

Relying on these strong philosophical foundations, the European thinkers created new –and truly revolutionary– notions about the proper foundations of a political society, including the concept of the Natural Rights of Man, while elaborating the construct of a new type of rational, organized state populated and governed mostly by reasonable, “enlightened” men. This new political society would be based on voluntary arrangements agreed to by free people –a “Social Contract” — aimed at setting up just and accountable governments.    

Well, needless to say, given the prevailing reality of mostly medieval states ruled by absolute monarchs, there was almost no chance to see any of this come to fruition within Europe.

The American elites embraced the Enlightenment

It was instead in the New World, in the British Colonies of North America, that these truly revolutionary European ideas about science, learning, knowledge, Natural Rights, Individual Freedom and self-Government found a truly dedicated audience. And therefore, a truly fertile ground.

The middle class elites of the New World seemed to be animated by a spontaneous yearning for science and learning. Many early Americans had received just some or little formal education. Still, they were keen students and avid readers of the great works of the European thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Eventually, these self-taught American Colonists came to believe that, once free of the yoke imposed on them by the oppressive and unjust British Monarchy, in this New World they could give life to a new society ruled justly through a well balanced self-government, just as theorized by their favorite Enlightenment philosophers. 

And it worked. These ideas inspired the first clashes with the British authorities and eventually the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the ultimately successful Revolutionary War which led to the end of British rule. With the notable ghastly exception of the long and bloody Civil War –a conflict between the supposedly universal principles of freedom and equality and the horrendous practice of slavery in the South– America seems to present an almost linear picture of the happy evolution of a free society that became prosperous because the citizens could freely engage in productive, money-making enterprises.

A beacon of light across the Atlantic

And this mostly benign picture, of course, inspired millions of unhappy Europeans. While there were many drivers behind the migratory waves of Europeans into America –and the pursuit of better economic opportunity was definitely a major factor–  the notion of leaving behind misery and poverty caused by political oppression, while embracing a New World ruled by benign laws that protect individual freedom, was definitely a powerful magnet which motivated millions to sail from Europe and its rather miserable conditions to America –never to come back.

And there is more. Owing to its geographic position, this New Blessed Land was conveniently separated by a vast Atlantic Ocean from the constant fracas caused by quarrelsome European states.

Indeed, this New Republic was situated in a pristine New World. It had no enemy states at its borders. (Of course, we should not forget how the American settlers over many decades essentially destroyed the Native American Nations that were pushed away by the colonists from the lands they had inhabited for centuries. The “Indians” were eventually confined into small reservations with few if any opportunities).

Which is to say that America became something like a controlled laboratory experiment. It could grow and develop without the constant worries of threats to its national security and the need to go to war to preserve it.

End of Part 1

A Viable Democracy Is Premised On Shared Values – America Is Losing Its Ethos, Egypt and Thailand Never Got Theirs

WASHINGTON – What’s the connection between a nasty campaign for a US Senate seat in Oregon, the failures of the Arab Spring and the recent military coup in Thailand?

A common thread

The admittedly flimsy but real common element is the inability to create and/or maintain viable and vibrant democracies on the basis of a shared consensus on the proper balance between majority and minority rights, and an agreed definition of what should be the focus of policy discourse, (i.e.: what is the private v. the public sphere?). All this should yield a realistic definition of a  “common good” that can and should be pursued via reasonable actions undertaken by elected and accountable officials.

Character assassination in an Oregon competition

In the US case, as reported by Kimberley Strassel in her WSJ “Potomac Watch” column, (A Democratic War on One Woman, May 23, 2014), we have yet another classic case of a political campaign almost entirely based on character assassination, and not on a debate on the issues.

While the moral integrity of any candidate should not be off-limits, a premeditated, carefully orchestrated effort to distort a few facts with the goal of painting a political opponent as an emotionally unhinged lunatic should not be allowed. And yet this is done, routinely.

Clever manipulation

In the case of this Oregon race, Dr. Monica Wehby, an accomplished pediatric specialist, has been portrayed by her clever Democratic opponent as an obsessed woman who became violent with her ex husband and who stalked her boy friend. In other words, an emotionally unstable woman who is known to act in a crazy way. Well, if this were true, people in Oregon would not want to vote for her.

The trouble is that it is not true. While there are some small pieces of evidence that may support this thesis, the portrait of the “unhinged woman” who —can you believe it?— wants to be Senator is the result of willful, carefully orchestrated manipulation.

Mitt Romney, the vulture capitalist

This case is not too different from the masterful ability of the Obama campaign, back in 2012, in successfully portraying opponent Mitt Romney as a greedy, bloodthirsty “vulture capitalist” who in his previous business career as the head of Bain Capital bought companies just to strip them of assets and then tossed them out, like garbage, without even a thought for the poor people who lost their jobs and benefits.

