American exceptionalism and those bad European analogies

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By Sol Sanders

Sunday, October 28, 2012
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Maybe it’s because you can fly faster from America to Europe than vice versa.

For whatever reason, the politically correct mantra these days holds that, if we would just imitate the Europeans, everything would be better in America. With the mantra comes the corollary: The U.S. cannot be in the right if other advanced countries are doing something different.

The idiocy these arguments express runs apace. Recently, the usual suspects took up a good part of a “Newshour” on the BBC — rebroadcast, of course, by NPR — arguing just this thesis. The European example was cited as the rationale for rebuilding American infrastructure.

There may be arguments for the vulgar Keynesianism belief that the U.S. can spend its way out of recession, and there certainly is strong justification for infrastructure rebuilding. But these BBC analysts — the usual condescending Brit interlocutor and an American Council on Foreign Relations stalwart — were making a defense of President Obama’s campaign slogans for uninhibited infrastructure expansion financed with credit and debt.

There may be justifications for this Obama strategy. I don’t buy them, and they certainly are not found in imperfect analogies to other countries. Why? Let us count the ways, many of which give fresh meaning to the old cliche about apples and oranges:

Population — Only China and India exceed the U.S. population, as the country heads toward 350 million people, with most other countries having only a small fraction of that figure. As Hegel, the father of dialectical materialism, argued, a quantitative increase in some entity, usually population, to a certain threshold gives rise to a qualitative change in the structure of a society. Furthermore, the differences will grow, for, unlike Europe and most of Asia, where the birth rates and population increase are slowing or have actually fallen, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 40 percent over the next four decades.

Geography — Only three countries are larger in land area than the U.S., and not one has America’s geographic advantages. Among them: four of the world’s most productive agricultural climates; major river systems flowing south, instead of freezing on their way north to the Arctic; plentiful water supplies for drinking, crop irrigation, industrial production and hydropower; and shallow waters that support marine life. The United States has a wide array of oil, natural gas, iron ore, coal, lead, zinc, phosphate, silver and copper, all benefiting domestic industry.

Infrastructure — The U.S. has almost 50,000 miles of interstate highways compared to, for example, just 7,982 miles for Germany’s vaunted autobahns. There are more than 600,000 bridges in America, a number which dwarfs the totals for any European country, and perhaps for the whole continent. In a typical screed last year on the defects of American infrastructure — compared to Europe, of course — The Economist neglected to factor in the value America sets on its federal system for local experimentation in a continental environment. (What a difference a year makes — given the collapse of the euro, is there is hope our British cousins would revisit this whole argument?)

But the essence of U.S. uniqueness does not lie in misconstrued analogies or in a simple recitation of magnificence of American resources, but in the republic’s intellectual origins.

President Obama, when asked during his 2009 apology tour of Europe about “American exceptionalism,” quipped that it was the equivalent of other countries’ concept of their own special character. He couldn’t have been more wrong. For virtually every country in the Old World is based — often falsely — on ethnicity, language or religion.

American identity, by contrast, has been ideological from its beginning. Religion, ethnicity and even language — Benjamin Franklin was worried about how much German was being spoken in the streets of Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention and toyed with making English an official language — have always been diverse. What has held the republic together for two centuries have been such concepts as individual freedom, free enterprise and equality before the law, even when actual practice has not always met the mark.

In a sense, it doesn’t even matter if the concepts are true. Like so many things in life, the perception of this American exceptionalism may be even more important than its reality. It has fueled the national ethos and will likely do so as long as the republic survives.

• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at and blogs at

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