Collections: Is the United States Exceptional?

It is the week of July 4th and so I hope that everyone will once again forgive me for taking a break from our normal fare to write out an argument that I’ve had brewing for quite some time. I especially beg the indulgence of all of my international readers since I am once again – in the proper tradition of my country – going to go on at some length about my country. It is, after all, what we do.

For this year’s July 4th, I want to tackle the question of ‘Is the United States exceptional or great?’ Not because I think it is a difficult question, but because I think it is such a surprisingly easy question that I find myself repeatedly frustrated that it is, in some circles, considered an interesting question. Take for instance this this Newsroom clip from 2012 that seems to make the rounds online at least once a year where the Aaron-Sorkin-hero dunks on a college sophomore by arguing, “there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re [the United States] is the greatest country in the world.”

The diatribe that statement is treated by the visual language of the scene like a truth bomb, which is why it is so odd because Jeff Daniels’ character is not merely wrong, but (as I intend to show) laughably so. Indeed, he leads into this remark with a statement that “207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom,” a statement that is not now and has never in the whole sweep of recorded history ever been remotely true. 2005 was the best year on record for freedom globally according to Freedom House and in that year 89 countries were ‘free’ countries – 46% of the world’s countries and 45.97% of the world’s people. That was the highest year of freedom ever in human history and it comes just below half of the ‘truth bomb’s’ best guess at how common freedom is. The majority of humans on Earth have never, at any point in human history, lived in a free country. One should not take their geopolitics from Aaron Sorkin.

But I wanted to address the question more broadly: to what degree can the United States be considered great, exceptional or ‘the greatest.’ But at the outset we need be very clear what we are measuring here: we are not asking if the United States is the best country. That’s an entirely subjective judgment; what the best of anything will be is going to depend mostly on what a person prefers. It is a matter of values and taste and de gustibus non est disputandum (“on taste, one must not argue”). Likewise ‘great’ is not the superlative of ‘good’ (that, as a reminder, is ‘best’); I am not asking if the United States has had a positive impact on the world here (once again a deeply subjective question). Instead ‘greatness’ is about extent, amount, ability, or eminence: great means ‘very big’ not ‘very good.’ Thus Alexander, Catherine and Peter are all called ‘great’ but one may well argue if they were ‘good.’ And ‘exceptional’ also does not mean good; things can be exceptionally bad! The point of something being exceptional is merely that it is different in uncommon ways; to be ‘great’ is to be exceptional specifically in scale.

So again, I am not asking if the United States is the ‘best’ country; I rather like my country, but I understand it is not to everyone’s taste and that is fine: different people have different opinions and everyone in the world is entitled to their own opinion except for Aaron Sorkin. I certainly cannot fault anyone who likes their own country better than I like mine. Instead I want to explore a number of ways in which the United States might clearly be considered ‘great’ or even ‘the greatest’ (either now or ever) to make the case both that the United States is obviously and indisputably exceptional and that several of these exceptional facets provide quite a lot of evidence to support the contention that the United States is, in those ways, a great country.

But first, before we dive in, as always if you like what you are reading here, please share it. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings. Finally, if you really like it, you can support my writing on Patreon.

I like this picture and think I’ll keep using it for my July 4th themed posts.


We should start with one observation that forms the basis for a number of others: the United States is both the biggest rich country (that is, it is the largest high income country) and the richest big country (that is, it has the highest income per capita of any country with a large population or land area) both now and at any other time in history. The largest country with a higher GDP per capita (PPP adjusted) larger than the United States is the UAE with just 9.9m people to the United State’s 331m, while the richest country larger than the United States is China with a PPP adjusted GDP per capita of just $21,364 ($14k unadjusted) to the United States’ $76,027. To put it another way, the next biggest rich country (defined as a GDP per capita PPP adjusted above $45,000) is Japan at just 125m people, a bit more than a third of the USA’s population, while the next richest big country (population over 150 million; if we drop this much further we just end up comparing the USA with Japan again) is China with well under a third of the GDP per capita.

In short then, the United States has no peer economies to which it can really be compared. There are two countries which are much larger in population but also much poorer (China and India) and there are a small number of countries which are somewhat richer, but much, much smaller. Population size does matter for the comparison too because we’re taking averages and medians to generate these sorts of statistics so it should be no surprise that countries that are, in effect, small sample sizes can produce greater outlier results; it is much harder to get on the thin end of the distribution with a very large sample set, yet the United States has clearly done this. If one, for instance, compares the EU (far closer to the United States collectively in land area and population) rather than its exceptional1 smaller components the difference becomes obvious: the EU average GDP per capita – despite being a union made up almost entirely of developed countries – is still 30% lower than the United States.

Now one might complain about measuring GDP per capita on the grounds that inequality – and the United States has quite high inequality for a developed country – means that much of that wealth doesn’t filter down. Which is true, but besides the point as the United States also has an uncommonly high median adult income, second in the OECD behind only tiny Luxembourg.2 So while inequality in the United States remains high, its economy also delivers a very high economic3 standard of living to the general population; indeed, much higher than any country of remotely comparable size.

This is of course a product of the fact that the United States is the largest economy in the world measured by the absolute value of the goods produced (that is, nominal GDP).4 Now you can argue that literally tremendous economy also produces inequality, that it doesn’t fund the government services you want or that it is generally crass and morally undesierable in some way and that’s fine. What you can’t argue is that it isn’t exceptional or great. It is, indeed, in a literal sense, the most exceptional and greatest economy presently or ever; countries stuck around subsistence are very common. Countries with nominal GDPs above $25trillion – well that is literally only ever happened once.5 That is in part because US worker productivity is very high (roughly equal with Germany) and in part because American companies have been remarkably successful. Of the largest companies in the world by revenue, the United States has four in the top ten (including both the gold and bronze medals), eight in the top twenty, and 23 of the top fifty, handily beating out China, the runner-up (3 in the top 10, 5 in the top 20, 13 in the top 50).6 At the same time the combination of an outsized economy and a high median income (thus meaning that households have lots of disposable income) means that the United States is capable of doing very big things; it has a lot of ‘surplus’ production which can be channeled into this or that.

Consequently, the United States dominates the global economy in a way that no other country does and no other country has ever done; the British Empire at its height comes closest but it existed in a system of economic ‘great powers,’ whereas the United States has, at most, just one peer economy in China. Yet for the size of its economy, China lacks many of the structural economic advantages of the United States. The US dollar remains the most commonly used international and reserve currency in the world; it’s roughly 60% share of global currency reserves effectively unchanged since the fall of the Soviet Union. And either through direct dollarization, official pegs or de facto currency pegs, the dollar serves as the currency or currency substitute of more countries than any other (though a number of countries have also anchored to the Euro). Meanwhile, because the United States hosts the largest financial center in the world (New York City) and its close allies host the next two most important (London and Tokyo), the United States with its allies (see below) is able to functionally set the rules for the global economy.

The United States is thus effectively unique: the only country to combine a large population with a very high per capita income. As implied in some of the comparisons above, the closest other candidates for ‘big countries with high income’ are Japan (125m people, $39.2k GDP per capita) and Germany (83m people, $51.86k GDP per capita) countries that are both smaller and poorer on average than the United States. And please note, poorer, not poor. Obviously both Germany and Japan are ‘rich’ countries. But that fact makes the United States’ economy both obviously exceptional and clearly great. Indeed, by absolute size, it is the greatest economy both now and at any point.


I’ll be blunt: the United States is the most technologically advanced country to have ever existed. This is a tricky metric to average because it comes so many different fields and of course many countries excel in one field or another, but no country excels in anywhere near as many fields or on as many metrics as the United States does when it comes to technology or the production of knowledge.

We can start with universities. The United States makes up 4.25% of the world’s population but around half of its top research universities. Ranking universities is to a degree subjective but one may take an average of the rankings (I’ll use this one) to get at least a rough sense of the state of things; a merely rough sense will do because the disparity is so massive nothing more precise is required. Eight of the top ten universities worldwide are American; 13 of the top 20; 23 of the top 50; 38 of the top 100. That is, to put it bluntly, preposterous, and no other country’s university system compares (though of course there are many fine universities in other countries!). It is certainly exceptional. Indeed, anyone with even a passing familiarity with academic hiring in either the STEM or humanities fields will be well aware that it has been true for decades and remains true that the flow of top-tier academic talent is towards the United States rather than away and for good reason.7

The same dominance is visible in the tech economy (indeed, the two go hand-in-hand). As Forbes counts it, of the ten largest tech companies in the world, 7 are American; 13 of the top 20. That level of dominance too is preposterous. The obvious comparison point would be the EU – a collection of developed economies roughly the same size as the United States when put together – which has just two entries on the list.8 Software in particular is astoundingly dominated by American firms (though note that list excludes companies with substantial hardware interests); ‘internet’ companies are not quite as US dominated, but the United States still makes up a simple majority of the largest companies. The point here of counting companies is that it provides at least some window into who is producing the most advanced and popular products worldwide.

Or take another way to measure the question: the COVID-19 pandemic essentially created a sudden dramatic test of the medical and bio-tech capabilities of every country in the world at essentially the same time to develop vaccines. The most effective vaccine to result from this effort was the Moderna vaccine, developed in the United States using an entirely new technology (vaccines using mRNA); essentially tied with it for effectiveness and speed of development was the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, also using mRNA, which was a United States (Pfizer) and Germany (BioNTech) collaboration. A third vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson (or Janssen) vaccine was developed by a Dutch lab of a Belgian subsidiary of an American company (Johnson and Johnson) and so represents another EU-US joint venture.9

The tricky thing, of course, with technology is that technological advancement is just that: it is about advancement,10 and so some other country might well sprint ahead tomorrow (or might have already sprinted ahead in ways that are difficult to see), but for now the United States appears to remain at the cutting edge of technological advancement and scholarly production.


Last year we talked about how the culture of the United States was unusual: in a sea of nation-states the United States is unusual in rejecting the nation as an organizing concept; I’m hesitant to say this is a unique feature of the United States, but it certainly is unusual. The United States is already an uncommonly blended country (as discussed in the link above) and only becoming more so. And despite – or perhaps because of – the difficulties that often come with such a diverse population, the United States is also arguably the world’s oldest functioning democracy and likewise arguably has the world’s oldest still-used constitution. All of which is clearly exceptional, even accounting for recent polarization and turmoil.

Despite the heterogeneity of the United States’ population, American culture is distinctive. In particular, by at least some measurements, the United States is above and away the most individualist country in the world, an outlier even compared to other English-speaking countries (which also tend towards a strong individualist bent). The United States is also effectively alone as a high-income country which is also very religious, both in terms of saying that religion is important but also in actual religious observance like daily prayer. Of course not all exceptions are good; the United States is unusually violent for a high income country. Interestingly in both religion and violence, the United States becomes much more typical if you look at all countries but is extremely exceptional as a high income country; it might well be argued that for better and for worse one thing that seems to make the United States exceptional is that it became a rich country without adopting the normal behaviors and values of other rich countries.11

Or to put it another way, the United States is the country equivalent of a rich American that nevertheless continues to insist they’re just ‘middle class.’12

On the other hand, American culture and cultural products are pervasive in a way that no other culture has ever really been. English is the most spoken language in the world (including second language speakers, who make up a large majority of English speakers), though of course this is a consequence not merely of American influence but also a legacy of British power. On the other hand it has created an avenue for the startling pervasiveness of American culture. Of the top grossing films worldwide, American production companies are responsible for all of the top 29 before Skyfall (2012) finally gives us a non-American entry.13 Even if one takes merely the ‘international‘ (meaning non-American) box-office numbers, the top ten are still entirely American films, with Chang jin hu at 1414 at last breaking the American production or co-production sweep. To put that in perspective, only counting box office outside the United States, there are three movies featuring the character ‘Captain America’ as one of the primary heroes before the first fully non-American film on the list.

The positive impact this must have on US diplomacy seems obvious.

The point here isn’t to say that other countries don’t make good movies (they do) or that those movies aren’t successful locally (they often are), but that the US film industry is alone in having a commanding presence in every media market where it isn’t actively banned by governments. American products aren’t quite so dominant in other media – the United States clearly shares the dominant position in gaming with Japan in terms of best-selling games worldwide, for instance – but for one country to be so prominent everywhere culturally is certainly exceptional. US products utterly dominate global brand recognition, for instance. In fact this level of global pervasiveness is entirely unique, a product of American cultural pervasiveness colliding with the first emergence of a truly globalized culture, itself made possible in part by information technologies invented in the United States. That has allowed the United States to project the kind of cultural hegemony that great powers might have enjoyed in their local regions, but to do so globally for the first time. No country has ever been as culturally pervasive as the United States. As a historian I can only wonder what future historians will make of the long-term impact of the American cultural moment in shaping an emerging global culture.15

It is a stunning and singular achievement and alone would be enough to mark the United States for greatness (which again is not the same as ‘goodness’ – if you hate mass produced American films, that’s fine, the point is extent and amount, not subjective quality), the signal achievement of a world historic state and culture…were it not for the next thing.


The United States today is the most powerful country to have ever existed, by functionally every metric. Even as the diplomatic and security environment the United States faces becomes more challenging (in part by our own making), the position the United States occupies today is one no other country has ever occupied.

It is generally observed that the United States continues to have the most powerful military in the world. While the American edge in military power may have eroded since the 1990s, absolutely massive U.S. military spending continues to buy an incomparably massive amount of military power. The United States operates half of the world’s active aircraft carriers, 11 of the top 11 for raw combat power (which mostly comes down to the size of their air wing). The United States has both the world’s largest air force (the United States Air Force) and the world’s second largest air force (the U.S. Navy).16 While American military equipment is not always the best (although it frequently is), the arsenal of the United States is in the top tier of essentially every class, while frequent military interventions have established a consistent track record of high performance from the men and women of the US armed forces (albeit a much more disappointing record from the decision and policy-makers of the US government).

Moreover, the sort of comparisons that get made counting tanks or soldiers often undersell the gap in capabilities, especially when it comes to power projection. France required US logistics and airlift support in order to operate in Mali and the broader Sahel (about 2,000 miles from Paris); Russian logistics was unable to cover the trip to Kyiv (about 450 miles); the United States, by contrast, has conducted major military operations in Kuwait (1991, 6,500 miles from Washington, D.C.), Iraq (2003-2017, roughly the same distance) and Afghanistan (2001-2021, c. 6,900 miles). No other country today is capable of global power projection on remotely the same scale, at least for now.

But raw military power (‘hard power’) isn’t the only kind of power. Fortunately for the United States, it also leads in every other kind of power. Normally due to balancing behavior, we’d expect a large coalition of allies to oppose U.S. interests, but instead the opposite is true: the United States leads the largest collection of peacetime allies in human history. The United States has essentially constructed a web of interlocking alliances with the USA at the center; NATO alone makes up a simple majority of global military spending before one even considers other treaty allies of the United States like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and at least notionally most of South America. Of the ten largest economies in the world, the United States has mutual defense arrangements with seven of them (not counting itself, so eight of the ten are all on one side) and one more (India) is a ‘major defense partner’ but not a treaty ally. It is an alliance system so expansive that effective global diplomatic balancing becomes impractical; countries whose interests oppose the United States can contest American interests locally, but struggle to put together any kind of coherent anti-US bloc outside of symbolic votes in the UN.

That diplomatic ‘soft’ power has in turn enabled the United States to consolidate tremendous amounts of institutional power. The UN of course has its headquarters in New York and the United States and its close allies France and the United Kingdom collectively have a simple majority of the permanent members of the UN Security Council .17 The World Bank is headquartered in Washington D.C. and the United States has the largest voting share in its governance (followed closely by US allies Japan, Germany, France and the UK); the IMF is likewise headquartered in D.C. and every single one of its first deputy managing directors has been an American, without exception (but Stanley Fischer had dual citizenship), while the managing directorship rotates. While the WTO is notionally more neutral, once again the interests of the United States and its close allies dominate. The ironic success of all of this is that the United States created a bunch of international institutions – these are only some of them – for its own interests and then successfully convinced a critical mass of the rest of the world that these were true international institutions (a task in which the wide diffusion of American culture and thus America’s own positive self-image, played a major part).

The result is an international system where, without declaring war or instituting a blockade, the United States can, almost casually, organize a large coalition of countries to do things like banishing the world’s 11th largest economy from global financial markets, forcing that country into default in just four months. Likewise the United States has spent the last fifteen years demonstrating with some vividness the power that the United States can exert over Iran’s economy (13th largest by GDP), crippling it almost at a whim.

The result of all of this is the bizarre situation that the world’s foremost land power is also the world’s foremost naval power, which is also the world’s foremost diplomatic power, which is also the world’s foremost economic power, entrenched in the high ground of most of the world’s international institutions. One may of course argue that this situation is changing, albeit slowly, but at the moment the contrast is startling: the sphere of Russian influence does quite reach Kyiv (about 150 miles from the Russian border) and the sphere of Chinese influence does not quite reach Taipei (about the same distance, but over water), but American influence evidently reaches both despite the former being 4,300 miles and the latter 6,500 miles away from American shores.

That has never happened before; it may well never happen again. We have seen regional hegemons similarly dominant in their local neighborhoods (the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty, Achaemenid Persia, etc.) and to lack peers locally, but the United States is the first and only country to have done this on a global scale and to lack true peer competitors anywhere. Even as the ‘monopolar moment’ seems to be coming to an end, the United States’ position as ‘first among equals’ among the ‘great powers’ is historically unparalleled; no state has ever been so clearly without peers influence and power except for maybe – wait for it – the Mongols.

Now one may well argue that countries shouldn’t aspire to this sort of greatness, that this kind of power-building is an old, outdated way of thinking. And that’s a fair argument! I push my own students on this point, asking them what does ‘greatness’ mean if Alexander of Macedon was ‘great’ and if they are comfortable with that definition of greatness. But it also seems inarguable that this definition of greatness, rooted in a country’s ability to project various forms of power abroad, is by far the most common definition of greatness applied to a country and that in this oldest and most common definition of greatness the United States has succeeded and succeeded like no other state before it. And it goes without saying that being the only ever global hegemon, the United States is exceptional.


Now at the end of this you might be ready to argue (who am I kidding, no doubt at least someone stopped reading many paragraphs ago to angrily post this comment) that while yes the United States does excel by these measures, there are all sorts of other measures by which the United States does not. And you’re right! And that should hardly be surprising: most things are tradeoffs where scarce resources can be directed to some things and thus not others. This is why we are not debating what the ‘best’ country is: for someone who prefers the things that the United States traded away to get these exceptional outcomes, the United States must look like quite a terrible country.

And if I may editorialize for a moment, I think one can notice a pattern in these tradeoffs that unite many of the ways that the United States is unusual: a heady, devil-take-the-hindmost rush to the frontiers of possibility, a comfort with an ethos of (to borrow Facebook’s old motto), “Move fast and break things.” Individual liberty, expansive power (military and cultural), technological development, and economic growth end up prioritized in the United States above communal safety, domestic services or egalitarian educational or economic outcomes. To put it simply then, the United States might be typified by an emphasis on achieving greatness (as traditionally defined) above almost everything else.18 The very bigness is the goal, driving forward towards larger profits, newer technology, more clicks and views, greater military power, more allies19, damn the consequences. That’s not the only thing at the heart of America, but it is one of the things.

And on those terms it is hard not to conclude that the United States is a success, indeed, it is a country that has succeeded on those terms like no other country has ever succeeded. It has resulted in a country which is not merely exceptional, but exceptionally exceptional – that is, the United States is highly unusual in an unusually high number of ways. And, as I noted at the beginning, it is unusual in fairly obvious ways, evident enough that one has to accomplish some serious mental contortions not to notice what a strange, expansive and powerful country the United States is.

The interesting question then is not if the United States is a great country but if it will be a good country, if all of that vastness in wealth, technology, influence and power will be put towards some worthy aim, both judged against our ideals20 and against the historical behavior of other great powers.21 It’s a question that only Americans can really answer, in our doing. I strive and hope that we answer well.

Happy (belated) Fourth of July everyone. Next week we’re back to regular programming – we’re going to be looking at the nuts and bolts of keeping an army fed and moving on the march.

