Column on End of Exceptionalism

The End of Exceptionalism

Tibor R. Machan

America has been thought of as an exceptional country because of its basic
political principles. In particular, the recognition of individual
rights, the sovereignty of the citizens instead of some king or even
democratic assembly, rendered the country extraordinary as far as the
nature of human community life is concerned. Although there have always
been some who tried to point out that statism is a farce, that government
is not what’s important in human communities but the individuals who make
them up, this idea gained explicit official recognition (in law, in public
policy) only with the emergence of the United States of America. The
Declaration of Independence, specifically, laid out ideals of human
community life that were entirely exceptional, unique, compared to what
has prevailed throughout history and dominates the world even now.

But none of this implies that what made America exceptional was the sole
feature of this country’s system of laws and public policies. America has
always been a mixed system. It barely escaped become a monarchy–George
Washington had been offered the throne but refused it! Alexander Hamilton
much preferred the centralized government of Great Britain to the loose
federation that had been the original USA. There was a huge debate about
whether the country should have a traditional government-managed central
bank and the supporters eventually won.

In short, many, many aspects of the United States of America did not
conform to what made it exceptional, namely, its substantially free
system. The capitalism so often described as America’s political economy
was never complete or pure, not be a long shot. Everything from blue laws
in thousands of local communities to eventually massive taxation
throughout the country undercut the capitalist elements. And later came
all the government regulations, based on a (deliberate?) misreading of the
U. S. Constitution’s "interstate commerce clause." ("To regulate" was
supposed to mean "to regularize" not "to regiment.")

None of this should be surprising. After all, for centuries on end
throughout the world the dominant form of human community life has been
and still is some variety of statism, a top down rule by some people of
the rest. In most of history the rule has been brutal, unlimited, and only
in some spots and after a while did it become popular to limit governments
as the Magna Carta proposed. The notion that government should confine
itself to "securing [our] rights" was indeed exceptional and still is.
Opposite ideas, however, were quite popular, also, and still are,
including with most of the intellectuals and scholars in the field of
political theory. (One need but consider that in a supposedly free country
education from the primary to the higher levels is mostly administered by
governments. That is directly opposed to the notion that government should
be limited in its scope to securing our rights!)

One reason all this needs to be considered is that too many people are
aghast that Barack Obama is leaning very strongly in the direction of a
socialist type government. That would be one wherein the wealth is deemed
to belong to society, people themselves belonging to the state, and
governments distributing and redistributing much of the country’s wealth.
There are numerous prominent law professors, for example, at prestigious
universities who write books devoted to arguing that private property
rights are a myth. (Just consider Professors Liam Murphy and Thomas
Nagel, very prominently published book, The Myth of Ownership [Oxford
University Press, 2002].) So the idea of socialism is by no means
extraordinary in this society despite its going against its basic,
original political philosophy. Senator Obama is, in fact, much closer in
his outlook to what millions of college students are taught day in and out
than to what made the country exceptional by way of what’s contained in
its declaration and constitution.

Unfortunately all of this is not much discussed in America’s high schools
and colleges. So when it comes to light in the popular media, it takes
most people by surprise. It is time, though, that they realize it all and
maybe do something about it next time they get the chance.

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