The campaign even managed to assert that former employees of companies bought and sold by Romney died of cancer because they had lost medical insurance on account of Romney’s actions. There you have it: the man who wanted to be President has got dead people on his conscience. Who could ever vote for him? 

These happen to be examples coming from one side. But candidates in both parties do this, all the time. Before and during the 2012 Republican primaries, all the would-be Republican nominees did pretty much the same to one another. They openly used character assassination and willful manipulation of the record to discredit one another. (Indeed, long before Obama used the “vulture capitalist” image to discredit Romney, fellow Republicans had done the same during the long campaign leading to the convention).

Shameful conduct is perfectly OK, if it gets you elected

This is shameful and sad. Instead of debating policy choices, the goal is to destroy the personal credibility of your opponent by portraying him/her as morally unfit, and therefore unelectable.

This may be clever. However, this way the political process is profoundly degraded. It becomes a bad form of entertainment where only the wily and unprincipled people prevail. Are these the kinds of people we want in public office?

A debased democracy

As a result of these bad practices, we have debased our republican form of government, a form of government that can thrive only if it is founded on shared moral principles that together should create an agreed upon standard of conduct.

You may think that this corny, but I am convinced that a democracy in which most people think it is alright to behave with no honor, without paying any price for their bad behavior, is not going to be successful.

The cynical conclusion that “Oh well, this is the way it is…This is how you play the game, if you want to win” is simply unacceptable. And yet, at least implicitly, it is accepted. They all do it, because most of the time it works.

So much for our supposedly solid, established American democracy. If we look beyond our shores, the picture gets a lot worse.

The failed Arab Spring

I admit that I am among those who naively believed that something really good was going to come out of the “Arab Spring”. I really thought that those spontaneous, yet peaceful grassroots movements made out of people who demanded the end of tyranny would really create the premises for modern, non sectarian, secular democracies.

Well, we know now that it did not work out this way. As soon as they had a chance to express themselves, the Egyptians voted for the sectarian, profoundly illiberal and in the end disastrously incompetent Muslim Brotherhood led by President Mohamed Morsi. This led to chaos and eventually to a military coup led by General El-Sisi. And now the Egyptians are about to elected El-Sisi, the coup leader, as president. So, after political mayhem, confusion, lots of dead people and major economic losses, the Egyptians are about to go from the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, a general, to another general. Not great progress. In Tunisia there are similar problems. Not to mention post-Gaddafi Libya, a country now in perpetual chaos.

The military takes over in Thailand

In Thailand the military days ago intervened via a non violent coup supposedly to put an end to a never-ending political mess. Nobody reacted. May be most people feel that this is a good thing. Still, whatever the opinions on this action taken by the generals, it certainly proves that Thailand had a dysfunctional and profoundly immature democracy that in the end proved to be unworkable.

A real democracy is premised on shared values

In the final analysis, what does all this mean? Well, here is my assessment. A workable republic is premised on a lot more than a good constitution. It is premised on genuinely shared values. The American Founding Fathers, all of them children of the Enlightenment, “The Age of Light”, were taught to believe that most men are reasonable. They also believed that reason, constantly reinforced by new knowledge, would allow the creation and the sustainability of their fragile self-government experiment.

They did recognize the difficulties. They did acknowledge that passions and the pursuit of personal or factional interests would work against a workable democracy. But they were guardedly optimistic on its chances to survive and thrive.

A democratic ethos

The circumstances that allowed the success of the American Revolution are quite unique. But this does not mean that other democracies cannot flourish. They can.

But you cannot have a vibrant, self-confident democracy without a shared democratic ethos. And this has to include honorable behavior on the part of all and, more broadly, an understanding of what the purpose of government should be. Is government supposed to take care of just a few, essential tasks, or does it have a larger mandate? These are really big issues.

A constitution is not enough

It takes a long time and a judicious vetting of all plausible options to arrive at an enduring consensus on the purposes of government. The idea that we can set up a democracy today by drafting a constitution and holding elections, hoping that all the rest will be sorted out later on is crazy. By the same token, if the shared principles embraced by the founders are not nurtured by their successors, they will die.

There must be shared beliefs

The truth is that first of all we have to make sure that a society has shared beliefs. Then we can draft the rules. If the rules are not supported by values, they are worth nothing. This applies to Egypt and Thailand.

It also applies to Oregon, and to the US in general. Here in America we used to have strong shared principles. Right now I would say that they are weakly held, while in some places they are totally gone.