  1. And they are exceptional – I am not slighting here the achievements of Norway or Ireland or Luxembourg or whoever! The thing about greatness and exceptionality is that it is possible for many people (or countries) to be great and exceptional in different ways. Again, the argument here is not that the USA is best, but that it is unusual in ways tending towards greatness in some sense.
  2. Don’t worry Luxembourgers, you know we Lux you.
  3. An important word. Obviously there are many other factors in a country’s overall standard of living, many of which are difficult to quantify.
  4. Why use nominal GDP here instead of a PPP adjusted statistic? PPP is great for measuring the actual standard of living an economy produces, but if we want to know the actual raw size we are better off looking at the market value of everything produced (nominal GDP).
  5. A point which would not change with the inclusion of the EU economies all aggregated together.
  6. This despite all but two of the Chinese companies on that list being state owned.
  7. Now one may well argue that looking at other indicators of academic achievement that education in the United States is not as well distributed as in some other countries or that achievement in certain areas is not as high. And I agree! As with many things, this is a question of priorities and focus (with a dash of ‘big countries with diverse populations are harder to manage.’)
  8. Though while we are noting exceptional countries here, Taiwan and South Korea both have two entries in the top 20. With 50m people, South Korea is thus about as well represented on the list per capita as the United States, while with 23m people Taiwan punches well above its weight, even compared to the USA.
  9. And as obvious from that, this is not to say other countries didn’t slow demonstrate prowess in vaccine development, merely to note that the United States was conspicuous at the forefront (but not that it was necessarily alone there).
  10. There is also the question of distribution – that is who has access to the technologies that exist. Here one may well admit that the United States does not do as well; per capita broadband access in the USA is, for instance, higher than Japan but lower than Germany. Again I do not contend the United States is best in every category; indeed because I think many of the things here are necessarily tradeoffs, no country is likely to ever be best in every category.
  11. And of course this is a point where the issue of values becomes very clear. One could easily cast the ‘normal behaviors and values of other rich countries’ as either national maturity or godless complacency. I have no interest in litigating that debate (except to say that extremes of both positions are silly), but it is a point where one’s values are going to dictate what one thinks about the United States’ exceptional nature, but that doesn’t change the exceptionality of that nature.
  12. My better half is responsible for this joke. I am responsible for its poor delivery.
  13. Though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were both co-productions with non-American companies and based off of literary works from the UK, so there is some wiggle room here.
  14. Or alternately, Harry Potter at 12; I am going here by film producers rather than actors to try to be consistent but this does create some obvious oddities with an American-produced adaptation of a famous novel from the United Kingdom.
  15. Assuming we, as a species, make it that long.
  16. Depending on how one counts, the Russian Federation can edge into second place ahead of the U.S. Navy.
  17. Which in turn lets them force Russia and China into sometimes embarrassing self-protective vetos.
  18. Though of course geography, chance and a hundred other factors play a huge role as well.
  19. As I write this, welcome Sweden and Finland to the club! Commemorative ‘We <3 NATO’ baseball caps will be Amazon’d as soon as all of the ratification is complete.
  20. A rather high bar
  21. An extremely low bar.

498 thoughts on “Collections: Is the United States Exceptional?

  1. > The United States has both the world’s largest air force (the United States Air Force) and the world’s second largest air force (the U.S. Navy).

    It’s deeply funny to me that if you count marine aviation separately, you can add the U.S. Navy’s Army’s Navy’s Air Force as the fifth largest in the world.

    1. And also very funny that if (less justifiably) you count their aviation ships separately from the rest of the Navy then the U.S. Navy’s Army actually operates the most carriers in the world, and is easily the second largest carrier based air force.

  2. Excellent post. One other item not covered much is civic institutions and rules – based culture. We, like every country, have a bill of rights, but we can genuinely expect those rights to be respected. Beyond just our constitution our government has been far more stable than even our current rich western allies; compare our history to the previous four French republics, Edo and Meiji and Showa Japan, Naxi Germany etc.

    We have not just built the greatest culture we have maintained it

    1. For now. It will be interesting to see if we can continue to maintain it through a period of unprecedented internal strife.

      1. “[T]here is not now, nor has there been, nor will there be any–the least–idea existing in this Government of suffering a dissolution of this Union to take place in any way whatever. There will be here only one nation and one government, and there will be the same republic and the same Constitutional Union that have already survived a dozen national changes and changes of government in almost every other country. These will stand hereafter, as they are now, objects of human wonder and human affection.” William Seward, 1861

        1. Two things about the present internal strife are different.

          Unlike the 1860s, most of our political debates are very much not regional in nature. Then, there were some states that wanted the right of citizens to own slaves to be unimpaired, and would not tolerate membership in a government that might compromise this right… and there were states that either did not allow slavery, or allowed it but did not see fit to go into open revolt over it. Now, the debate is found in every state of the Union and within every town. There are areas that trend one way or the other, sometimes very heavily so, but you cannot simply draw a line on the map between the two sides, as you could between those who thought slavery was worth breaking the Union over and those who did not.

          As compared to the 1960s, the great difference is that both factions have, and struggle for, power. The Klan assassinating and bombing civil rights advocates, the race riots, the antiwar marches, the antiwar marches being fired upon, the Kennedys being assassinated, the mass protests all the things we normally think of when we say “the 1960s were an unstable time?” Nearly all of them, violent or nonviolent, involved relatively powerless groups or individuals acting in ways that ultimately did not pose any plausible chance of destabilizing the state. Even assassinating a sitting president just meant the government went on with a new president in charge, one already appointed and selected. There were no contested elections. No one showed any signs of being able or even inclined to organize a paramilitary force capable of overthrowing part or all of the national government. This time, the conflict was everywhere, but it did not prevent core institutions from being able to function. It did not turn those institutions against each other or against themselves. Thus, the US was able to continue basic functions of governance (prosecuting foreign wars, constructing infrastructure megaprojects, doing big prestige projects like the Apollo program, public health measures) largely unimpaired.

          Like the late 1850s and early 1860s, the US is now in a time where many of its most powerful civil institutions have become pawns in a factional political conflict that would seem to have its roots in deep disagreements over what rights people do and do not have, what the government should and should not do, which among the people are to prosper, and whether, in short, there are or are not to exist classes of people that the law protects but does not bind, or binds but does not protect.

          Like the 1960s, this conflict is intimately personal to Americans all over the nation, and cannot be resolved or even understood along purely geographic lines, involving as it does institutions that exist everywhere… Only now, the debate over these institutions has seized all control of the leading political factions, whose actions no longer even begin to make sense unless one understands the mighty efforts being taken to ensure that a certain ideology does or does not prevail..

          The combination makes things different.

          1. Late to the party but I’ll add two comments:

            First, the current cultural divide does not parse cleanly into geographic regions but DOES strongly divide over urban vs. rural. The urban centers are the strongholds of liberal progressivism, primarily controlled by the Democratic party, with the more sparsely populated areas being strongly conservative and Republican. Geographically, this means we have “Flyover Country” vs. the coasts, with the strong exceptions of urban enclaves in the Midwest vs. the rural edges of coastal states such as eastern Oregon and Washington State.

            Second, “to organize a paramilitary force capable of overthrowing part or all of the national government” was in fact the pipe dream of a handful of radicals like the Symbionese Liberation Army, although they failed to achieve political significance even as mere terrorists.

        1. I’d even say there is less social unrest than in the early 20th century, Lot less bombs being detonated and the government bombing strikers with airplanes.

          1. What was the actual rate of bombings in the early 1900s, as compared to the present-day rate of mass casualty terrorism incidents such as politically motivated mass shootings and people driving over protestors with their cars?

    2. “we can genuinely expect those rights to be respected”

      I’m afraid this is nowhere near as universally true as could be hoped.

      Americans–especially in recent years–face considerable barriers to respect of their rights:

      – Right to free speech is significantly curtailed by permit requirements and by unpunished state violence against peaceful protesters. (Not just recently–look up the arrests for the NYC RNC protests 16 years ago.) And by (for another example) legal punishment for, e.g., teachers acknowledging to their students that they are in same-sex relationships.

      – Religious liberty is increasingly under attack for members of less privileged religions.

      – The courts are increasingly unwilling to enforce rights against search and seizures or against self-incrimination (just google all the ways the courts have done end-runs around the right to remain silent in the face of police questioning).

      – We suffer an epidemic of coercive police questioning that leads to false confessions, and in most places, defense attorneys for non-wealthy clients are massively overworked (if not outright incompetent–look up “drunk lawyer ineffective assistance of counsel” for some real horror stories). Courts are also consistently engaged in narrowing the ability of under-represented defendants to introduce evidence of their actual innocence.

      – Even where rights nominally exist, courts are actively working to remove any effective remedy when they are violated. For instance, the recent Boule v. Egbert held that a Border Patrol officer could not be sued for ongoing retaliatory harassment of a citizen (who was being targeted for reporting the excessive force used against him when he tried to stand up for his right against a warrantless search on his property). Thus undermining both the right for redress of grievances, and the basic rights of living in peace and security.

      – The same situation applies for rights against discrimination–by removing the ability to receive damages, courts are undermining the right, since it no longer has an enforcement mechanism.

      – Voting rights are being undermined, both by the judicial undoing of the Voting Rights Act, and by acceptance of partisan gerrymandering.

      – Even property rights are under extreme threat–you may perhaps have heard of civil forfeiture?

      It is true that many of these rights are respected–for citizens who fall into socially powerful racial, class, religious, ability, and gender/sex identity categories. For others, they are not–if they ever were.

    3. I guess we’re just going to ignore how the United States has treated Native Americans, Africans, Chinese, & Japanese people in it’s history? White, preferably Protestants, can expect their rights to be respected, but it certainly isn’t true for all Americans.

      1. As an outsider looking in, the average white guy can expect their rights to be respected. Others will need to be exceptional (rich or famous) in some way before they get that privilege.

        1. The average white guy’s rights will be respected until and unless he crosses swords with a sufficiently above-average white guy. The illusion that this is not true, or the belief that if it is true, it does not matter, are both important parts of what nourishes acceptance of this state of affairs among average white guys.

      2. Considering that Chinese and Japanese complained about not being allowed to immigrate, that’s not quite so strong an argument as you think.

        I also note that you do not consider the vast majority of citizens having protected rights anything but ordinary. You should get out more.

        1. Perhaps the point in question is not whether it is ordinary for different classes of citizens to have very different levels of rights in practice.

          Perhaps the question is whether the US is in the awkward position of thinking it ought to be extraordinary in truly extending comparable rights to all citizens, while in practice moving away from this ideal. As Dr. Deveraux notes, judging the US by the standards of historical world powers is a very low bar, while judging the US by the standards of the ideals officially built into its civic culture is a very high bar.

          1. Yes, but our culture has phrases for people who take pride in being an ‘exception’ but in practice do not deviate nearly so far from the rule as they should, or as far as they claim to.

            “What do you want, a cookie?”

            There comes a point at which, for national pride’s sake, one must seriously evaluate whether one is merely embarrassing oneself by claiming to have a great deal of something, while in fact having much less of it, and in clearly dwindling quantities. Russia is now finding this out on the subject of ‘military power,’ for instance. Much of Putin’s credibility was based on the implicit or explicit claim that he had it, and now he is losing it, and in the process he is losing his respect… Because it turned out his military was a paper tiger incapable of dealing with its enemies due to prolonged corruption, neglect, and lack of resources committed to keeping it sharp.

            Well, it behooves us to at least take seriously the question of whether our liberties are in danger of being helpless to protect us against the enemies of those liberties, due to decades of corruption, neglect, mismanagement, and poor maintenance. Are we as free as we were ten or twenty years ago? Is there a danger that we will become less so? Are our core democratic processes robust, do the lower classes in our society truly enjoy rights comparable to those of the elites in terms of how they engage with the state, and so on?

    4. You had also never an enemy that found a full invasion worth it s time or had the ressources

  3. I also think US intelligence (as can be seen by the situation in Ukraine) is quite exceptional (+ five eyes as another crazy alliance as far as unique, espionage is usually not shared afaik?). Maybe I missed where these aspects mentioned however.

    1. I think it’s highly debatable whether US intelligence is exceptional. It’s had its outstanding successes, but also a lot of ignominious failures. A history of the early Cold War US intelligence community is the story of American intelligence getting taken for a ride by basically everyone – the Soviets, fascist leftovers, notional allies…

      US intelligence leans heavily on technological means, partly because we’re good at that (and can afford capabilities no one else can) and partly because historically we’ve been very bad at HUMINT.

      1. I’d be a bit careful with that take. Yes the US intelligence community has been bad or at least subpar on HUMINT and (probably) continues to be. BUT they also have typically erred on the side of being overly cautious. This may end up being expensive (i.e. paying for worthless stuff) but is ultimately irrelevant (or at least turned out to be*). So when it comes down to it, i.e. being the provider of information relevant to national security, they have been exceptionally successful.
        The worst failure in recent history resulted in a body count of less than 5k. Hardly relevant for the national security of the US. That this resulted in a tie-up of US interest for the next 20 years is completely self-inflicted damage

        * There is certainly some survivor bias in there.

  4. > To put it simply then, the United States might be typified by an emphasis on achieving greatness (as traditionally defined) above almost everything else. The very bigness is the goal, driving forward towards larger profits, newer technology, more clicks and views, greater military power, more allies, damn the consequences. That’s not the only thing at the heart of America, but it is one of the things.

    This reminds me very much of your description of Rome, the Socii, and the incentives for the aristocracy to always aim for more military power.

    1. To make a fannish comparison, the US is Captain Kirk. Yes, that includes the ‘tinpot dictator with delusions of godhood’ part, too. But ‘To boldly go’ is also in there as well.

  5. This post honestly feels in pretty bad faith tbh. I don’t think people frequently deny “greatest” in the literal sense of largest or richest or most powerful etc, they disagree either with the inherent implication that it is good (and/or put to good use), or that it achieved that status through uniquely and inherently American qualities.

    The former is quite obviously not as simple to justify, and it’s honestly kind of distasteful to agree with considering both US internal politics as of today and US history (what it has done to build it’s “exceptionalism”, or even worse as a result of that belief), so I’m glad you specifically noted you weren’t arguing against that.

    The latter largely comes down to the motive of the person expressing the exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is rarely as blunt as “We have the highest GDP”, it tends to be people pointing to highly nebulous, subjective, and/or not at all uniquely American values. “Protestant work ethic”, or the “age of the Constitution” (as if even the founding fathers themselves would have considered that a good thing!), or as you opened with: “Freedom”.

    Jeff Daniel’s character may have been wrong in terms of the numbers used, but the sentiment that America is not unique still applies whether it’s 180 countries or 89. 88 fellows is still a crowd. Whether it’s exceptional in the literal statistical sense, that is dubious too considering the subjective nature of values like “Freedom.”

    For example as an Australian I can easily say Americans are less free than I am, and an American can say the opposite and there is absolutely no contradiction, just different perspectives. Does having stronger hate speech and anti-discrimination laws mean I am less free than the American because laws restrict my actions? Or am I more free with protection from those who would target me with abuse or violence, or at least restrict me to a lower status as a vilified minority? The same subjective preferences can be applied to a whole host of freedoms, from media laws, environmental regulations, gun laws, abortion rights etc.

    And even the above cited statistics aren’t immune to the whims of interpretation, given the long history of government funded non-profits as a US geopolitical tool. Freedom House has been accused of biasing it’s rankings based on the willingness of other states to go along with US economic and geopolitical policy, let alone the dubious nature of incredibly sweeping categories such as “Free”, “Partially Free” and “Not Free”. I can easily say US democracy has been a bare-minimum for decades now considering the unrepresentative nature of it’s electoral system, poor voter turnout, first-past-the-post voting, and rampant gerrymandering and voter suppression (And 2005 was not long after Bush vs. Gore)! Yet the US is still listed under the same “Free” label that countries with far more stable and representative democratic systems get.

    Basically I think you ignored most of the reason people find American exceptionalism frustrating (and interesting) and argued against a strawman. American exceptionalism and the anger it provokes has never meaningfully been about hard statistics such as military size or GDP, it’s been about values, so I’m not sure why you’re frustrated by others finding that version a lot more difficult to answer!

    1. I think it’s important to note the distinction between the fact that the US is, in some (or many) ways, exceptional, and the idea of ‘exceptionalism’, where US citizens or politicians advocate some (typically foreign) policy, people point out that historically, this has (almost) always led to bad results, and this is dismissed with an argument resembling “but we’re the USA, the greatest country in the world, and we’re different, so it’ll work out for us”.

    2. I agree with this, speaking as an American and thus with an internal view instead of an external one. By far the largest number of times I head ‘great’ and ‘america’ together are in the slogan ‘make america great again’ (which is obviosuly an extremely charged phrase); the second most common is politicians breathlessly patting themselves on the back for running the greatest country on earth. While in either case, the definition of ‘great’ meaning ‘big and important’ isn’t incompatible with the phrasing, I think it’s obvious from context that the majority of the time the word is used to describe america, it is with the (also dictionary!) definition of ‘very good’. The phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ does not mean that our country is rich and powerful; it means (wrongly, I think) that there’s something about the American *character* which is exceptionally *good*.

      I think the thinkpiece cited in the opening *also* got its wires crossed, and argued against the wrong definition of ‘great’. In attempting to defend that definition, this article is arguing against a phantom: a claim nobody of note is really disputing, while implicitly heading off attempts to argue against the *real* claim, which is that America is great in the sense of very good.

      As a more minor nitpick, I do object to the use of median income as a measure of wealth distribution. A hypothetical country which was 30% slave (with 0 income) and 70% free (with equitable wealth distribution among its citizens) would be tremendously inequitable and still probably punch above its weight class in median income. I’d be much more interested in lower quantiles, like the 10th, 5th, even 1st. Does the US still have the highest incomes at lower percentiles? If not, how low do you have to go before its surpassed? Is there a value where it starts looking ‘normal’ instead of exceptional? Is there a value where it stops looking like a rich country at all?

      1. I mostly agree with your comment, just want to point something out in regard to averaging measures. You think median is not a great measure and you construct an example where it isn’t, but in practice, if you make a distribution of some value, mean tends most towards any thin tails while the median tends closer to the thickest part of it. Thus in practice in most real economies (which may have a practically slave underclass, but nearly all have a king/aristocracy) the mean will be higher than the median. The low percentiles can still show where exactly the distribution really becomes thick though.

    3. “I think you ignored most of the reason people find American exceptionalism frustrating (and interesting) and argued against a strawman.”

      I disagree.

      When people say “the US is not a good country,” they do so polemically (in the technical sense): they expect you to agree with them. That agreement requires, as a logical precondition, either (a) that there is no possible set of values at which the US can excel or (b) that you and your interlocutor share (or should share) values.

      (a) would be a useful claim, if true. But the point of Devereaux’s post here is that it is false. Given the diversity of all humanity, I think it plausible that point in the space of tradeoffs is inhabited; no matter what a country chooses to excel at, there will always be someone who would like the country to excel at those things. Thus to claim that there is no set of values w.r.t. which the US is good means arguing that there is nothing at which the country excels — or equivalently that the country is great.

      OTOH, (b) is not a useful claim to essay (and inapropos for a July 4th post). If you and your interlocutor share values, then your almost certainly already agree on whether the US is good. Conversely, we tend to judge values by their effects. “[Object X] is bad” is rarely an convincing argument; much more persuasive is “[X object] is good.” (Also relevant: every winning US presidential candidate since at least Reagan had a brighter messaging tone than their opponent.)

      Moreover, the US is famous for an extremely open political system (to citizens, anyways), free emigration, and a relatively (but only relatively) open immigration policy. Simply exclaiming that the US fails to match your preferences doesn’t help anyone improve that mismatch. Much more constructive is to attempt to analyze the ways in which the US already chooses to excel, because then you know what to ask of your elected officials (or what to look in your new country for when you emigrate).

    4. > I don’t think people frequently deny “greatest” in the literal sense of largest or richest or most powerful etc

      You’d be surprised.

      Many people vastly underestimate the economic behemoth that the USA are. At least many europeans do. They’ll argue about standard of living, about freedom and security, healthcare and the price of housing, but they’ll miss the fact that the USA are extremelly wealthy. I sometime discuss online with French people who moved to the USA to get a better salary. Well, discuss, better say argue; they seem to fail to recognize that they’re essentially economic migrants, lured to the USA by its wealth.

      That’s the same with research really, people will fail to notice how much wealth the USA pour into research and will argue about Europe and China like they’re even in the competition.

      About the most powerful, well, Russia reputation isn’t quite high nowadays but many underestimated the US military or rather overestimated the Russian one (and maybe the Chinese one?). And some poor souls also believe an united Europe would be able to compete militarily!

      And the same is true about the other fields Bret wrote about. And those misconceptions I believe aren’t limitated to europeans, I guess many americans share them (and maybe russians or chineses or japaneses or whoever). People are simply bad at comprehending how the USA are a world hegemon.

      1. How is that different from french working in germany or india?

        We could in our area why should we worldwide

        1. It could be argued french working in Germany are economic migrants, because Germany is wealthier than France (also something many people seem not to realize). But I’d disagree because France and Germany are very close partners and both are in the EU, so it’s quite simple changing country and it’s a different experience than working abroad (it’s closer to changing city inside a country I’d say, not necessarily trivial to many people, nonetheless quite easy if you wish to).

          India on the other hand is poorer than France. French people there are either expats or people migrating for non-economic reasons. Expats tend to be skilled workers, paid handsomely by their firms (to compensate living abroad) and most don’t try to assimilate to local culture (I also frequently read that French expats tend to be quite obnoxious and patronizing to locals).

          The line between economic migrants and expats is quite arbitrary though*;

          1. While they are obviously economic migrants by any standards, I do think that it becomes a fair bit more complicated when looking at individual cases: Eg. It’s not neccessarily about general richness and more about demand for specific skills. (eg. I know plenty of people who have moved to “poorer” countries because their particular job was in high demand and could command a higher salary there)

          2. Economists usually distinguish between income (consumption plus change in wealth) and wealth (assets less liabilities). German incomes are higher than French income by pretty much any measure one choses, but the reverse tends to be true insofar as wealth is concerned.

      2. Refusing to call oneself an economic migrant is rather par for the course for citizens of rich countries. Instead they call themselves “expatriates”.

    5. Agreed. The post makes a solid case that the USA is exceptionally great without that saying anything about whether it’s good. Pretty much any time I see someone saying “the USA is the greatest country in the history of the world!” it’s very obvious that they do mean that it’s the best (either that it’s the best country to live in, with the most or possibly only real freedom and liberty, or that it’s the most virtuous in several ways, or just that being the one with the highest score in the game’s rankings makes it inherently the best because that kind of greatness is a virtue in itself). This post feels like a correct argument on a technical point that sidesteps what it’s supposed to be responding to.

      1. It’s a bit like trying to defend a statement such as “Black lives matter” or “Blue lives matter” by arguing that black people or police officers have a right to life and we should try to uphold that right — not technically *wrong*, so much as missing the point of what people *actually* mean when they make those statements.

    6. Do you have reason to believe you have a large and unskewed sample so you can confidently state that it is not normal? Is so, how do you determine that his sample is not skewed in some manner so that he has met many outliers?

    7. “Protestant work ethic”, or the “age of the Constitution” (as if even the founding fathers themselves would have considered that a good thing!), or as you opened with: “Freedom”.

      If we’re talking about age of constitution, I think the Republic of Venice probably wins: they managed to last for some 1,100 years, from the Republic’s founding c. 697 until it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1797.

      (Of course, its constitution went through a lot of changes during that period, but the US Constitution has also gone through major changes in how it’s practically implemented.)

    8. 100% agreed. While he makes some good points, I think his definition of “great” is far too literal (although I appreciate that he differentiates between “powerful” and “good”) and it’s quite laughable to treat a statistic about which countries are “free” as anything approaching objective or unbiased (not that a random guess like 180 is better, but still). Most of the argument here isn’t wrong, but it also misses the point in many ways.

      1. What is the unbiased number of free countries? What are the flaws in Freedom House’s analysis that you can quickly and objectively correct?

  6. You could add to your “power” hit list that measured by budget size, the NYPD is in the world top ten of armed forces. That a state has a city with a police that can compare strength with the top world military powers is exceptional to be certain. It most certainly is not good though, any way you spin it.

    1. It can compare in budget. I doubt they can compare in strength, given their questionable organizational competence (comparing the NYPD with the saudi military – overfunded but incompetent and with no real push to become good at its state job – seems appropriate).

      1. Also, equipment — men with pistols aren’t going to be much use on the battlefield compared to men with proper military rifles, tanks, artillery, etc.

        1. I will concede that NYPD does not have tanks (by the technical definition of the recent post), but it definitely has proper military rifles, as well as an extensive collection of armored personnel carriers (both tracked and untracked) and at least one self-propelled mortar.

          It’s hard to overstate the level of militarization of US policing.

          1. Sure but top ten armed forces means (according to Wikipedia) striking out Egypt (size) or South Korea (budget). For comparison Isreal is 29th (size) or 15th (budget). While I wouldn’t necessarily bet on Egypt, I’m reasonably certain South Korea can hold its own and I’m absolutely certain Israel won’t even take this seriously 😉

            I still take the point of the NYPD being a sizeable force, but let’s keep it in perspective

            PS: The Swiss army would be budget-wise comparable.

          2. It’s hard to overstate the level of militarization of US policing.

            Even the most militarised police department is nowhere near as militarised as an actual military, and even if they were, they don’t have the training and doctrine necessary to use their equipment.

    2. Err… 5 minutes with Google suggested an NYPD budget of $5.3B US, good for about #40 on the list of military spending by nation state. Or are you using a different set of numbers?

      1. I’ve just checked number of personnel on Wikipedia. NYPD has just over 50,000 employees, which in numerical terms would place it either 50th on the list (if we compare it to the number of active service personnel) or 90th (if we compare it to the total number of personnel, including reservists and paramilitaries). Either way, it’s not exactly top-tier stuff.

  7. Very clearly, US is at least the greatest PR project ever, we might see very much different statistics otherwise.

    1. There are quite a view steps between pointing out that all of these statistics are basically the US investigating its own greatness and claiming that all of them are falsified nonsense

      1. I didn’t mean stats cheated, but we could have seen which country has the greatest prison population or most nukes used.

        1. Most nukes used is us for sure. Also probably most enemy civilians killed in firestorms. Most POWs murdered? I would guess Japan. Most enemy civilians murdered? Probably Germany. Most enemy civilians raped? Either Russia or Japan (both very rapey armies). Most fellow citizens murdered? Russia. Most fellow citizens killed in civil war? China. Take your pick, but I never meet anyone desperate to move to one of the other winners named above.

        2. “Most nukes used” seems to be an argument in favor of greatness as Bret is defining it.

  8. There’s much that’s convincing and informative here, but also some that oversteps the mark.

    If we had three identical countries and two of them merged, would that country now be “greater” than the other? It would have twice the GDP, twice the land area, and twice the population, but if people’s lives are identical in both countries, merely stacking up more of the same does not feel like greatness to me.

    US GDP numbers are inflated by economization compared to comparable countries; in particular healthcare spending in the US is considered part of the private economy and therefore contributes to GDP, whereas in most rich countries the same activities happen thorough government expenditure which doesn’t. But there’s also a greater tendency for household chores, minor maintenance etc. to be done through the formal economy in the US, which can inflate GDP even when it makes no change to real productivity.

    And pointing out that Taipei is resisting Chinese influence while on their doorstep seems distinctly dishonest without acknowledging that Cuba does much the same in the US’ own backyard. The US has indeed projected force further than many, but if you discount French force projection based on needing US assistance then you should also acknowledge that the US invasions of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan relied on substantial assistance from the UK, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others. (Conversely the UK was able to successfully contest the Falklands, 8000 miles away, in a conflict where the US was officially committed to neutrality, although in practice I understand a significant amount of logistical support took place).

    I found the points about cultural dominance and dominance of institutions much more convincing (and concerning).

    1. You don’t know much about national income accounting, if you think government spending isn’t part of GDP.

    2. >If we had three identical countries and two of them merged, would that country now be “greater” than the other? It would have twice the GDP, twice the land area, and twice the population, but if people’s lives are identical in both countries, merely stacking up more of the same does not feel like greatness to me.

      That is why he is using per capita figures

      >US GDP numbers are inflated by economization compared to comparable countries

      I’m gonna need a citation for that

      >in particular healthcare spending in the US is considered part of the private economy and therefore contributes to GDP, whereas in most rich countries the same activities happen thorough government expenditure which doesn’t.

      GDP = C + I + G + NX

      Take a guess as to what the G stands for

      1. > That is why he is using per capita figures

        He’s using a mix of both.

        > GDP = C + I + G + NX

        Right, so in most rich countries only the COGS for healthcare contributes to GDP (as G). Whereas for the US the (considerably higher) sales price of healthcare is counted towards GDP instead (as C).

        1. Way off base. In every developed country, the bulk of healthcare is paid for by a mix of insurance companies and the government (the precise mix varies by country). In all cases, the amount actually spent is included in GDP.

          1. > In every developed country, the bulk of healthcare is paid for by a mix of insurance companies and the government

            That may be sort of true if you include cases where it’s all paid by the government.

            > In all cases, the amount actually spent is included in GDP.

            Sure, but the amount “actually spent” is even more inflated when it’s paid by an insurance company – plenty of stories of insurance getting billed 5x, 10x or 50x what a “cash patient” is charged, let alone the actual underlying cost that a governmental provider would pay.

            Americans get paid inflated salaries and then immediately spend a chunk of that on inflated healthcare costs; this juices GDP but doesn’t represent any increase in real production.

  9. I think you missed a spot, in that you didn’t point out that American geography is also the greatest in the world. Nobody else has anything as good as the Mississippi river system, great plains, great lakes, barrier islands, and the defensive position of an island, while also being a continent

    1. Tim Marshall makes this point, among others, in Prisoners of Geography. The US has a uniquely advantageous geography in several ways.

      1. Which is why the Mound Builders rule the world.

        It’s doing stuff with what you have that makes you great.

        (Which is only one flaw in that book of post hoc reasoning.)

        1. You also need the appropriate technologies to use that geography – like an appropriate array of domesticated plants and animals. The Native Americans had limited options on that front, and so while Cahokia was very impressive in it’s day, it could only do so much. Add to that no resistance to new world diseases and very few options in what diseases to inflict back on the new world, and there was little they could do. This is relatively common – the English didn’t invent deepwater navigation, that was the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Germans didn’t invent industrialization, that was the English, but in both cases once the technologies were invented, they had the chance to apply them. The people of Cahokia, on the other hand, never had that opportunity. The first they knew of the new world was when new world diseases were annihilating their populations. :/

          I’d actually put forth Zeihan’s books – that’s where I got these ideas from.

          1. …Exactly what? “The US Geography is only TRULY exceptional once it establishes trade connections with Eurasia and can absorb required technology?” Sure, I guess, but given that already happened I don’t see what it matters. :/

      2. It’s geography is turning out to be a disadvantage in the era of climate change. The Appalachians and Rockies funnel Arctic weather south and Gulf weather north, making extremes more extreme.

    2. Canada and Russia also have pretty impressive geography with long rivers, some of the world’s largest freshwater lakes (Russia has Baikal and Canada of course shares the Great Lakes), and vast expanses of boreal forest (which is, today, probably the world’s largest and most significant semi-intact natural ecosystem).

      1. Canada and Russia have a lot of wilderness because that wilderness is too cold to support large numbers of people. Why do you think Canada’s population is so much smaller than the U.S.?

        1. Sure, but I don’t value geography and nature solely by the criterion of “how useful are these environments for settling large quantities of people”.

          The Russian and Canadian boreal forests, lakes and tundra are worth admiring and preserving for their own sake, not because they’re useful to people necessarily.

          1. Sure, but pretty or not, they’re not going to enable Canada or Russia to become World Hegemons. When I say ‘greatest geography’, I mean ‘most powerful geography’, and the US definitely has that.

  10. From what I understand about US history historiography (I am no expert mind you), American Exceptionalism is an ideological project. I for the sake of argument can grant you all of the material and political factors as true, and still deny American Exceptionalism. This is because American Exceptionalism is a normative proposition – namely that the US is a uniquely ethical power in its conduct among nations as compared to the cold amoralism of the “old world.” That the US is a providential power from its founding, and that its prosperity and influence are a reflection of that providence.

    You can trace this idea back to the idea that the US is a “city on a hill” and in the 19th century ideology of Manifest Destiny. This is obviously a gross simplification, but there is also a further claim that the US’s behavior springs forth from its distinctive institutions and values (i.e. free markets, liberty, human rights). One observes this writ large during the period of the First World War in Wilsonian Idealism.

    I think you can look at the League of Nations and later the post-WW2 Bretton Woods system and the subsequently the Marshall Plan as some of the best exemplars pointing to the veracity of this uniquely “moral” aspect of US policy.

    Yet the key element of American Exceptionalism is not that the US is uniquely powerful state by every empirical measure, but that it is a morally superior state apparatus compared to previous attempts at empire and hegemony. It is this claim that I think even passing acquaintance with US diplomatic practice renders false.

    The US, as most states before it has ruthlessly acted on behalf of its perceived interests. I think how the US has attempted to remake the world order in its own image is unique, but has just as often backfired in contemporary times. I recently read through the Afghanistan Papers (available at the Washington Post), and the biggest take away I came away with is that US policy makers and diplomats attempted to graft on an ideology-in-a-box onto a society without the requisite civil society and economic basis for a modern capitalist-democratic state. (Disclaimer: this is not to claim that Afghanistan can’t develop that capacity, but that given political and and military neglect, US moralism and ideology undermined the effort to make Afghanistan a functional state.)

    Properly understood, American Exceptionalism is a claim about American self-perception, rather than an empirical claim.

    1. Eh, the oldest reference to it I have heard is Marx arguing that it’s not a counterexample but an exception. (And would not stay so. When in reality, it gained company.)

      1. Both of them did, but I think the US record on that front is worse. Soviet rhetoric about world revolution aside, they ended up being very much willing to work, trade, and cooperate with countries that had very different economic, political and ideological systems than they did. The United States has always been addicted to spreading its own values all over the globe, and remains so today. (I also disagree strongly with the *content* of the American value complex but that’s a separate issue).

      2. I would say that the USSR made a greater effort relative to its size and economic strength to alter the shape of the world in its image, but that the United States had the resources to make a much larger effort. The US also had the advantage of piggybacking on efforts by older nations to create a world order favorable to itself; by the time the US emerged as a power with real global influence, it was operating within a ‘default state’ of international trade organized along certain lines and open to certain kinds of institutions, but closed to others. Open to some races of people, relatively closed to others.

        However, the world order the US operates within is not simply the natural condition of things; men have been consciously shaping it to be the way it is since the days of Prince Henry the Navigator, over half a millennium ago. The United States has continued to cultivate these structures, taking full advantage of them, whereas the USSR has constantly had to “cut against the grain” in order to accomplish much of anything.

        It is very hard to disentangle ways in which the USSR failed because it was bad at doing things from ways in which the USSR failed because it was one large country starting from a position of relative poverty and weakness, contending against several countries of much greater combined strength and wealth.

        1. Nah, the USSR made much greater efforts. It was much more fundamental to them, being Marxists.

          It failed because Marxism is fundamentally wrong.

          1. How many major foreign military interventions did the USSR undertake during the Cold War in order to spread (and not merely defend) a Marxist ideology?

            The two biggest great power proxy conflicts of the Cold War were Korea and Vietnam: the USSR contributed minimal direct resources to either, while the USA was up to its elbows in both. Cuba was a homegrown revolution, in which the USSR intervened militarily only once the communists were already in power. Interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were likewise an attempt to *preserve* rather than *spread* Marxist government and ideology. Most of the rest of the time, the USSR dealt with the governments of countries as they were, rather than making overt attempts at regime change. It had covert ops all over the place and funded a lot of political campaigns, but no more than the USA.

            The only real counterexample I can think of is Afghanistan, but the mere fact that it’s often considered “the Soviet Vietnam” rather points to that being in line with American activities.

          2. First, when you say “the USSR made much greater efforts,” it would sound more credible and less like you are repeating a mantra if you could provide something with countable numbers attached. If you say “the USSR had more land area than the United States,” or the opposite, we have a clear idea what you mean. How are you meansuring ‘efforts to spread their ideology?’ Are you measuring a constant dollar amount each side spent? A percentage of the time and effort of top political leaders? What’s your standard of comparison here? Or is this a mantra, based on the idea of what you think ‘Marxists’ are and do, and is that idea accurately connected to reality?

            Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, there was a debate within the Bolsheviks about whether to focus on fomenting international revolution or on internal development. The internal development faction won; that was Stalin. The external development faction was Trotsky, who wound up dead to an assassin after being forced into exile. “Marxists” are not all a set of closely self-similar identical ideological robots who all believe the same things and do the same things, any more than, say, “Adam Smith-ists” or “John Locke-ists.”

            While we’re at it, on the subject of how to measure efforts to spread ideology. If the United Fruit Company spends millions in a Central American country to maintain a government friendly to United Fruit’s operations in the ‘banana republic,’ is that “effort spent to spread capitalist ideology?” It’s not being spent by a government, but it’s very directly helping to make sure that capitalism has a safe place in that society and that no competing perspectives are allowed to take root or undermine the purity of capitalism in that country. We’d certainly count it as “effort spent to spread communism” if Moscow funded a communist uprising against the United Fruit-backed regime, so it seems logical to count the effort United Fruit spent sustaining that regime in the first place. Remember that all societies have social rules and constructs; the system of the world as we know it is not a default condition of things that emerged naturally at the beginning of time. We live in a world order built and shaped by specific people and factions and nations, and it was shaped that way for specific reasons.

          3. Have you ever heard of the Communist Party and how it was dedicated to the purposes of spreading Communism and obedience to the USSR?

      3. Did they? They were certainly far less successful. The world is made in the image of the United States, not the Soviet Union.

          1. The conclusion is that the US won, not because it spent more resources, but because it had a better model.

            The key supporting evidence would be that the US did spend fewer resources ensuring that its ideology would prevail. It would be very interesting to see evidence for this claim, rather than repetition of a mantra.

          2. No, the claim is merely that it was a better model. This is shown by who forcibly kept people from going where.

          3. The key supporting evidence would be that the US did spend fewer resources ensuring that its ideology would prevail. It would be very interesting to see evidence for this claim, rather than repetition of a mantra.

            To be fair, I think you could make a case that extracting more resources (which can be used on, inter alia, spreading your beliefs throughout the world) is itself a sign of a better model.

    2. This is much closer to my understanding of what is meant when the claim that America is exceptional/the greatest is made. I think it’s why the stock responses to it are ‘but what about the wealth inequality, or the racial inequality, or the imperialism, or the low freedom score’ rather than ‘but Switzerland is richer’. People get the intended meaning of the phrase.

      It’s probably just as well that there’s a moral contingent to it though. If there wasn’t even the slightest hint of America even wanting to be more humane than previous hegemons I expect the world would be a more violent place.

  11. Firstly, I need to state that I love this blog.

    Secondly, I don’t see a point of this post? As Mousey already said, no one claims US is not the biggest economic, military,etc power.

    When people are annoyed by American exceptionalism they are annoyed because is it claimed that the greatness you describe comes not from absolutely amazing geographic position and other concrete stuff (but let’s not kid ourselves, everything else comes from that starting point – melting pot culture was enabled by masses of immigrants that came in large part due to abundant land), but from some indefinite spirit of Great American Nation.

    Those claims that America is special in some immaterial way annoy people, not their big GDP.

    1. This, basically.

      The problem with American Exceptionalism is not that it claims the US of A is exceptional (it clearly is!) but that it claims that the exceptional power and prosperity of the US is directly and primarily attributable to some sort of inherent superiority of US culture or people. Which is a much more questionable claim.

      As people have already noted, the US enjoyed many many technological (in the sense of starting with a tech base cribbed from Britain), economic and political advantages that had little if anything to do with any moral, cultural or organizational superiority on our part and lots to do with Geography and Historical circumstance that we had little if any agency over.

      1. You are saying that the economic and political characteristics of a society are independent of and unrelated to its cultural and organizational characteristics?

        1. Of course it’s not completely unrelated. But if you want to claim that cultural and organizational characteristics have more impact on economic and political circumstances than geographical and historical circumstances do then you’ll have to substantiate that.

  12. A good discussion of the many ways in which the USA is undeniably the greatest, and well-tempered with consideration that this doesn’t make it the… well, I’m sorry to disagree, but greatest. The connotation of the word as meaning “best” is simply too well-established to topple with pedantry, be that the blog name or no.

    That said I would have to urge even greater caution than that. When people argue from “like it or not, the USA is exceptional,” they are usually either arguing that the USA cannot or should not imitate other countries in ways that work for those other countries – “we can’t have working public transportation, we’re the You Ess of Ay!” – or that the future of the country will not resemble the trajectories of other historic countries in similar situations – “it can’t happen here!” Or, thinking of it, a third direction: that the USA, being exceptional, should not be grouped with other imperial powers of history. Bear in mind that outside the academic bubble, the entirely unironic belief that It’s Not Wrong When God’s Chosen Do It is very widespread in the country, and applies to nations just as much as individuals.

    But at the same time, I think a lot of people who argue that the USA is not exceptional as a rebuttal to those points need to reckon with the issues Devereaux raises. Sure, the USA does not actually have such bizarre humans or geography or such infallible institutions or such a unique status among nations as to be outside of history. But it is exceptional, and must be treated exceptionally – it is not enough to attempt the same things that worked in European countries and then when it fails and Americans are left holding a half-prototyped ‘hyperloop’ instead of working light rail, to look around bewildered and say “ugh, I bet American Exceptionalism did this.” God smiles, they say, on results.

    1. Every argument I have seen against public transportation turns on the greater distances to be covered or that it would interfere with the use of the railway system to haul freight.

      1. China seemed to have pretty good public transportation when I worked there a few years ago, and it’s about the same size as the US.

        1. It actually has too much high speed rail, most of the lines are underpopulated and so run at a massive loss.
          Also China has issues with ‘Tofu dreg’ buildings which collapse after five years due to corner cutting.

          1. Underpopulated and running at a loss does not necessarily mean those lines should not exist however. It’s a matter of perspective, and I’m sure the people actually serviced by those lines would disagree that it’s “too much” rail.

          2. Depends. Could it be more effectively done by private car? Especially given the added advantages of private car? That is, once you factor out that social credit is a lot harder to apply to cars.

          3. Is profit the only measure for public transport, how much do your roads make?

          4. The Chinese government may be expecting those lines to pay off better in the future as population patterns shift. Sometimes they plan ahead for a few decades.

            Of course, sometimes they forget to carry the two in their long range planning, I’m sure, so it remains to be seen whether building a lot of things before they are immediately needed turns out to be a good move or a bad move.

            Then again, the US built a lot of freeways and suburbs that then acted like giant vacuum cleaners pulling whole demographics out of the areas they had once lived in, to new areas under new circumstances. It’s just that when we did it, it was a public-private partnership and many of the motives for doing it were kept a bit quieter.

          5. In the sixties, the UK thought they had “too much rail” and drastically cut back on local lines that ran at a loss. The effect was that the people who used to use those ‘feeder’ lines stopped using trains altogether, resulting in lower passenger numbers on the main lines, and thus moving the problem, instead of fixing it.

            Promises to replace those rail lines with buses never materialized.

            See the Beeching Report on how to effectively destroy your infrastructure.

      2. Suburban sprawl makes it a bit hard, but that’s because of how we do suburbs. If we allowed more duplexes, smaller houses on smaller lots, etc then our suburbs would be dense enough to support more public transportation.

        1. Ah, so the problem is that the riffraff don’t live in housing convenient to your desire but that which they prefer. That is not quite the argument you think it is.

          1. On the contrary, the problem is that lopsided planning laws (mostly rushed through during a race panic) forbid many people from building or living in the kind of place they want to.

            US tech billionaire Paul Graham spent about a year looking for a town that would be pleasant to raise a family in in the US, and eventually gave up and moved to Cambridge.

          2. The ethos of tech billionaires is probably somewhat sui generis, but I can confidently state that very few Americans want to live in Cambridge, Mass.

          3. “very few Americans want to live in Cambridge, Mass.”

            From context, I would guess Graham moved to Cambridge UK.

            Also, housing prices in Cambridge MA indicate that actually quite a lot of Americans would like to live there — and in other dense cities — if they could afford it. The market has spoken.


            “the problem is that the riffraff”

            Do you like it when people put words in your mouth, Mary, that you feel free to do it to others?

            As for choice, US zoning laws make a mockery of “freedom” or “property rights”, typically managing land use with nearly Stalinist control. Like the old Model T Ford, in most places you can do anything with your land as long as it’s a detached single-family house on not too much of the land. Anything else and the government says “Nay, nay, nay!”

          4. the zoning laws aren’t imposed from on-high. Whatever you say about them, saying they are NOT evidence of what is desired is obviously wrong.

          5. To pick on Cambridge, MA a bit more, almost none of the buildings in the city are zoning conformant. There are plenty of people who talk about wanting to preserve the character of their neighborhoods while simultaneously keeping it quite literally illegal to even build more of the neighborhood they claim to love.

            No, the problem is that those people don’t want the riffraff, as you say, to live there. Or anywhere nearby, as far as I can tell, but also they’d also better not be homeless, either, because that looks ugly, too. As far as I can tell, the opinion is that economic growth is good, but new people should be neither seen nor heard.

          6. No, the problem is that we let rich homeowners stop everyone else from living in housing they prefer in cities, so they can reap the rewards from housing scarcity driving up their home prices.

          7. I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who thinks of people who live in detached single family suburban homes as “riffraff.” They might not be entirely complimentary about the lifestyle or the typical homeowner, but “riffraff” is a hilariously bad word for the thoughts that get expressed in reality.

            It’s like saying “you think of Martha Stewart as a slob.”

          8. Nonsense. Many Leftists do, because they aren’t doing what the Leftist line says.

          9. I’ve noticed that progressive thinkers in architecture tend to detest the single family home with a yard and want to warehouse the masses in huge, minimalist concrete structures.

          10. @Mary
            I didn’t say that leftists don’t think there is a problem with the scale of detached single family housing in the United States. I said they don’t think of the occupants of those homes as “riffraff.” For example, leftists generally disapprove of landlords, but do not consider landlords a class of “riffraff.” “Riffraff” is a specific term with a specific meaning; it does not simply mean “person who does a thing I think is a bad idea.”

            Aside from my comment to Mary above, I’ve seen some of the floor plans suggested. “Minimalist concrete structures” is generally not what they are about. Furthermore, we often see capitalists coming up with “minimalist concrete structures” when it is profitable to them to do so; I could provide examples but it would be a tangent unless you’re interested. From the samples I’m familiar with,the leftist criticism of single family homes is that in America, they tend to be greatly inflated in size and of poor construction quality, which means people are forced to spend their life savings to live in comparatively nice neighborhoods when in other countries a good living experience can be had more cheaply. Furthermore, the single family homes are then laid out into gigantic blocks of zoned housing with street layouts that undermine quality of life in many other ways, depriving Americans of many forms of quality of life benefits that people in other countries (or even people so lucky as to live in walkable neighborhoods in the US) enjoy. Leftists typically promote a wide variety of different housing arrangements; the common themes are mostly just “save on fuel expenses and infrastructure costs by building denser, more affordable homes within walking distance of public transport.” They’re generally quite happy with, say, a row of townhouses or a duplex, because they’re not, in point of fact, literal cartoon villains cackling at the idea of making people sleep in broom closets.

            At the same time, they see it as something of a failure of our society when you cannot find a home without either literally mortgaging five years of your life’s savings or occupying an inherently extractive rental relationship with a landlord who has every incentive to crimp down your living conditions and squeeze you for every drop they can get, and when despite the extreme and rising demand for affordable housing, all that actually gets built are more expensive single-family homes in neighborhoods where inability to drive is a greater handicap than, say, being deaf or missing an arm.

          11. The thing is that leftists never think of people as merely “person who does a thing I think is a bad idea.” They think of a “person who does a thing I think is a bad idea” as everything from a kulak to a black white supremacist but “riffraff” sums up the general attitude nicely.

        1. That’s largely down to specific policy choices and particular decisions made (oftne in the 1950’s) yes. It’s particularly notable in NYC in fact.

      3. When you say “greater distances to be covered”, do you mean between cities or within cities due to suburban sprawl?

        Either way, it doesn’t really matter since in both Australia and Europe (especially Europe), it’s possible to travel the sorts of distances that would be involved in America on a train without interfering with the movement of freight – granted, air travel will always be faster but travelling from, for example, London to Warsaw is still entirely doable by train.

        1. Some Australian cities have decent public transit but AFAIK the inter-city trains suck. I did look into Brisbane-Sydney but it was early and long. Maybe the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne cluster is better, I didn’t look since there were obviously no trains from Sydney to Hobart…

          Trains work better when there’s population along the line.

          1. Our trains are far from amazing, the fact they can be used as a counterpoint against US public transport is more a condemnation of the US than it is praise for our system!

          2. The US passenger rail system is basically an afterthought that piggybacks on top of the existing freight rail network. It would have entirely ceased to exist if not for the government subsidizing it via Amtrak.

            The reason for this is not just “free market more efficient,” it’s because the government had previously spent billions and billions of dollars subsidizing the construction of a giant superhighway network and building out giant suburban subdivisions that pulled the population away from the existing rail network, while spending no comparable sums of money on creating new passenger rail or incentivizing people to make use of the existing railroads. The Interstate Highway Act and federal aid to homeowners taking out mortgages during the Baby Boom didn’t just happen. America was very specifically shaped to be this way by a combination of specific interests and factions who made a lot of money off of making us this way. It fueled a huge real estate boom that kept Americans’ personal wealth locked up in the housing market and accessible to real estate speculators and people trading in mortgage-backed securities. And it was great for auto manufacturers and oil companies!

        2. I mean to the people who are not in cities.

          Or is their duty to pay for mass transport for their betters?

          1. Yes? That’s basic public policy. Just like the cities pay for public services for rural areas.

          2. No, that is a deliberate choice that has bad effects, especially on a large scale.

          3. If urban and suburban areas weren’t extensively subsidizing public services for rural areas, you would see rapid decline in rural standards of living, potentially back towards people living in shacks with questionable access to clean water in the long run. It’s instructive to look at which parts of this country pay more in tax money to the federal government than they receive from it, and which states receive more than they provide. Surprisingly, most of the relatively populous urban centers that tend to vote (D) are the ones already paying the high taxes, while the customarily ‘deep red’ rural-heavy states are often getting back three dollars from the federal government for every two they pay.

            If American politics were about people pursuing their rational economic interests, we’d have a “coastal elites” party favoring low taxes and a cessation of welfare spending at the federal level, and a “heartland party” demanding high taxes on the rich and extensive government investment into social and welfare programs.

          4. It’s interesting to see how people define “pay more tax money.” Indeed, I have literally seen all the money from a corporation attributed to its HQ.

      4. Public transportation is several different things, so it gets complicated depending on what you’re talking about. Long-distance rail and subway/bus systems for inter-city tranist are both “public transportation” but they work very differently.

  13. > The US embraces “move fast and break things”

    This is true in some ways, but it’s worth noting that the housing crisis, the US’s anomolously high infrastructure costs and long timelines, and a bunch of related issues are mostly caused by the US being uniquely unwilling to risk breaking anything – both the federal and many local governments have a massive number of veto points that stop anyone building anything new (either literally or metaphorically) in a lot of different areas. (This is not unrelated to America’s dominance in software and internet tech, which are mostly immune from this – but this suggests the opposite explanation for those).

    1. I think a much better explanation for both sides of this tradeoff is just America’s openness to immigration – getting talented people from all over the world let’s you have a massive economy and dominant research universities, but it also reduces social trust (which has effects like increased crime and political dysfunction, and reduces state capacity)

      1. Around 1910, the US admitted a number of immigrants roughly equal to 1% of its population per year.

        Around 2018, the US admitted a number of immigrants roughly equal to 0.3% to 0.35% of its population per year.

        Would you say the US has dramatically higher social trust and less political dysfunction, than it did in 1910?

        Factors such as crime rates and state capacity vary as a function of so many factors that it seems very hard to attribute them to immigration or lack thereof, as opposed to the many confounding variables.

        1. “Would you say the US has dramatically higher social trust and less political dysfunction, than it did in 1910?”

          I mean, people often forget how relatively unstable the late 19th/early 20th century were. It’s a general part of the times move along, etc. But we probably have less political violence today.

          1. I’d be interested to see numbers there. With that said, the existence or absence of political violence by extremists isn’t really what the person I’m responding to is talking about. They’re talking about “social dysfunction” and “state capacity.” Having a terrorist movement blowing things up once in a while doesn’t actually mean your political system is dysfunctional; it just means you haven’t finished chasing down those particular terrorists.

            One important metric to look at here is constitutional amendments, in my opinion. In 1910, it was feasible to enact major policy changes if those changes had popular support, even if those changes meant amending the Constitution. Ever notice how many more constitutional amendments we got between the Civil War and the 1950s than either before the Civil War or after the 1960s?

            Between 1792 and 1860, only two constitutional amendments were passed. Note that this was a period of rising political tensions over a deep, fundamental division in the country- slavery- and that this conflict culminated in civil war because there was no way to address it structurally within the system.

            Discounting the three amendments passed immediately after the Civil War, there was a period of “no amendments” between 1870 and 1905. Then, from 1905,to 1975, we saw the passage of eleven amendments. Even given that two of those amendments (the 18th and 21st) cancel each other out, that’s still a much higher rate.

            But after 1971, there has been only one amendment passed, regulating a relatively petty matter of Congressional pay.

            This is a good illustration of why I consider American politics to be not merely contentious, but dysfunctional. Because in the last fifty years, there have been effectively no moves to address the changing and evolving nature of American society and government with a constitutional amendment of any significant kind. Or rather, all attempts to do so have failed. This is not a sign that low immigration has somehow conferred upon us high social trust and functional politics. It is a sign that our politics are ossified, that our system’s organization is growing dangerously obsolete, that our evolving understanding of our rights to things like privacy and equal treatment under the law is not being properly enshrined in the Constitution, and that our government is not evolving towards the ideal of a more democratic and more perfect union anymore.

    2. We are superlative in our housing dysfunction. The hits keep coming!

      If the housing and healthcare dysfunction and sexist labor markets of the US compared to other advanced economies were taken in isolation one would expect the US to be an economic basket case. It’s remarkable how the economy does well enough that these problems can just be ignored year after year while still remaining on top.

      1. US housing is bad but we have a lot of company, especially in the Anglosphere. NZ, England, Anglo Canada… all pretty bad, largely for similar reasons of house-and-car obsessed zoning. Of course, some of that could be attributed to US cultural spillover, especially in Anglo Canada.

        1. Yeah, I love in Quebec and it’s less intense here. Though new developments are doing their best at copying a failing system.

        2. Housing is just one of those issues that seems hard to solve, so the US is not unique in having a fucked up housing situation.

          1. I would say that it’s one of the issues that is *technically* quite easy to solve, like “how do we slow down global warming” or “how do we ensure access to health care”. The difficulty is entirely political, because a lot of people don’t want to solve the problem.

          2. That’s the logic that filled up the gulag.

            One notes that removing people who were preventing problems that (allegedly) could be technically solved never actually led to the solutions.

    3. We’re kind of living off both the abundance of cheap land and the legacy of twentieth century housing construction. It is genuinely a bloody shame – Americans would probably be much richer still if we’d made it easier to have affordable housing in rich metro areas.

    4. In contemporary US culture, it is good for corporations to move fast and break things, but bad for governments to move fast and break things. Except when the thing that is broken belongs to someone who doesn’t have a lot of money or can be written off as an irrelevant pervert or probably a terrorist.

  14. From a historical perspective, I think the post is right. American power – a product of size and wealth and situation – across so many spheres is unprecedented. The only previous comparison would be with the British Empire at its height (so around 1860), when three-quarters of all ocean-going ships flew the British flag, London was as dominant financially as New York is now and the combined forces of the Empire could match any conceivable combination of foes. British culture was nearly as dominant, and its technological lead just as evident.

    A sceptical eye might note that a considerable part of the disparity in GDP is illusory – GDP measures money, and much of the US system generates more money without actually generating more results (a good example is healthcare – about a third more money spent than comparable countries delivering poorer outcomes). One might also note that, to many non-Americans, ordinary American life seems hedged about with many more intrusions, restrictions and regulations than in most other developed countries (15,000 police forces, federal, state and local bureaucracies, so many more lawyers…). The self-image does not match the reality in many ways (something true of most other countries). I expect a future historian will put the USA in the same class as Rome or some periods of China or the Achaemenids – a mighty achievement.

    1. On the contrary, we get the best health care. Every measure that says we get the worst throws in things like life expectancy, where health-care comes in behind weight and many other factors, and even whether it’s socialized– it’s easy to prove socialized medicine is best when you give it points for being socialized.

      1. I mean, the fact that people have access to healthcare is quite important, I believe? You’re right, weight and lifestyle in general do have a great (!) impact on life-expectancy. But I just looked the number for France. According to the Ligue nationale contre l’obésité, French obesity rate has doubled since 1997 and is now at 17%. Here’s the official French life expectancy ( do you see how much weight make an impact?

        Frankly, the USA have a lot of arguments to its bad numbers in term of healthcare. I just read on the wiki page on infant mortality how it was argued the significantly higher US infant mortality was only due to different way of counting.

        I’d rather believe the USA simply choose not to offer healthcare to its own poor citizen, and that this is a major cause of lower life expectancy. Socialized medecine is given points because the US private medecine is a failure.


        1. Incidentally, we not only count as livebirths many children whom many European nations would call stillbirths, we also have found that the single best factor that predicts infant mortality is — illegitimacy.

          Turns out that women who get pregnant out of wedlock are inordinately likely to drink, smoke, or do drugs during pregnancy. That’s what’s killing the babies.

          1. Is that something you have a source on, or is it your preconceptions showing? Because I can think of plenty of other reasons why “illegitimate” (god I hate that word) children might have higher infant mortality.

          2. Your preconceptions are showing. White middle-class unmarried mothers have a higher infant mortality than poor black married mothers.

            Turns out historical people were not so stupid about families as some people like to imagine them.

          3. Does the US have a higher rate of pregnancy out of wedlock than European nations?

            Or is there something about women who get pregnant out of wedlock in Europe that makes it less likely for them to drink, smoke, or use drugs?

            Because if America’s infant mortality rate has anything to do with infant mortality being caused by unmarried mothers, then those would be the questions we’d want to dig into.

            Alternatively, the ‘illegitimacy’ question could be a sort of tangent that has nothing to do with whether infant mortality rates are higher in America or in Europe, and then we would need to look more closely at what you said about stillbirths.

      2. We have the most inefficient health care system, spending by far the most per capita while getting a highly unequal system that often leaves people with high medical debt and doesn’t produce exceptional outcomes compared to other rich countries. If some place like the UK or Canada spent as much per capita in their system as we do on ours, they’d have gold-plated health care that would be the envy of every other country on Earth.

        1. The parking lots of treatment centers near the border are filled with Canadian license plates.

          1. And Sarah Palin, once a candidate for Vice President, admitted crossing the border into Canada for medical treatment as a child.

          2. Yet Canadians love their system, by comparison with the US.

            Thing is, as far as I can tell Canada is flawed here even compared to other universal health care countries. Long non-emergency wait times are real, thus hopping over to the US — _if you can afford it_. Canada has slightly fewer doctors per capita than the US, which itself is on the low end for the OECD.

            Sources: various surveys of health care systems, and T. R. Reid’s _The Healing of America_.

            But generalizing from Canada to all other universal health care systems would be highly fallacious.

          3. I have literally been in a discussion with a Canadian who was telling us that the US had to change to their system because the world was laughing at us — and that Canada needed us to, because they couldn’t fix their system as long as we provided an escape.

          4. Yes, in America you can buy as much care as you want – if you have the money. Sucks for you if you don’t.

            Meanwhile, a much larger number go to Canada to get affordable medication.

          5. > The parking lots of treatment centers near the border are
            > filled with Canadian license plates.

            While it makes a good line, it’s also largely false. Canada does have longer wait times for many procedures, but few Canadians take advantage of the providers south of the border simply because for most, the cost is not worth the benefit.

            However, since medical providers are much more sensible than us politically motivated posters, hospitals on both sides of the border redirect patients across when circumstances call for it, do cross-border studies to compare treatments and better best practices, etc.

            I disagree with our esteemed host about if Canada spent as much per capita, we’d be the envy of the planet. Health outcomes cost exponentially more as you try to better them and spending naturally goes to things that aren’t health-outcome related once you’ve covered the bases (which Canada more or less has). Canada has already captured the low hanging fruit, getting approximately identical outcomes (when doing side-by-side illness comparisons) for about 40% of the cost.

            Adding a ton more money to the system would probably make life more convenient (less wait time, nicer waiting rooms, more tests that hit very low probability cases, more expensive (but mostly useless drugs, etc.), but would probably not majorly affect health outcomes.

            It’s like saying since a Corolla is almost as effective as transporting people as a Lexus, a Corolla that cost as much as a Lexus would be *way* better at transporting people.

      3. The point of healthcare is to live longer and to be more capable while you do so; measuring something else is putting the cart before the horse. On objectively measurable health outcomes the US is comparable to Poland or Czechia – not terrible by any means, but not top flight. The US only does well when you include a factor of how good people *think* their health is.

        1. Nonsense. Its point can only be accurately measured if you consider its output, not its output combined with other factors. That it is undesirable for those other factors to be bad is not healthcare’s fault.

          1. What are these other factors, and is the US somehow cursed to be bad-off in terms of those other factors and thus unable to provide longer, healthier lives for its citizens than, say, Poland, despite spending far more money trying to do so?

    2. Yes, we do have more police forces, but the fact is that most of those are local jurisdictions, and while you may have to deal with more bureaucracies their power is rather more limited than elsewhere.

        1. Indeed, it’s a very strange claim to make considering the demonstrable biases and failures of US policing and carceral systems.

        2. If you look at the actual statistics rather than media reporting, the number of bad shoots in the US is tiny compared to the population.

          1. Yet it’s also far more than most of it’s peers have to deal with.

          2. Please calculate what comparable statistics are for western Europe, or even eastern Europe. Unless you are comparing to places that actively have dictatorships or civil war, the US has very high gun deaths both my police and civilian to civilian compared to other countries.

          3. I remember trying to find police shooting statistics in Japan, and finding that as of 2018, Japanese police killed, if I recall correctly, two people. In a nation of well over one hundred million people.

            In the United States, there were roughly 1600 such killings… and the US only has about 2.5 times Japan’s population.

          4. Note how you went from “police killings” to “bad shoots”, therefore changing the argument completely.

            US violence, gun violence, and police violence are all absolutely out of step with the rest of the developed world (and even big chunks of the developing world).

          5. Mindstalko’s comment specifically referred to “getting away with” killing people. My assumption was that they were referring to killing people who cops killed improperly.

            We do agree that people should be allowed to act in self-defense, yes?

          6. @Arilou
            My point was more that the theoretical upper bound on the number of “bad shoots” in Japan in 2018 was two. Even if Japanese police only ever shoot people unjustly, as a matter of policy, that is the total number of people they killed in any way.

            A corresponding number of “bad shoots” in America would be five out of the 1600 police killings in America that year. It strains credulity to claim that there were only five “bad shoots” in America that year. And remember, even this is predicated on the assumption that Japanese cops only have “bad shoots.” If the Japanese police’s shootings are usually justified, the American situation looks even worse by comparison.

            A more general observation, Arilou, is that we are clearly doing something wrong, relative to the rest of the world, when our police either need, or think they need, to kill people dozens or hundreds of times more often than is typical in foreign countries.

            In Japan, for instance, you are about three times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than by a police officer.
            In Germany, you are about five times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a bolt of lightning.

            In the United States, you are about eighty times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than by a lightning strike.

            Something very strange must be happening in our society if our police are needing to, or “needing to,” defend themselves a dozen times more frequently than is normal in Germany, and hundreds of times more frequently than is normal in Japan.

            Why might police in Country A need to defend their lives by killing another human being 20 times, or 200 times, more often than police in Country B?

            Perhaps Country A has a chronic problem with having too many of some physical object that puts people’s lives in danger, compared with Country B.

            Perhaps Country A’s police are prone to act in ways that get them into violent confrontations that wouldn’t happen if they acted like Country B’s policy. Perhaps Country A’s police are trained to escalate to deadly force in situations where Country B’s police are not.

            We might even speculate that Country A’s police are too fearful and see threats to their lives in situations that a braver policeman from Country B would be confident of handling without needing to kill anyone. I would hope that this is not true, though the Uvalde shooting has left me not knowing what to think.

            To do due diligence, I tried to find information on the rates of violent deaths of police officers in the line of duty in Germany and Japan. There is a wealth of such information on the United States, though some of it confounds things by counting things like COVID-19 deaths and traffic accidents, which while very sad, do not reflect on the question we’re talking about. However, information for foreign countries was harder to find. I was unable to do so in a reasonable amount of time, and so that will have to wait.

      1. US cops boast about their training and education but their time would be in europe not enough for a beat cop

  15. From experience in the industry in germany i would expect Pfizer to do work for biontech but not be a real partner on the scientific fromt.

  16. I hope you weren’t expecting to post this and not get a lot of comments from your international audience 🙂

    First off, I think the weakest argument you presented was regarding the size of the sphere of influence: the same way Russia can’t reach Kyiv and China can’t reach Taipei, the US can’t reach Cuba despite it only being ~150 km away and literally having a US army base on it.

    Secondly, I think you should have at least explicitly mentioned that the many of the metrics used to measure US greatness are usually generated by the US themselves, and are pretty biased towards putting the US on top. For example, Forbes is a US magazine, and their view of what counts as “great”, or “big” comes from a US-centric point of view. Therefore any of their rankings will be defined by the American rules of what is measured, and any foreign entry is measured by its ability to play by the American rules. I would be very suprised to find any US entry on a magazine from Bhutan ranking the “top 10 most Buddhist institutions”.

    On a cheeky (or sad) note, there’s the fact that the physical size (or greatness) of the US people is also exceptional — with the most obese people in the world by far, and the only countries with a higher obesity rate are very small countries.

    But overall, I think it’s impossible to disagree with the main point: the US is at the top of the world, everybody else has to cater to their whims, and that the country has an unprecedented level of global influence and power, unmatched by any other great power in history. Including the mongols, since their influence didn’t reach the American continent.

    That sure is exceptional, but I’m not so sure if it’s something to be proud of.

    1. > the US can’t reach Cuba despite it only being ~150 km away and literally having a US army base on it.

      A nitpick: It’s a naval base.

    2. “the same way Russia can’t reach Kyiv and China can’t reach Taipei, the US can’t reach Cuba despite it only being ~150 km away and literally having a US army base on it.”

      I don’t think this is a fair comparison. The US has never actually invaded Cuba; the fact that Cuba remained defiant of the US for so long has more to do with the potential of Soviet intervention on Cuba’s behalf and the fact that the US just doesn’t care enough to carry out an invasion than any inability to do so.

      1. The US invaded Cuba twice: in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, and again in 1961 in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, which was repelled by Cuban troops. The nukes of the missile crisis were only installed afterwards (and then removed).

        If it was up to the US government, Cuba would be firmly inside its sphere of influence just like Puerto Rico. I think it’s an apt comparison to Taiwan — which afaik was never invaded by the PRC.

        1. When I said “The US has never actually invaded Cuba”, I meant in order to overthrow the Castro regime. I thought that was obvious from context, but given the title of this blog perhaps I should more clear. In any event, the Spanish-American war is not really relevant here, so I shan’t discuss it further.

          The Bay of Pigs invasion was not an operation conducted by the US military. The Cuban exiles who comprised the invading force, though trained and equipped by the US, were not part of the US military. Moreover, the initial plan called for air and naval support from US forces that Kennedy chose to withhold once the invasion actually started. I don’t think you can say that the Bay of Pigs invasion represents the US doing its best to conquer Cuba, so the analogy to the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t hold.

          1. The bay of pigs invasion was more of a “special military operation” wasn’t it.

            (To be less snarky: Russia’s invasion also faces political constraints that make it something less than an attempt to conquer at all costs. So would any modern power)

          2. Can we get some statistics on Russian casualties in Ukraine versus American casualties in Cuba? I like objective comparisons better than snarky, too clever by half analogies.

          3. @m50d: In the hypothetical scenario the US tried remotely as hard to invade Cuba as Russia has tried to invade Ukraine, do you honestly believe that the Castro regime would last more than a month or two at the most? (In particular, if it happened today, which is the time period Bret is focusing on in the original post.)

          4. One of the reasons the Russians are failing in Ukraine is because Ukrainians have a historical memory of Russian domination, don’t want to be under the Russian thumb again, and are broadly united behind a fairly popular leader in resisting the occupation. All of those things would also be true if the US invaded Cuba. Having more military firepower doesn’t really help if the native population is determined to resist by any means necessary.

      2. I don’t think this is a fair comparison. The US has never actually invaded Cuba; the fact that Cuba remained defiant of the US for so long has more to do with the potential of Soviet intervention on Cuba’s behalf and the fact that the US just doesn’t care enough to carry out an invasion than any inability to do so.

        I’m not sure that really undermines the analogy — both Taiwan and the Ukraine are backed by powerful foreign sponsors.

      3. To be fair, the PRC has never actually invaded Taiwan either. (some skirmishes over minor islands aside)

  17. If you think about it, Tang dynasty China was actually the greatest country to have ever existed, and unique in its own right.

    I suppose if you compare the two, the US might come as a distant second, so we’ll grant that they’re also kind of great and a little unique, compared to the dozens of other Western colonizer states in America at least.

    1. > If you think about it, Tang dynasty China was actually the greatest country to have ever existed, and unique in its own right.

      How so?

        1. Actually since their emperor went without luxuries that the US considers so essential to human life that you can’t run a homeless shelter without them, by the criteria given, your claim is obvious nonsense.

          1. If in 500 years, all human nation-states are tiny little city-states, but at the same time we all have Star Trek technology and it’s unthinkable to live life without a matter replicator, a holodeck, and a personal teleporter, will that retroactively make the United States a lesser-than nation?

            Because those poor benighted 21st century Americans were so primitive and all that.

        2. I mean, the easiest to measure one is power projection, where…no? Cross-historical economic comparison is basically nonsensical, but it appears as if the Tang most likely fall into the Rome category of regional hegemon, but not global hegemon?

          1. I think a more valid historical metric for comparison would be ‘power projection versus communication/transport technology’. For a given ease of projecting your power over distance, how far can you project that power?

    2. I am an admirer of the Tang. It was certainly an impressive empire but I don’t see how you can argue it was the greatest state ever.

  18. Just a nitpick, but “freedom” you mention is a lie. I live in Croatia, which is one of “free” countries on the list you mention, and I can reliably tell you that we are no more free today than we were under Communist Yugoslavia, or Austria-Hungary. Croatia is still ruled by the old Communists, and these merely fulfill the dictates of the European Union or other foreign authorities. What is the difference in whether dictates come from Vienna, Belgrade or Bruxelles?

    Now, onto actual article…

    When it comes to being rich etc., you should always do a comparison within the context of the time. Technology advances, and so average GDP per capita increases over time. Achieving a GDP per capita of 1 000 USD today is not exceptional. In 1000 AD, it would actually be a good performance. So while US could be said to be the most successful country today, can it really be said that they are the most successful ever?

    Anyway, more interesting article would be on HOW the US achieved what they did. I did a comparison of Byzantine and US strategy while in university, and the conclusion was basically that the US were blessed by excellent geography: they had good internal connectivity and good resistance to invasion, in a way no other country ever quite achieved. Generally, you were *either* difficult to invade (e.g. Byzantine Empire, Afghanistan, Spain, Russia) OR you had good internal communications (e.g. Hungary, Poland). The only countries that also have the difficult to invade + good internal connections schtick are the Britain and maybe China, while only Russia and China had size similar to what US would achieve. But Britain, even once unified, was still relatively small, so while its position allowed it to build a massive overseas empire, it never could achieve the dominance of the kind United States did. Russia on the other hand was difficult to invade (unless you were the Mongols), but its massive overland distances, lack of rivers and long borders meant that it never could exploit this advantage, or its natural resources, in the way United States could.

    Now, China is an interesting case. In fact, by all measures – population, economy, geography – it should have become a major global power much earlier than even Britain did, let alone the United States. But instead, it withdrew into isolationism and basically turned over the board to European players (including the United States), and told them “do what you want”. Part of this was likely due to cultural reasons, but that it another interesting topic to look at.

    Overall, United States are a product of two things: Atlantic Ocean and the Mississipi river system.

    1. You can leave the EU or veto zje “dictates” etc., at least most of those are initiated by members

      1. Leaving the EU is possible, but is extremely complicated process (look at the UK), as for dictates, these originate from the Commission, which is NOT an elected body.

        1. Does not San Marino also have a claim on both being the first modern democracy and having the earliest constitution? The article you linked seems to be weirdly dismissive of that, besides not making a very good case for 18th century Britain’s “undemocraticness”

        2. The UK wanted to keep her cake and eat it,, but not pay for it
          She could had Brexit much faster and easier if she did not did thatr

    2. I would like to support ThoDan here: Croatia has, currently, free elections, and it has, like my own country, a disproportionately large number of members in European Parliament, and a similarly disproportionate number of votes in the Council. (Small countries are overrepresented in the EU, though not quite as heavily as small states in the USA.) Thus, the “dictates” you mention are simply part of voluntary transfer of democratic sovereignty to a larger entity. (In 1990’s, you could legitimately complain about the undemocratic nature of the EU. Since Lisbon treaty, the Parliament has so much power that these claims are no longer quite valid.)

      Though, ThoDan, it must be recognised that in the EU, only the Commission can originate legislation. And you cannot legally override European law with domestic legislation. Member states don’t have a veto, and European law supercedes even constitutional parochial law. (The German Constitutional Court disagrees, though, and hopefully, the push never comes to shove.)

      1. Free elections mean little to nothing. What really matters in terms of power relations within the country is who holds the FINANCIAL sector, and that one is entirely in foreign hands. So long as we don’t have financial sovereignty, being able to elect political leaders is a right that is less than useless. And currently, there is only one – or maybe even none, I haven’t checked – bank that is actually in Croatian ownership.

        Same goes for the EU. Parliament is all nice and good, but a) Parliament cannot do anything without the Commission, which is not an elected body, b) EU law overrides state law, which alone is enough to make EU into a tyranny, and c) even beyond that, what matters in the end are financial flows. So the “overrepresentation” in the EU Parliament that you mention is little more than the “circenses” part of the “panem et circenses” foundation of today’s politics.

        1. If free elections mean nothing in Europe, then they mean nothing in the US, either.
          Therefore, the US is no freer than Croatia.

        2. The European Commission is, in its current form, a quasi-cabinet: its chair is elected by the European Parliament, and it must enjoy the trust of the Parliament: a vote of non-confidence will cause the resignation of the Commission. The individual commissioners are appointed by the national governments and the chair, which gives the democratically elected national governments a voice.

          These are real mechanisms: the European Parliament really uses these powers. So, if you disagree with the majority of the population both in Croatia and in wider EU, you should address these issues instead of using high-minded but empty rhetoric about “tyranny”.

          1. A twice disgraced former minister with an approval rating of maybe 10% was the UK’s commission representative for around ten years. There’s no effective mechanism for holding them to account.

        3. “Free elections mean little to nothing. What really matters in terms of power relations within the country is who holds the FINANCIAL sector, and that one is entirely in foreign hands. So long as we don’t have financial sovereignty, being able to elect political leaders is a right that is less than useless.”

          This is absolutely true, and I think it’s something a lot of Americans and people in the west generally persistently fail to understand.

          1. Who would you say holds financial sovereignty in America, and has the power to set how the economy is shaped?

            Who is it, who you would say holds all the real power in the United States?

      2. Plus, can you really say we can “elect” anything when both HDZ and SDP – and these are the only two political parties that matter – are comprised of ideological communists? Croatia is de-facto a single-party state, despite de iure having a multiple-party political system.

        1. Reading quickly on those parties, HDZ seems to have harbored crypto-Ustaše. To claim they’re ideologically communists is as laughable as claiming the US Democrats are ideologically communists.

          1. Some US Democrats have openly described the.selves as socialists. Even Marxists.

          2. And that is wrong with quick reading: your conclusions are laughably wrong.

            Tudjman was Tito’s general, he fought in the Partisans, and even later was favorable to Communist ideology. When HDZ was formed, its membership was comprised almost entirely of former Communists. And during the Homeland War, Tudjman and HDZ were busy killing members of HOS, a right-wing paramilitary organization connected with HSP. HOS was responsible for Vukovar lasting for as long as it did, and was overall *the* most effective unit of Croatian military, but Tudjman did not want to tolerate a right-wing militia, and so had Blaž Kraljević and some others murdered.

            Tudjman was a leftist, and HDZ was leftist even back then – today, it is even more.

    3. Those who stand on the shoulders of giants objectively see a greater distance than those who don’t.

    4. Certainly we owe a lot to our geographical advantages but also to our constitutional government and capitalist economy.

    5. There’s no need to posit some unchanging Chinese culture passed down in an unbroken chain from millennia past. China has been expansionist and outward-looking at many points in its history. It’s just that, for historically-contingent reasons, it happened to be in an isolationist phase just when European powers were on the way up.

      1. I never posited anything like that. But fact is that China never engaged in the overseas colonialism as Western European countries did, and entered isolationist phase at precisely the wrong time.

        1. A distinction without a difference. Overseas colonialism is no worse than overland colonialism, and China frequently engaged in the latter. (In fact, I’d argue it’s slightly less bad in the long wrong because after decolonization, an overseas colony can escape the influence of its former overlord more easily than one next door. India vs. Ireland or Ukraine) The Europeans turned overseas because they had a huge power advantage over other parts of the world but not each other, whereas China had ample avenues for expansion along its land borders.

          1. Overseas colonialism is fundamentally different from overland colonialism, due to how cheaper transport is over the sea. Unless you have massive rivers present (e.g. USA, China), majority of wealth that you might gain from the territories conquered is eaten up in the act of transporting that wealth. It is also usually a result of different circumstances and incentives.

          2. What would you call the history of Chinese adventures in Vietnam, which have been going on on and off for two thousand years? Vietnam is a coastal region and more easily accessed by sea from most of China than by land.

            While we’re at it, the present extent of China itself is the result of successful imperialism; that land was not always occupied by people who all spoke the same language and obeyed the same central government. Indeed, it has repeatedly fragmented into smaller regional states more like those of Europe, only to be conquered by some single ruler who can only be said to be quite the winner at the imperial game.

  19. This whole essay seems to me to miss the point. Nobody, even among those who hate the US, denies that the country is exceptionally strong, rich, influential, etc. Instead, when people argue over whether America is exceptional, they’re usually referring to whether America’s exception strength, wealth, etc. is the result of some unique (normally, uniquely good) Americal characteristic, like liberalism or individualism.

    And in this regard, the question is a lot less clear-cut, and I think you could make a strong case that geopolitical circumstance played at least as large a role. As of 1776, the US was by some distance the most populous European state in North America, and to the west its main rivals were a series of relatively tiny and technologically inferior Native American tribes. Couple that with a pro-expansionist ideology, and it’s not surprising that the US ended up basically dominating North America — indeed, I think it would have taken a really quite astounding (one might almost say, exceptional) level of dysfunction for it not to. Then, just as the US had filled up the continent and started turning its attention overseas, the other great powers of the world got themselves embroiled in two unprecedently destructive world wars. America was involved too, of course, but only part-way through, and this, combined with its being an ocean away from the nearest enemy, meant that its heartland was practically unaffected — the only great or potentially great power for which this was the case. That America would become the global hegemon in such a set of circumstances isn’t really suprising, and I expect it would happen almost no matter how individualistic/collectivist or democratic/autocratic US society was.

    Of note as well is the fact that the US’ physical and economic expansion meant for a long time that the standard of living was getting better for the average US citizen, but now that’s no longer the case, and previously hidden social faults are surfacing, causing the country to become increasingly polarised and divided. This trajectory, too, isn’t at all exceptional — indeed, it’s exactly what one would expect from reading, say, Peter Turchin, or a historian of the same school.

    1. You make very good points in your post, but I have two points on your footnotes:

      In footnote 4, you make the case that raw GDP is better suited to strength comparisons than PPP corrected value. This is true in most issues of raw might, but in the case of R&D, I would like to point that the PPP value actually gives a better idea about the amount of R&D that you can do: the engineers and scientists are the eminent production factor, and their standard of living is dependent on PPP corrected values. For example, in Europe, Swiss firms and universities are well known for their exceptionally high salaries, but they are not universally flocked to, because the cost of living is correspondingly high.

      The same goes for US salaries. While you are correct that there is a flow of educated emigrants to the US from Europe, this is a relatively small trickle, if you compare it with the immigration flows from Asia. Compared to Europe, USA cannot really give a normal West or North European scientist or engineer a qualitatively better material standard of living. The cost of health care and education is so huge that unless you can draw a salary over 300,000 dollars, European industries can probably give you a better overall pay and benefits package. (And a salary over 300 grand is no longer quite typical even in the USA.) If you can earn more than that, then most likely, an American offer is the financially the best one. However, most R&D staff in the US are not in that salary bracket. (Neither are college professors, for that matter.)

      With regards to your footnote 19: Tremendous Judge makes a fair point about Cuba. However, the actual Russian sphere of influence and its rather limited size is very visible in the fact that Finland and Sweden have chosen to join the NATO of their own free initiative, and that, it seems at the time of writing this, Russia has been forced to acknowledge this as a fait accompli, even if Finland is only about 100 miles from St. Petersburg.

      Thank you very much on your congratulations, anyhow! Let’s hope that the ratification process goes smoothly.

    2. That America would become the global hegemon in such a set of circumstances isn’t really suprising, and I expect it would happen almost no matter how individualistic/collectivist or democratic/autocratic US society was.

      The problem is that while you’d expect other rich societies to be behind the US to begin with, you’d then expect them to converge over time, closing the gap with the US as the causes for them falling behind (such as two World Wars) recede into the distance.

      That hasn’t happened, at least beyond a certain degree. There’s definitely been strong growth, but the richest European and East Asian countries have only closed the gap up to a certain point and no further.

      1. Sure, but then there are new causes for divergence, such as the fact that the international system that the US built – and which the other rich countries are operating in – is specifically structured to favour the US, as outlined in the post we’re commenting on.

      2. None of the countries in Europe or the rest of the Anglosphere are anywhere near as big as the US, either in terms of land area or population. Russia’s got a big land area, but lots of it is unsuitable for farming. East Asia is catching up, but (apart from Japan, which is also a fraction of the size of the US) it was never really industrialised until the last few decades of the twentieth century, so it started from a long way behind.

      3. Economies of scale are a thing. Also, being the hegemon of the financial world gives you the ability to tap and extract money. This does not necessarily make you better-off, but it does make you richer (ie you have more money). If you look at any of the many alternatives to raw GDP, the US does well, but generally comes somewhere in the mid teens.

  20. I think it’s fair to say that most people arguing against American exceptionalism aren’t saying America isn’t “great” in the sense Devereaux argues here, but in the sense people mean when they say “Make America Great Again”. They don’t mean “Make America big again”.

    Whether America is exceptional or not depends on what you’re using to define exceptional-ness. If you pick criteria by which America is obviously exceptional, it’s going to be a boring question.

    1. Maybe this was kind of an immature, impulsive sort of comment to add, but…as much as I respect most of the professor’s work, I can’t respect an article that starts by calling “Is the USA exceptional?” an easy, uninteresting question, and then immediately defines that question in the most uninteresting way possible. There are difficult, interesting questions to be answered if you don’t interpret the question in the most Democrat-trying-to-avoid-giving-an-opinion manner possible.

      Like: Obviously the USA has an unusual degree of wealth an influence, but why? Is it because of some innate aspect of the American character, a “Protestant work ethic,” as I was taught in (private, Lutheran) middle school? Is it because of a divine mandate? Is it because of a series of historical circumstances which gave the USA control of a substantial chunk of a continent and left it relatively unaffected by two world wars that decimated its peer competitors? And, of course, there are questions about why people might think that America’s success is due to providence.

      And then there’s ideology. What do the people saying America is exceptional mean? What do they want to do about it, and what do they want to convince others to do about it? How does America being exceptional play into that, and who are they imagining as being in that America?

      The question of Freedom also deserves, in my opinion, more focus than Devereaux gave it. He cites some statistics in the introduction and brings up individual liberties as an American value in the conclusion, without ever questioning how you gather statistics on something as abstract as “freedom” or what “individual liberty” even means. Like, does giving people the freedom to kill each other increase personal liberty? Letting people punch each other? Letting people pollute entire communities’ water supplies with barely a slap on the wrist? Whose liberty is Deveraux talking about, and is it in any way connected to America’s “greatness”?

      I’m used to Deveraux giving a more in-depth look than anyone else I see discuss a topic. This is the exact opposite.

  21. Pfaw, “greatness” & “exceptionalism” Who cares? What counts is how big you are. You can weasel all you want about “its not how big you are, but what you do with it” yada yada like all the countries with small…… memberships, but everyone knows that at the end of the day all that counts is how big you are. And may I point out, Canada is Really Big. REALLY REALLY BIG

    All this US talk of “greatness” and “exceptionalism” is just over-compensation by the guy standing at the next urinal.

    (never forget who burned the White House Down too!

    1. I realize that this comment was made with tongue firmly in cheek, but there are people who take your last sentence seriously, so allow me to point out that the army that burned Washington was almost all from Britain.

  22. “Or to put it another way, the United States is the country equivalent of a rich American that nevertheless continues to insist they’re just ‘middle class.’”

    This is an interesting joke, because it reveals something about the American way of thinking. We Americans automatically conflate ‘income’ with ‘class’. Therefore people with money are automatically upper-class.

    I would argue that this is, in fact, a bad way to think about class. In the Old World, of course, you have stories of noblemen who lose their fortunes and yet still manage to be noble (this is a persistent plot point in Downton Abbey, ferinstance.) Those folks don’t stop acting like members of the upper class, and of course there are always entry points to get back to that lifestyle. Those noblemen may end up living in ‘genteel poverty’, but they never lose their station.

    But even in the United States there isn’t exactly a direct correlation between money and class. Consider a plumber versus a university professor. That plumber almost certainly makes more money than the professor, but he’s absolutely a working-class guy while the professor lives a middle- or upper-class lifestyle. (It’s interesting to argue this point, because while the modern professor doesn’t have material wealth he does spend his days essentially pursuing an intellectual hobby. I realize this point is likely to be contentious.)

    I would argue, in fact, that guys like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are still essentially upper-middle-class in outlook, even though they have vast personal wealth. They’re interested in continuing to build their businesses up instead of retiring to enjoy a life of leisure.

    Money buys class mobility, to a certain extent, but it’s not absolute. But it is a distinguishing fact that in the United States money *can* buy class mobility.

  23. The saddest thing I ever heard was a Dutch teen thing an interviewer he didn’t think that there was anything special about the Netherkands. Nothing special about the first country in Western Europe to offer freedom of religion? About the country that gave refuge to my marano ancestors and our Pimgrim Fathers?
    Being proud of your own country needn’t mean scoring others. Everybody as something to be proud of, just as everybody has things to be ashamed of.

    1. The Youtube channel Not Just Bikes has a lot of comments by Dutch people going “wow, I didn’t realize how different we were” (in urban safety and bikeability).

    2. As a Dutch person, I think the last sentence of your comment is a key to why I think we are not special. “Everybody as something to be proud of, just as everybody has things to be ashamed of.” Each country is good at some things and bad at others. To most Dutch people, looking centuries back to find something great isn’t special, every country can find something there.
      For more recent accomplishments, the Netherlands has gotten good at civil engineering, planning and working together to make those plans happen but for us, that is simply a necessary result of the circumstances. To us that isn’t special, it’s just daily lives. There is also a Dutch saying “Just act normal, you are special enough already”, coming from the protestant past. Because of this view, it takes an outside perspective to see what is actually special.
      Well, or a trip outside the country to experience what life is like there. I always feel struck on holidays how hard it is to get places without a car even in more touristy places.

  24. As others have pointed out, when folks say that America is the greatest country, they do in fact mean that it is the best country, or even that it is the best country BECAUSE it is the greatest country. Which, I must say, is par for the course in light of the misguided and very American tendency of equating material success with virtue, both at the individual and national levels. Quite often, “America is the greatest country on Earth!” is a thought-terminating cliché, meant to shut down criticism of the country’s faults or discussion of how it could be better.

    1. Most people who think America is the greatest country (or even most sociologists who point out that it is exceptional) also mention its high religiosity, which is the opposite of evaluating it on a materialist standard.

      1. Evangelicals are *precisely* the kind of people who’d think that the reason the USA is the most advanced, powerful, culturally hegemonic, and wealthiest of nations is that God loves America.

  25. Regarding “exceptionalism”: one way in which I think the USA might well be exceptional, though not in the sense that proponents of the concept usually think of when they bring it up, is this: while many other countries have political traditions of *centralized* authoritarianism, and have often been centralized dictatorships at some point in their history, the USA has a tradition of *decentralized* authoritarianism, and to some extent, a tradition of being what you might call “a loose confederation of local dictatorships”. The local dictatorship could be all kinds of things – an old-school political machine with an old-school political boss at the top, or the company running a company town, or a social club where all the respected men of local society were members, or a local Klan group, or perhaps even simply a very powerful local crimelord.

    I think this explains the coexistence of very authoritarian and very anti-authoritarian impulses in the USA’s political tradition fairly well.

    The “wealthy person who keeps insisting they’re just middle class” quip reminds me of an impression I’ve had for a while: apparently, the national *self-image* that many people from the USA have of their country is as basically an honest, straightforward car mechanic who somehow managed it to find his way into a high society party, and is now telling the assembled VIPs there exactly what he really thinks of them and their pretensions. What makes this self-image so hopelessly outdated is, of course, the fact that for a very long time, everyone else in the world has seen the USA as the high society party.

    1. Not really though. I think that, at least in Europe, Americans are seen as very unsophisticated.

  26. This isn’t the argument in favour of American exceptionalism that you think it is. American exceptionalism is the claim that the USA’s prosperity is a consequence of it’s political and cultural identities and institutions – which incidentally, I mostly disagree with.

    Your argument demonstrates that America is unprecedentedly wealthy and powerful, which nobody of repute on any side of the political spectrum in any English-speaking country was disputing. Where these properties come from, however, hasn’t been addressed.

      1. As opposed to it being a combination of geography (the Great Plains + Mississippi River system + oceans on either side) and contingent historical circumstance (all the world’s other great powers destroying themselves in a couple of world wars just as the US was starting to take a serious interest in the world beyond the Americas).

          1. Do you think the US would be just as powerful if the founding generation had all been teleported to Antarctica?

          2. I notice you pick a continent unfit for human habitation with their technology. . . .

          3. Technology does seem to be the crux of the problem, doesn’t it? The people with the technology to create (through dense populations and domesticated animals) plagues that wipe out entire populations exposed to them for the first time will have a major advantage when it comes to moving in and settling the ruins of where those people lived.

            But the ancestors of the early Spanish and English colonists to the New World aren’t the same people who discovered iron working or long-range ships or gunpowder. Those innovations became available to the English and Spanish, but not to the Mound Builders, and so the English and Spanish were able to found colonies and start waves of epidemics ahead of them to thin out native populations that might resist.

            The Mound Builders didn’t fail to build a world-spanning empire because they were inferior people or had an inferior way of life. They failed because unlike the English and Spanish, they had no way of copying the homework done by the Hittites or the Chinese.

      2. Any agricultural state that has simulataneous territorial control of the Eastern seaboard of North America, the Ohio river valley, the Mobile river valley and the Mississippi south of the 40th parallel, with the technological suites for long-distance river shipping, long-distance ocean shipping, industrialisation and telecommunications is fated to be more wealthy and powerful than any single state that ever existed on Eurasia in the history of the Earth. The only things that could change that would be the ecological devastation of the North American continent or the emergence of an unprecedentedly unified state somewhere on Eurasia.

        So, geographically, it was certainly handed to them on a platter. As to whether it was handed to them on a platter historically, I’m vaguely aware that there is a great deal of debate on contingency versus luck in the genesis and westward expansion of the United States and it’s conflicts with other European settler societies the indigenous people of North America however, but I’m not informed enough on the topic to say more than that The Middle Ground – 1991 is a thrilling page turner and that I wish I knew enough keywords to look for more on the topic.

          1. Pointing out flaws in someone’s arguments is not putting forth your own logic.

          2. The mound builders didn’t have windmills, let alone the steam engine. Different technologies privilege different geographies. My argument is that, like, 80% of the technologies invented since the compass privilege the USA east of the Rockies.

          3. A more complex theory addresses this. There are three major factors that govern the rise of civilizations.

            1) Geography and climate.
            2) In the early phases, access to useful plants and animals
            3) Access to useful technologies from trading partners.

            (1) is relevant for the reasons discussed. (2) is relevant because early civilizations are dependent on domestication of the crops available to them, which are necessarily those that can be cultivated in or near their homes. Being on the same continent as horses is a bigger asset than being on the same continent as capybaras or Cape buffalo or kangaroos, if you’re looking for an animal that can be turned into a helpful farm animal through domestication. (3) is relevant because no one small group of people has ever independently discovered the full suite of technologies humanity now enjoys- real life is not a Civilization game where everyone invents almost everything in parallel. Many of the key technologies the conquistadores used to conquer Latin America and that American pioneers used to conquer the Mississippi river basin were invented in China or the Middle East, by people who never even met the ancestors of those conquistadores and pioneers and may not even have known those ancestral proto-Spaniards and proto-Englishmen even existed.

            America is blessed by all three parts. Excellent geography, total access to all the world’s best agricultural crops, and beneficiaries of a lot of inventive civilizaitons whose homework the early Americans could copy and use to subdue and develop the new land with technologies it had never seen before.

            The Mound Builders were blessed by (1), but not particularly blessed by (2), since about all they had in terms of exploitable animal and plant species that is of any note by modern standards was corn and dogs. And they were utterly cursed by (3), since they lived on a continent that had minimal contact with the world beyond itself, and where even the technologies of agriculture were only beginning to disseminate, probably due in no small part to a late start since the first humans to even arrive in the Americas showed up about twelve thousand years ago, whereas there were already dense sedentary gatherer populations in large parts of Eurasia by then and they’d already made a start on the foundations of agriculture and domestication.

  27. Far from sounding neutral, the repeated reminders to evaluate “good” separately from “great” come off as a pretty strong implicit indictment of the US’ current state. Especially in the comparison to Alexander, the Pedant gives the impression that the US is bad. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that this was unintentional, and possibly even contrary to his personal opinion; however, it is the impression this essay leaves. Others have pointed out the limitations of the points directly made here. But the implicit message points in the wrong direction too.

    1. Would you mind laying out the grounds on which you consider it objectively false to imply “the United States may not be morally good?”

      1. Azar Gat makes the argument that the survival of liberal democracy in the 20th century was an entirely contingent result of the fortuitous existence of the United States. If not for the US, fascist and communist totalitarian system would now dominate the entire globe. That constitutes an unquestionable moral good.

        1. That the US saved the world from tyranny in 1945* doesn’t mean that it’s still a force for moral good today. One could argue that it’s been coasting ever since and has lost ifs way as a result.

          It also doesn’t necessarily mean that it was “good” back in 1945 either, just that it was better than the alternative. The war couldn’t have been won without Stalin, but you can’t reasonably argue that he was one of the good guys.

          *Not single-handed, of course. Had it not been for the UK and USSR, there wouldn’t have been a war to win by the time of Pearl Harbour. And the USSR probably contributed more overall to winning the war. But to the extent the war was about freedom vs tyranny, the US certainly played a decisive role.

          1. Also, there are aspects in which US policy and actions in the preceding decades played into WW2 — most obviously the Great Depression, which destabilised Weimar Germany enough for the Nazis to come to power, but also some of Woodrow Wilson’s policies in the aftermath of WW1.

            Of course, this isn’t to say that WW2 was all America’s fault, but I’m not sure we can say “If not for the US, fascism and communism would have taken over, therefore the US is best” if the US was partially responsible for fascism and communism being in a position to try and take over in the first place.

          2. Not too mention the fact that fascists took a lot of inspiration from American “race science” and government policies. Or the internal fascist coup plot the US quietly swept under the rug. Or the incidents of segregation (and resulting violence) among US troop deployments and at home. And the US rehabilitating fascists into the post-war system extremely quickly. Or that it propped up fascists uninvolved in the war.

            The entire claim of the war being Freedom vs Tyranny starts to get a bit shaky when you look into how ideologically similar the combatants were, racially supremacist imperial powers are *technically* more free if you get to vote for your Fuhrer I guess.

          3. Given that the USSR contributed materially to the fact that there WAS a war by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that particular argument doesn’t hold water.

            Also, Mousey, considering that neither the Brits, French, nor Americans were doing genocide in their colonial possessions, your attempts at moral equivocation REALLY don’t hold water.

          4. I’m sure the Bengali would have a different opinion on the British committing no genocides during WW2 but go off I guess.

            Let alone the fact all 3 committed genocides prior to WW2, or the fact that all 3 have been involved in genocides post-WW2 (France knowingly armed the regime that committed the Rwandan genocide, in the 90s!).

            Claiming those 3 powers have clean hands from genocide is one of the most absurd claims you can make, the Nazi camps were literally inspired by the Boer war concentration camps ffs.

          5. Oh good night not this nonsense again.

            A. Classifying the Bengal famine as a genocide is a…debatable proposition, at best.

            B. First off, the Brits weren’t the first to do the whole “concentration camp” thing in response to an insurgency. The Spanish did that in Cuba before them. Second off, they at least tried to provide their prisoners with adequate rations and accommodations, they just ran into the limits of late 19th-century medical tech.

            I will never not be amazed at how Nazi apologists and leftists will make the same tired old comparisons that don’t hold up if you know anything about the situations and think about them for more than five seconds.

          6. Love to be called a Nazi apologist by someone who literally just called the Bengal Famine “debatable,” as if recent research hasn’t been pretty clear that it was the explicit result of British policy and deliberate prioritization of possible relief to elsewhere.

            And I never said they were the first to use concentration camps, just that they were the most notable (the next most recent were the US camps in the Philippines, which were also a humanitarian disaster).

            Your attempts to whitewash British crimes (again) are kinda despicable, I guess next you’ll be calling the Boer camps “refugee camps” like British museums still attempt to do? By the way the Nazis also fed and housed people in many of their camps, so I guess by your logic that was okay too? Were only the mass execution camps bad, we are supposed forgive the work camps now?

          7. Love to be called a Nazi apologist by someone who literally just called the Bengal Famine “debatable,” as if recent research hasn’t been pretty clear that it was the explicit result of British policy and deliberate prioritization of possible relief to elsewhere.

            What research is this, exactly?

            Your attempts to whitewash British crimes (again) are kinda despicable, I guess next you’ll be calling the Boer camps “refugee camps” like British museums still attempt to do? By the way the Nazis also fed and housed people in many of their camps, so I guess by your logic that was okay too? Were only the mass execution camps bad, we are supposed forgive the work camps now?

            The Nazi work camps were explicitly intended to work people to death.

          8. Source for my previous comment:

            The 1943 Bengal Famine was the only famine in Indian history to not be correlated with drought conditions, in face the years of the famine had above average soil moisture levels. The research explicitly notes it was caused by WW2 and British economic policy, and exacerbated primarily by the British grain import bans and other policies.

            (Also on a sidenote from the paper’s other exceptional famine, the 1874 Bihar and Bengal famine was one of the only times the British ever effectively provided relief to an Indian famine, and the Governor was heavily punished for “spending too much” on it and let future famines under his tenure turn into mass death instead. Lovely stuff /s.)

            And now we get to the wonderful (/s) “it’s not genocide if it’s an oopsie” part of the argument. Never mind that they helped cause the famine, ignored the warning signs of the famine, failed to mobilise state resources for relieving the famine, continued exporting rice (and confiscating fishing boats) while the famine was ongoing, tried to cover up the famine, and outright prevented relief aid from other sources from being imported.

            But I guess it was just an oopsie.

            Playing word games with crimes against humanity is more important than the actual human lives lost I guess.

          9. Trying to use big words doesn’t make the fact you didn’t read the article and it’s sources any less obvious.

          10. Of course I read it; that’s how I know it deals with the causes of the Bengal Famine in a perfunctory way. For reference, here’s what it says on the matter:

            The last major famine in the British era occurred in 1943, which is also known as the Bengal Famine. The famine resulted in 2–3 million deaths (Devereux, 2000). Our SAD analysis identified 1937–1945 as a period under drought based on severity, area, and duration. However, we find the drought was most widespread during August and December 1941 (Tables S2 and S3)—prior to the famine. This was the only famine that does not appear to be linked directly to soil moisture drought and crop failures (Figures S13 and S14). The famine-affected region received 15%, 3%, 9%, and 4% above-normal precipitation during June, July, August, and September of 1943 (Figure S13). We find that the Bengal famine was likely caused by other factors related at least in part to the ongoing Asian threat of World War II including malaria, starvation, and malnutrition (Sen, 1976). In early 1943, military and political events adversely affected Bengal’s economy (Tauger, 2009), which was exacerbated by refugees from Burma (Maharatna, 1996). Additionally, wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine (FIC, 1945). We note that aside from the 1943 Bengal famine, all the other famines in 1870–2016 appear to be related at least in part to widespread soil moisture drought.

            So not exactly a hugely in-depth analysis, and the analysis it does give, isn’t nearly as monocausal as you suggest, and seems to give more prominence to the ongoing Second World War than to British policies.

            But let’s go a bit further. The only source cited for the claim that “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine” is the FIC, i.e., the report of the Famine Inquiry Commission conducted in the aftermath of the famine. This report does indeed highlight failures of the British government of India; however, it reserves the most condemnation for the government of Bengal itself:

            Due weight has been given in our report to the great difficulties with which the Bengal Government were faced. The impact of the war was more severe in Bengal than in the rest of India. The “denial” policy had its effect on local trade and transport, and in particular affected certain classes of the population, for instance, the fishermen in the coastal area. The military demands on trans- port were large. There was a shortage of suitable workers available for recruitment into Government organizations concerned with food administration and famine relief. The cyclone and the partial failure of the aman crop were serious and unavoidable natural calamities. But after considering all the circumstances, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it lay in the power of the Government of Bengal, by bold, resolute and well-conceived measures at the right time to have largely prevented the tragedy of the famine as it actually took place. While other Governments in India were admittedly faced with a much less serious situation than the Government of Bengal, their generally successful handling of the food problem, and the spirit in which those problems were approached, and the extent to which public co-operation was secured stand in contrast to the failure in Bengal.

            NB Under the Government of India Act, Bengal, like all the Indian provinces, elected its own local government. The Prime Minister of Bengal at the time of the famine was Sir Khwaja Nazimuddin, a Bengali Muslim, whom I doubt was interested in committing genocide against his own people.

          11. If you also didn’t notice the source you tried to cherrypick is literally an infamous 1945 report written by the British, that has been been thoroughly criticized in basically every aspect; from underestimating the death toll, underselling the awareness of the shortage, and deliberately downplayed availability of relief efforts.

            In regards to your (and the FICs) local government argument, notably even the report itself points out that British-dominated business interests such as the Bengal Chamber of Commerce had massive influence in the Bengal local government (as expected of a colonial administration). This has been an area lots of modern historiography focuses on, as it affected the prioritisation of food supplies away from the rural poor, and allowed the wealthy to engage in rampant food price speculation and hoarding, which the 1945 report completely fails to address.

            The report (and subsequent defenders of the report) even try to use harvest failures as an excuse, which the 2019 study we’re talking about is in the middle of explicitly debunking! The only reason it cites the FIC at all is because it’s a primary source for the “denial policies” existing as British government policy, not because it agrees with it’s conclusions.

            So a colonial power supposedly gets to wash it’s hands of a situation it bought about, and could have relieved, because it delegated the incompetence to a subordinate administration which was inadequately resourced, was largely a puppet to colonial business interests, and they investigated themselves and found no wrongdoing! Great source to cherrypick /s!

          12. If you also didn’t notice the source you tried to cherrypick is literally an infamous 1945 report written by the British, that has been been thoroughly criticized in basically every aspect; from underestimating the death toll, underselling the awareness of the shortage, and deliberately downplayed availability of relief efforts.

            It’s also the only source your article cites for the claim that “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine”. If the report isn’t a reliable source, then neither is the claim that “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine”, and your “recent research has been pretty clear that it was the explicit result of British policy” schtick falls to pieces.

            The only reason it cites the FIC at all is because it’s a primary source for the “denial policies” existing as British government policy, not because it agrees with it’s conclusions.

            The article doesn’t cite the report as evidence for the denial policies existing, it cites it as evidence that “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine”. This claim is nowhere defended in the article itself, so by the ordinary standards of academic citations, we have to conclude that the authors are pointing to the FIC report to make their case for them — a strange thing to do, if they think it’s an unreliable whitewash.

          13. There is a difference between concentration camps (as used in South Africa) and death camps (as used in Poland etc.) although the term “concentration camp” is used in reference to both.

            A concentration camp is designed to concentrate a given population in a small area to make it easier to control. This is, for the avoidance of doubt, bad. It is however not impossible that under certian circumstances (such as complete infrastructure collapse) where one might conclude it’s for that population’s own good. Indeed, many concentration camp endeavours (including that of the Boers) were and indeed are *presented* as “for their own good”.

            Death camps are a subset of concentration camp where the goal is explicitly to destroy that population, with concentration being a means of making that easier. Nobody could ever draw the conclusion that death camps are for the benefit of the people in them.

            It is of course possible for concentration camps to turn into death camps, and many of the Nazi camps started out that way. And concentration camps, even if started with the best (relatively) intentions, can lead to humanitarian disaster pretty easily if you can’t keep hold of the sanitary conditions.

            I am not defending the Boer War concentration camps. But to imply that they were just as bad as the Nazi death camps, and that Britain was just as bad overall as a result, or that somehow this makes the Nazis less bad… is at best a category error. It’s not exactly comparing apples with oranges, but more comparing an apple with another apple that is rotten and poisoned and also on fire.

          14. The article doesn’t cite the report as evidence for the denial policies existing, it cites it as evidence that “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government played a major role in the famine”.

            Or the authors weren’t about to cite the 80 years of historiography of one of the most famous primary sources of the event for a single line? They used it as 1) proof of the mandates of British policy, and 2) as contrasting claim for their argument that it wasn’t drought and harvest failures (which the FIC claims it was). Meanwhile they use further references for the policy argument shortly after in the discussion and conclusion (contrasting both an example where the British colonial administration intervened, with the one in which famously didn’t), which I guess you didn’t read because you were so excited to cherrypick?

            I also note you completely ignored the rest of my points and moved past your weak local government argument, so great job displaying good faith there. Along with the Nazi defending accusation I’m honestly pretty done with the exchange.


            I am not defending the Boer War concentration camps. But to imply that they were just as bad as the Nazi death camps, and that Britain was just as bad overall as a result, or that somehow this makes the Nazis less bad… is at best a category error. It’s not exactly comparing apples with oranges, but more comparing an apple with another apple that is rotten and poisoned and also on fire.

            Absolutely, and if you’ll note my first post in this thread I don’t consider them equal either, just not as simplistic as previous comments made out.

            Asking people to think about the differences between the two isn’t an attempt to make them agree they’re equal, just a means to make them think about how clean the hands of the frequently whitewashed victors are. Nor is it an attempt to whitewash the Nazis despite what some intellectually dishonest folk in the comments are attempting to say.

            Most reasonable people will eventually concede that the British and Americans (and other Allies) are guilty of some quite horrifying crimes, but then go right back to spewing tripe such as the “Freedom vs Tyranny” nonsense in this comment section when it’s more a battle of “somewhat tyrannical vs extremely tyrannical”. I would absolutely rather be on the side of the Allies… but I’d also be much happier if most of the Allied nations saw punishment for their imperialism and colonialism as well, and I’m saying that as an Australian who has benefited from those crimes.

          15. They used it as 1) proof of the mandates of British policy, and 2) as contrasting claim for their argument that it wasn’t drought and harvest failures (which the FIC claims it was).

            I am honestly starting to wonder whether you’ve actually read this article yourself. (1) They didn’t just cite it as “proof of the mandates of British policy”, they cited it for the claim that such mandates “played a major role” in the famine. (Or, I guess, they’re just really incompetent at doing citations, but I’ll be charitable and assume that’s not the case.) (2) They never cite the FIC report for the claim that the famine was caused by harvest failures.

            Meanwhile they use further references for the policy argument shortly after in the discussion and conclusion (contrasting both an example where the British colonial administration intervened, with the one in which famously didn’t), which I guess you didn’t read because you were so excited to cherrypick?

            The only mention of the Bengal famine in the “Discussion and Conclusions” section is the single sentence, “The 1943 Bengal famine was not caused by drought but rather was a result of a complete policy failure during the British era.” Contrary to what you suggest, the authors don’t provide any citations for this claim. Moreover, they almost certainly don’t mean that the famine was *entirely* the result of specifically British policy failures — or, if they do, they’re contradicting themselves, since in section 3.2 they list “the ongoing Asian threat of World War II”, “military and political events [which] adversely affected Bengal’s economy”, and “refugees from Burma” as causes additional to “wartime grain import restrictions imposed by the British government”.

            I also note you completely ignored the rest of my points and moved past your weak local government argument, so great job displaying good faith there.

            Since you were either misunderstanding or deliberately misrepresenting your own source, there frankly didn’t seem much point in considering your other arguments.

          16. I did not ignore the impact of WW2, considering I’m talking about the impact of British policy and one of the main policies I’ve been referring to is the scorched earth wartime “denial policy” that saw redirections of already meagre relief efforts to “more critical” sectors (often biased towards British business interests as mentioned earlier) that led to mass death among the rural poor, and a massive drop in capacity for relief as coastal/riverine transport was effectively sabotaged.

            Also they do cite further sources in the discussion, now you’re just straight up lying. They cite “Late Victorian Holocausts” which is another famous piece in the historiography of the famine, so I’m not sure why you are claiming it’s all baseless. Just because it’s “a single sentence” and not the entire focus of the article does not mean the claim they make can be dismissed. They prove that drought and harvest failure was not a major impact on famine death (thus debunking one of the most common defences of British administration), and cite sources that show British policy in the region absolutely had a major effect on both agricultural capacity and relief efforts.

            Anyway since you’re now resorting to outright lies and clearly a hack, I’m dropping the thread subscription for this post.

          17. Mousey, I never called you a Nazi apologist. My point was that leftists like you make end up citing the same stuff as they do when you freak out about the behavior of liberal democracies, something that was very obvious in that paragraph, and that makes your flounce when GJ called you out astoundingly hypocritical.

          18. I did not ignore the impact of WW2, considering I’m talking about the impact of British policy and one of the main policies I’ve been referring to is the scorched earth wartime “denial policy” that saw redirections of already meagre relief efforts to “more critical” sectors (often biased towards British business interests as mentioned earlier) that led to mass death among the rural poor, and a massive drop in capacity for relief as coastal/riverine transport was effectively sabotaged.

            I’m afraid I’m really not sure which part of my comment this is supposed to be responding to.

            Also they do cite further sources in the discussion, now you’re just straight up lying.

            I never said they don’t cite further sources in the discussion, I said they don’t cite sources for the specific claim that “The 1943 Bengal famine was… a result of a complete policy failure during the British era.”

            They cite “Late Victorian Holocausts” which is another famous piece in the historiography of the famine, so I’m not sure why you are claiming it’s all baseless.

            Late Victorian Holocausts, as its title suggests, deals with famines in the late Victorian era, not with the famine of 1943, which took place over forty years after Victoria’s death.

            Just because it’s “a single sentence” and not the entire focus of the article does not mean the claim they make can be dismissed.>/i>

            No, the fact that it’s neither given a citation nor proven in the article itself means that the claim can be dismissed.

            They prove that drought and harvest failure was not a major impact on famine death (thus debunking one of the most common defences of British administration), and cite sources that show British policy in the region absolutely had a major effect on both agricultural capacity and relief efforts.

            The only source they cite for the claim that British government actions played a major role in causing the famine is the FIC report, which reserves most of its ire for the local Bengali government, and which you yourself claim isn’t a reliable source.

        2. Contingent in what way? The only contenders for settler dominance of North America were Britain and France. Suppose France had sent thousands across the Atlantic in the late 16th century, such that the state that formed was French-speaking (maybe breaking free in the Revolution?). It would have a very different internal politics, but still be – in Bret’s sense – great: enormous aggregation of economic, political and cultural power (maybe even greater, as it would likely include Canada). There’s no reason it would not oppose Nazi Germany and probably the Soviet Union too. BTW, fascism tends to fail at almost everything it attempts, including world domination.

          1. We’re forgetting about Spain again. Spain peaked early as an empire, so direct American (qua American) interaction was minimal, but it’s not hard to see a situation where Spain – even if it doesn’t manage to get a foothold in the north-east – retains its territories in the south and west, whether that be Spain directly, or a successor state (either Mexico or an independent Greater California or whatever).

            If those states survive, then in addition to the obvious economic consequences of just not having that land, it also blocks off access to the west coast, meaning America will struggle to become a Pacific power of any consequence even assuming the rest of it kicks on to become a major geopolitical force. If we (rashly) assume that everything else plays out as it did historically (a nonsense, but we’re going with it) then at minimum, therefore, its ability and motivation to contend with Japan during WW2 is significantly reduced.

            Plus, when you say there’s no reason the US wouldn’t oppose Nazi Germany… I assume we’re ignoring that for as long as it had the choice, it didn’t. Germany declared war on the US after Pearl Harbor, not vice versa.

      2. I don’t think he’s saying that “the United States may not be morally good” is objectively false, more that deliberately considering “greatness” only as raw power instead of moral goodness comes across as a bit shifty — as if the author knows or suspects that he can’t make a convincing defence of the claim that America is great in the sense of morally good, and so tries to change the subject instead.

  28. > the United States hosts the largest financial center in the world (New York City) and its close allies host the next two most important (London and Tokyo)

    Somewhat surprised Hong Kong didn’t make your list of top 3 financial centers. I tend to think of the top 3 as New York, London, and Hong Kong, but maybe that’s just because that’s where Jane Street Capital had offices when I interned there many years ago (they’ve since opened a Singapore office, but still no Tokoyo). I suppose Hong Kong’s status may be on the decline since the passage of the 2020 national security law and subsequent protests—but it’s still not obvious to me your list is right.

    1. I have also always thought of the “big three” as New York, London and Hong Kong. I get the impression that Hong Kong has been on the slide for a while – even before 2020 – as the gradual erosion of the legal system there has made it a less reliable place to do business, with a further crash due to the security law and covid, which thanks to Chinese policies will have hit it harder than either of the other two.

      As a result the number three spot looks less clear-cut than it might have done five years ago, with a number of different organisations crediting different cities depending on perspective (and dataset, inherent bias, etc.) It seems to be between Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. From that list I can see why you might select Tokyo: London and Paris might be pulling further apart, but they are still sufficiently close and interlinked that Paris feels, globally, a bit like more of the same. And Hong Kong is both in decline and politically unpalatable.

  29. That has never happened before; it may well never happen again.

    I don’t see how it would ever happen again. We’re probably never going to get the confluence of US economic domination in the mid-20th century coupled with the opportunity of World War 2 to completely rewrite international institutions at Bretton Woods and beyond. Even the British hegemony was never that powerful at the peak of the British Empire.

    Economically, it’s hard to understate how valuable it is to the US to have a huge, rich, internal market of 300+ million people. Companies can grow to enormous, successful size just operating in the US alone, then become formidable competitors abroad. Other countries don’t have that advantage – EU integration is a pale shadow of US economic integration, and EU companies have to deal with all the complexities of international markets before they can get as big as American companies (to say nothing of EU countries often having negative rules about growing companies in the first place – most big European companies are older than their US counterparts).

    1. I don’t see how it would ever happen again. We’re probably never going to get the confluence of US economic domination in the mid-20th century coupled with the opportunity of World War 2 to completely rewrite international institutions at Bretton Woods and beyond. Even the British hegemony was never that powerful at the peak of the British Empire.

      It’s low probability, but I could see a few ways. If China democratizes as it industrializes, without India or some other highly-populous country (Nigeria? EAF?) doing the same, then it would naturally form a major economic nexus and eventually probably take over the world system, usurping the US’s position so people would think of the US in the same terms we think of the EU (i.e. a valued junior partner). If brinksmanship in Eastern Europe causes nuclear war between Russia and NATO, China would basically inherit the world system just like the US did after WW2. And, of course, if post-globalization (maybe not this particular era’s globalization, which seems to be unraveling, but that of another century), the UN or a similar institution has massive political power, that would obviously be a global hegemon unrivaled.

      But yes, the foreseeable future is bipolar (US/EU v. China), and then perhaps multipolar (US, EU, China, India, plus maybe Nigeria/EAF/Indonesia/other wild cards). The unipolar moment appears to be fading fast, as China develops and begins to assert itself (plus, of course, current events in Ukraine), and unlikely to return.

      1. Why would China becoming the preeminent world power require it to “democratize”? There’s no reason to expect the most important country in the world to be democratic.

        I’d expect the opposite actually, as China becomes the world’s most powerful country, liberal democracy is going to fall out of fashion.

        1. In order for China to usurp America’s role, it has to democratize; a democratized China can cleanly integrate into, and be allowed to take over, the institutions that the United States created in a way that the current, single party state, would never be allowed to. If China becomes the most powerful world power without democratizing, then America and the EU will be actively, intentionally competing with it (as they have done so far), creating a bipolar rather than unipolar world.

          1. It seems unlikely that China would remain locked out of global institutions if it had an economy 2-3 times the size of the nearest competing nation. A fully developed China would have too much clout to ignore.

            Also, it seems fairly likely that the US will compete with China in any situation where China is not the junior partner in an alliance iwth the US. Every independent nation that’s in the US-centered alliance and economic system has this trait; it is the weaker partner in that alliance when viewed in isolation, or with any small combination of its peers. China would not be the weaker partner, whether it was democratic or not. As such, it is unlikely that it would custom-tailor its policies into something the US was happy to accept and embrace.

  30. > Commission, which is not an elected body,

    Commission is in principle as much elected body as state governments in parliamentary systems. Head of government (president of the commission) is formally nominated by head of government (the european council), but must pass vote of confidence by an elected parliament.

    In practice, europarties are not cohesive enough to force the council to nominate a coalition leader and instead accept some compromise candidate like Ursula von der Leyen.

    > EU law overrides state law, which alone is enough to make EU into a tyranny,

    That is common for (con)federations than in spheres delegated to it, their laws override state laws. US federal government is the same.

  31. > (Small countries are overrepresented in the EU, though not quite as heavily as small states in the USA.)

    In fact, it is more heavily. In USA, the house is proportional to population, while the senate is equal (2) for each state. In EU, the parliament is biased to small countries, while the council of ministers (which is essentially an upper chamber of EU legislature) is equal (1) for each state.

    1. The Council of Ministers has a system where each minister has a different number of votes. The decisions in legislative issues are made with a dual supermajority: a decision must get 60 % of votes and 60% of represented population, so it is not as biased as US Senate.

  32. I don’t think USA “greatness” can be discussed, but every time i hear a Northernamerican boasting about it, somewhere deep down in my mind there is a whisper… hubris¡

  33. Does not San Marino also have a claim on both being the first modern democracy and having the earliest constitution? The article you linked seems to be weirdly dismissive of that, besides not making a very good case for 18th century Britain’s “undemocraticness” (I think I am posting this correctly now

  34. Huh. I usually translate “de gustibus non est disputandum” as “do not kinkshame”, but I guess that works too.

    Also, I am here for Aaron Sorkin abuse.

  35. You have made a rather good explanation for the USA:s greatness (though I must note most people who are talking about how great America seem to mean it in some moral sense rather than your definition). However considering some developments in the last few years I am afraid this greatness might become a very negative force in the world in the future

    1. [begin snark]
      I don’t understand why this is even an issue. The US is obviously not great. Great, used honorably, as in the words of the Psalm (78:71 “…From following the ewes great with young…”) means ‘heavy with child, pregnant’. In the following paragraphs, I will demonstrate that, not only is the US not pregnant, the US is not even capable of pregnancy! Indeed I am puzzled as to why the question of the greatness of America remains so much discussed…
      [end snark]

      It seems to me that the real point of this post is that people are, by your lights, using the wrong word, and thereby asking a trivial question instead of the interesting one that ought be expressed by instead using a word like ‘best?’ Is this really just an argument over how to use the word ‘great?’ ‘Cause, like, ordinary usage definitely does sanction “that was a great dinner” (it was tasty, not necessarily enormous), “my grandfather was a great man” (he was of sound moral character, not physically imposing nor politically powerful), and so forth. The US is great according to one sense of the word, and [debatably] not great according to another. We all agree that only the second sense is interesting. We only disagree about… whether to use the word ‘great’ polysemously for both, I guess?

      [Incidentally, in the most recent Freedom House report to which I have access, 2020, the US is not even in the highest category of freedoms, so I’m not so sure I’d proffer ‘freedom’ as one of the axes along which the US is superlative!]

  36. I may have missed this in the comments because there are over 90 and I skimmed them:

    American Exceptionalism is apparently the one idea which is grossly mis-understood by everybody on any political spectrum. The mistake has overridden the useful, and more interesting original concept. “American Exceptionalism” wasn’t about the ways America was better (or for that matter, worse) than other nations/states/countries/whatever. The point was to argue that America avoided many of the political or social patterns of other nations, most especially Europe. Both the proponents and the critics now see this idea *only* in the context of superiority or inferiority, and often just miss the ways that the Good ‘Ole U.S.of A. might just be *different*.

    Part of the point was a rejection of colonialist thinking where ideas were automatically assumed to stem from Europe in some sense. Similarly, it rejects the idea that United States (and the New World more broadly) were following along” European civilizations. There are criticisms of this approach, but it’s important to understand what it was actually saying, which isn’t summed up in a two out-of-context words. Actually I didn’t really even give a good summary, but the wikipedia page has many sources listed.

  37. One metric I think has been understated here is immigration vs. emigration. I’ve seen it said occasionally that you can measure a country by how many people want to get in, vs. how many want to get out. So how does the USA stack in that measure? According to this website, we have the highest number of foreign-born residents by far. When it comes to emigration, moving AWAY from your native country, we are number 26 as of 2022.

    Now, to answer everyone who says our host is kicking at a strawman, I disagree. Consider the YouTube clip he cites: “there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re [the United States] is the greatest country in the world.” Our host is taking issue with the “absolutely no evidence” part, which is echoed by many on the left. The character then says “We lead the world in only three categories [number of incarcerated, number of religious people, and defense spending].These are talking points that are only relevant in a sense of philosophical values. As Jacob Manaker says above, people who echo the character’s talking points imply there is no set of values at which the US excels, and you are supposed to agree with them, otherwise you are just a knuckle-dragging conservative.

    1. Proportionate to population, and looking only at countries that do not rely on expatriate work-forces or are subject to large refugee flows, Australia and NZ both outrank the US by some way (Australia 30% of population, NZ 28%), as do Switzerland and Sweden. Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain are all in the same ballpark as the US.

      1. If you count temporary migrants (and you really should), proportionate to population places like Qatar and the UAE are the most immigrant heavy countries in the world *by far*. In both cases their population is over 85% foreign workers. I don’t think anyone considers either Qatar or the UAE an example of a healthy society.

    2. “number of foreign-born residents” is a function not just of who wants to get in but how many people are let in, and thus is a very imperfect measure of how many people want to get in.

      “Where else but the US, or maybe Canada…” — Lisa Simpson

      1. Plus, “how many people want to get in” is itself determined by other factors besides just “Is this objectively the best place to live?”

        E.g., I’d imagine a lot of Latino immigration to the US is because it’s the closest first-world country, and latterly because there’s already a large Latino community to join. It’s not because people have done an in-depth comparison of the US vs. France, Germany, the UK, etc., and decided that America offers a better quality of life than anywhere in Europe.

  38. > “Thus Alexander, Catherine and Peter are all called ‘great’ but one may well argue if they were ‘good.’”

    Don’t forget Herod! Not much argument about if he was ‘good,’ though. (Even if you exclude the Biblical account, other historical records have him down as ‘generally pretty rotten.’)

  39. “Is America the greatest country in the world? Well, if you don’t define ‘greatest’ as ‘best’, but rather as…”

    Yeah, but no one is *actually* asking whether the American economy is the largest in the world or whatever, so that’s not really engaging with the question as intended.

  40. And despite – or perhaps because of – the difficulties that often come with such a diverse population, the United States is also arguably the world’s oldest functioning democracy

    I just clicked through to the link there and… man, that really isn’t a very good argument.

    For example, San Marino, a small enclave surrounded by Italy and founded in the fourth century, claims to be the first republic. Its political system — a parliamentary republic — was established in a series of six books that date back to the late 1500s. But it isn’t a nation and it hasn’t always been independent, coming under the authority of others.

    Firstly, what’s being a nation got to do with anything? The claim was that the US was the world’s oldest *democracy*, not that it was the world’s oldest *democratic nation*.

    (Not to mention, the definition of “nation” is itself a big vague — under some definitions, you could claim that the US isn’t actually a nation, either.)

    Secondly, whilst San Marino hasn’t always been independent, the latest occupation I could find is this (from Wikipedia):

    “The country was occupied on 17 October 1739 by the legate (Papal governor) of Ravenna, Cardinal Giulio Alberoni, but independence was restored by Pope Clement XII on 5 February 1740, the feast day of Saint Agatha, after which she became a patron saint of the republic.”

    Last I checked, 1740 is before 1776, so even if we only count from the restoration of San Marino’s independence, it’s still older than the US by 36 years.

    While England has a monarch as head of state, it has gradually evolved to function like a parliamentary republic. The Magna Carta of the 13th Century started to lay the groundwork for British parliament, but the Americans of 1776 clearly stated their view that the king was a despot aiming to establish an “absolute Tyranny over these states.” And he did attempt to crush them with his armed forces.

    Because the self-justifications given by people rebelling against their government are always accurate? You might as well say that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrannical dictator because the Confederates of 1861 clearly stated their view that he was.

    Though Abraham Lincoln did in fact “attempting to crush [rebels] with his armed forces”, so if we’re using the fact that Britain tried to suppress a rebellion as evidence for its undemocraticness, I guess we have to conclude that America in 1861 wasn’t a democracy, either.

    1. San Marino doesn’t count. I mean, seriously. It has no foreign policy to speak of, is entirely reliant on Italy for its security (it has no standing army, and its militia comprises, if I remember rightly, a handful of ceremonial crossbowmen), it has the population of a medium-sized town and an even smaller land area (it’s basically the top of a hill), and produces nothing of any value. The only reason it still exists as a country is that nothing interesting has ever happened there nor is ever likely to. It’s a curiosity. Technically, it might qualify as an older democracy than the US, but in order for the comparison to be worthwhile it actually has to function like an independent state.

      One of the issues with trying to identify old democracies and republics, however, is that Americans tend to look at the question through a peculiarly American lens: i.e. America is treated as the standard template for a democracy, so anywhere that isn’t America can’t be a proper democracy because it’s not America. There’s also a tendency to condemn the existence of undemocratic institutions (like monarchies) as evidence of antidemocratic reactionism without paying attention to where real power actually lies. I would also argue that the fetishisation of democracy to the exclusion of all else causes as many problems as it solves but that’s another issue. As a result we have the curious situation where the “liberal-democratic paradises” occasionally fetishised by the American (and for that matter British) left – Sweden, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, etc. – are actually all monarchies.

      That aside, there is still a good argument that the US is the oldest continuously-functioning democracy of any consequence. England (and Scotland) became definitively consittutional monarchies after 1688, but remained resistant to *democracy* until the later part of the 19th century. Switzerland has had a good run, but can only date its current iteration to 1815, Belgium and the Netherlands likewise. Iceland is an old democracy but was subjected to absolute rule for most of the early 19th century. France, arguably the most successful of the European republics, flitted between more and less democratic systems for most of the 19th century until 1870, and arguably again until the 1960s.

      Given the shape of world history, Africa, Asia and Oceania are write-offs from a “longstanding democracy” perspective, so outside Europe the only other contenders are in South America – and none of those are as old as the US either.

      There is however another large “but” to be inserted here and that’s that all this is predicated on the assumption that America was properly democratic from its inception, and while it may have made a lot of noise about democracy, in terms of actual voting rights the franchise was sharply limited since it was generally limted to white, property-owning males, which was a similar restriction to those in place in some European countries at the time. The US was still more democratic than Great Britain (or the UK as it became) in terms of electors per capita but the gap wasn’t huge. This goes back to the “American lens” referenced above.

      1. One could argue that the world has one democracy, Switzerland, and a bunch of wannabees that are really elective oligarchies. Thus Switzerland is the oldest democracy.

        1. I know this is probably meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I think you could make a serious case that, once a country reaches a certain size, any “democracy” will in reality be an elective oligarchy, because the practicalities of funding an election campaign at such a scale mean that only people pre-selected by the main political parties have a shot at getting into government.

          1. I think many countries have public campaign financing, which undermines your practicality argument. And the US has big finance requirements, yet still has the possibility of mavericks getting at least a House if not Senate seat despite party opposition.

            The stronger oligarchy argument is that you can’t have millions of people deliberating on laws, so you have to delegate, thus oligarchy. “Iron law of oligarchy”. Though elective is still better than hereditary or explicitly plutocratic.

            But while the Swiss have a fairly standard proportional representation legislature like other modern countries, the people also have an ability to fairly easily shoot down laws, or pass constitutional changes, despite the legislature. Thus an only somewhat tongue-in-cheek argument that they’re the only true democracy.

          2. I can not imagine any surer way to keep an oligarchy in power than by giving it authority over the money that they and their opponents may spend campaigning, which is what public campaign funding entails.

          3. you must not do it ineffective
            here every party gets money for every vote it gets

          4. And that’s really how to keep the oligarchy in control.

            Permit me to quote Boss Tweed’s famous rule: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

          5. I think many countries have public campaign financing, which undermines your practicality argument.

            That’s generally given to political parties, not individuals. I don’t think there’s any country in the world where some rando can rock up at the campaign finance office and say “I’d like to run for President, please give me lots of money.”

          6. > I don’t think there’s any country in the world where some rando can rock up at the campaign finance office and say “I’d like to run for President, please give me lots of money.”

            Well, we (the Netherlands) don’t have a presidency, but getting on the ballot is a matter of collecting enough signatures to prove you have a chance, and public financing is a mostly matter of being on the ballot, though you’ll have to pay back the money if you don’t get at least a small fraction of the votes needed to win a seat. That bit is mainly there to stop scams and joke parties.

          7. @ Mary

            > I can not imagine any surer way to keep an oligarchy in power than by giving it authority over the money that they and their opponents may spend campaigning, which is what public campaign funding entails.

            As opposed to 90% of the campaign spending being dominated by a few ultrawealthy who head large corporations and/or organize super-PACs?

            The money is always going to pass through certain potential points of control – banks for instance. Why do you think a public point of control is inherently “most” tyrannic as opposed to oh, say… the Koch brothers?

      2. Plus, is democracy in itself a value one should strive for, or merely a tool for achieving actual values? Because if we take “freedom” or at least “decentralization” as a value instead of “democracy”, you suddenly have things such as the Holy Roman Empire etc., which was less centralized (and thus arguably more politically free) than United States ever were.

        1. Individual and collective self-governance is an intrinsic component of freedom, so in that sense democracy is itself a value. Going a little deeper, one might consider freedom itself as only a means to the good life. However, politics offers no higher good than freedom; the substantive components of the good life have to come from some other source.

          1. A government (which is really just citizens collectively organising) can do a lot to enable a good life. You could frame things like providing food or museums as “freedom from hunger” or “freedom from ignorance”, but at some point the concept loses all meaning.

          2. Citizens can collectively organize all sorts of things that aren’t governments. Governments necessarily coerce those who do not wish to collectively organize.

          3. On individual level, people in 15th century Holy Roman Empire or even 19th century Austria-Hungary were easily more free than people in most today’s democracies. So if democracy fails to achieve its goal, why should it, itself, be a value?

          4. Most people in 15th century or 19th century Europe (other than maybe England in the 19th century) were peasants, under the thumb of the local landlord and possibly the local priest. If they were part of the minority who lived in cities or towns, they were under the thumb of the guildmasters who monopolized political and economic power. Why do you think there were so many insurrections and revolutions in Europe?

          5. There is a strong tendency in Western history to conflate “free of interference from the central government’s lawmen” and “actually free.” Dr. Devereaux has noted a tendency for people thinking about history to almost reflexively and accidentally take the perspective of historical societies’ elites.

            The lord of the manor is much more ‘free’ if he lives in a society that lacks the power and organization to tell him what he can and cannot do with his tenants’ lives, property, well-being,, spouses, and so on, but has the assurance that if the local peasants take exception to the way he treats his tenants and try to depose him by force, then the central government will call it a “rebellion” and send troops to help him subdue the dissenters.

            From the point of view of would-be oligarchs, the maximally free society has almost no regulatory authority and extracts very little in the way of taxes, while still providing a strong brute squad to put down any uppity ideas among the serfs.

            From the point of view of everyone else (read: 90% of the population or more), a maximally free society has a central government powerful enough and motivated enough to break would-be oligarchs over its knee.

      3. UK “democracy” tends to run into the problem that for a lot of the time it consists of like 20 million brits who get some kind of vote and hundreds of millions of indians and africans who at best, got a whole lot less.

        1. India and Africa were never part of the UK. You might as well claim that the modern US isn’t democratic because none of the countries under US hegemony get a say in who becomes President.

          1. I dunno how “part of the UK” is defined but I’m pretty sure that India was under the Crown, and certainly India and parts of Africa were under the British government, in a way that countries ‘under’ US hegemony are not. Also, Ireland, another flaw in UK “democracy”.

          2. Firstly, the Crown =/= the UK.

            Secondly, European colonial empires were “under” the metropolis in the same way that, e.g., occupied Japan was “under” the USA: they were controlled by the metropolis, but not part of it.

          3. India and the rest were firmly controlled by the British government, elected by whatever fraction of the British people had the vote. If democracy means anything at all, it is the ability of all adult citizens to have a decisive voice – as a body – in politics. This Indians did not have.By this metric, few countries are completely democratic, and very few indeed before 1950.

          4. India and the rest were firmly controlled by the British government, elected by whatever fraction of the British people had the vote. If democracy means anything at all, it is the ability of all adult citizens to have a decisive voice – as a body – in politics. This Indians did not have.By this metric, few countries are completely democratic, and very few indeed before 1950.

            No-one’s ever said that *British India* was a democracy.

        2. Many of the subject peoples in the Empire did have the right to vote, including in India. But the question is “in what elections, and who were they electing?” That is, incidentally, a question that can be levied at any purportedly democratic society throughout history, including the modern USA. How many cabinet secretaries in America – i.e. the *government* – were elected to their position, or at all?

          The UK was not, throughout most of the 19th century, a democratic exemplar. Indeed, it wasn’t trying to be, and some of the leading figures of the age (including liberals like Palmerston) were deeply suspicious of democracy as a guiding principle – this being one of the reasons why relations with the North prior to and during the Civil War were relatively cool.

          But considering that the USA did claim to be such an exemplar, and indeed justified its rebellion and establishment on democratic grounds, it’s worth querying the extent to which it actually delivered on that versus the motherland. I mean, apart from anything else the US still had slavery for decades after Britain abolished it, so that’s a big mark in the debit column. And yes, Britain had an empire, many of whose people didn’t have a meaningful vote, but Americans were also merrily colonising vast swathes of land against the oppostiion of the natives and then not listening to them, so glass houses etc.

      4. There is a problem that US (and to some extent also british, and other europeans) tends to write their history as “democracy is when it starts looking like our political system”, and then often not covering the details.
        You could absolutely make the argument that the US did not become democratic until the voting rights act. (and the fact that there’s several of them just gives you more options!) Can you) *really* call something democratic when it excludes a majority of the population (such as not giving women the right to vote? Etc. etc.

        You get into things like “The US was exceptional in 1776 but much less so in 1950” or you have to go into nitty-gritty to explain why the US slaveowner-democracy was more democratic than the some remnant-medieval estates-representaitonist system like Sweden (and you absolutely can do that, I’d probably even agree, but it would get complicated and into-the-weeds-y)

        And even when it comes to internal stability… Does a bloodless coup outweigh a massive civil war? (which also was followed by a series of violent coups later on, but that’s a different story) does a radical (but mostly peaceful) change in the constitution stack up against a bloody civil war that radically reinterprets it?

        Often questions like this just ends up confirming whatever the question i asking, and telling us less about actual events.

  41. I have to ask… who is this post for?

    I understand the desire to avoid a value judgement on whether America is in some way good, but I think that you can’t avoid making it. Even trying to measure these supposedly objective categories, you still get into a lot of trouble.

    Economically, median income obviously doesn’t capture the distribution of wealth, or the cost of living, or any of the other metrics that might give you a better idea of how prosperous the ‘average’ US resident is. It also doesn’t factor in the question of what GDP is actually measuring. See the notes about services being more transactionalized and financialized in the US, meaning that more money is being exchanged for a given outcome compared to other countries. See also the question of industrial capacity – there’s been nothing exceptional about the US’s handling of supply shocks over the course of the pandemic; compare and contrast that with China which, for all its own inefficiencies and internal politics, can absolutely move mountains when the State puts its mind to something. (just throwing up cities in days like it’s no big deal!)

    For knowledge, I think you could compare and contrast the Cold War US with the current US. During the Cold War, the government threw a lot of money at blue sky research and pretty much anywhere, given the understanding that there was a clash of civilizations/empires and they needed every advantage to keep up with the Soviets (they did not, but go off). A lot of genuinely transformative technologies came out of that!

    Wheras now, the US largely funds corporate ventures. But tech companies aren’t in the business of making new technology; they’re in the business of having a technology and applying it to everything they see. (Assuming they’re not just in the business of rent-seeking!) You could argue that this ends up producing a different *kind* of knowledge – that after the cold war, most advancement has been making existing products more efficient and affordable, rather than inventing entirely new products. But I feel like the internet was the last truly transformative technology or set of technologies, and the really meaningful innovations stopped coming around… 2005?

    And of course we have big universities, I’ll give you that one.

    Culture: I’d argue that the US’s diversity and supposed non-nation-ness is a difference of degree rather than one of kind – we draw the ethnic groupings more broadly, but we arrive at the same sort of judgements about who is and isn’t ‘really American’ as someone might about who is and isn’t ‘really French’.

    Also we do have a lot of cultural power, but we’re not the lone superpower in that role – consider the soft power the Chinese government holds over companies who want to do business in China, which is basically all of them.

    Military: People said cuba, but otherwise I’ll mostly grant this one, haha.

    Anyways I have to go dinner but the point is that I’d say that even trying to measure these supposedly objective markers of ‘greatness’ is a very subjective exercise. And also the US isn’t as ‘objectively great’ as it might like to think

    1. Median income using PPP conversions absolutely captures cost of living. (Have you bought gasoline in Europe recently?) And GDP definitely includes both privately and governmentally supplied services. Why are there so many people on the internet who never took Econ 201?

      1. The question isn’t whether it captures it, it’s whether the prices would be equivalent. Private means maximization of profit at every point of transaction, public does not have this extra burden at every step. So even though both are part of GDP, the actual dollar for dollar effectiveness of that spending varies depending on the proportion of public vs private.

        1. You are claiming that public spending is more efficient than private?! Can I get a show of hands?

          1. In some cases, such as healthcare, absolutely. Price inelasticity means the government has far greater bargaining power than most private individuals and as such can get much better prices (let alone the ability to legislate price controls etc). Then there is the removal of profit seeking middle-men such as private insurers which merely add another step for profit to be extracted.

            I’m not sure why it’s such a shock, it’s quite well documented if you look into any research on US healthcare spending and outcomes compared to anywhere with a public option.

          2. And, of course, you can just refuse to treat people who are net drains on the system. Those with connections can get waivers, and the rest get to be economies.

            Canada’s own courts have ruled its health care is a violation of human rights.

          3. Things we have found (by repeated experiment) where public provision does better than private: defence; healthcare; social housing; education; social security; infrastructure; basic research…). Which is why all developed states have government shares of GDP at 30% or more.

          4. @Mary

            No , you can not if you are a legal resident public health care have to take you in, if you have not left for private

          5. Have to? What happens when they don’t?

            Lying about diagnoses is a popular technique

          6. Sorry i can not follow your line of thought here, could you please elaborate?

            By law here everyone must have health care or insurance.
            Public healthcare can not refuse to insurance you, if you stayed in

        2. Public has the burden of no one trying to make a profit and consequently keep costs down. That’s often a worse burden.