How exceptional is America? Are we the best country in the world? With Independence Day fresh in our minds, American exceptionalism is a question worth examining.
Some certainly don’t think we’re all that great. In the pilot episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, main character Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) unleashes a tirade of depressing statistics, claiming, “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
On the surface, admittedly, that statement may seem to be true. We are outranked in education, with each new report praising the systems in Finland and South Korea. We rank 51st in life expectancy, which would seem to indicate that our healthcare system is woefully inadequate compared to the rest of the world.
But hesitate before jumping to a conclusion. “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable,” cautioned Mark Twain. Re-examining the above indicators, we find a number of alternative explanations.
Test score comparisons between countries can be extremely misleading. Some American students do as well (or better) than anybody in the world. International comparisons measure different populations and falsely suggest that America was, at one time, the leader in test scores and has since fallen. Instead, according to the Cato Institute, scores in the United States have been remarkably constant over the last 40 years.
The life expectancy statistic also suggests the wrong conclusions. When measuring life expectancy, countries simply average the amount of years lived. However, if we truly want to measure the quality of a healthcare system, we should exclude those with fatal injuries from the statistic to control for the crime rate. If this is done, America is actually first in life expectancy among OECD nations (rich countries). Further supporting this claim is the evidence from health economists Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider. They conclude that the United States leads in five-year cancer survival rates.
What about the philosophical argument? In McAvoy’s Newsroom speech, he argues that we used to be the greatest country in the world. “We stood up for what was right … we sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.” It’s an easy mistake for him to make, assuming the citizens that went before us did not have similar societal problems or political disagreements.
Yet this supposes an idealized view of history. We tend to look on past events through rose-colored glasses. Back then, just as today, we were still likely to “identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.” If you read historical accounts of America’s past elections, you can still see the vitriol, the false accusations, and the corruption present in many aspects of American life today.
So what makes us special? We are a nation founded on the principle of natural rights. We believe a government should have the consent of the governed. There is a collective understanding of something never before tried, a new experiment in government that has shattered expectations and improved the quality of life for millions of people in ways we never could have imagined. We strive always to do better. Throughout the many trials of our past, we have endured.
“If this is not the greatest country in the world, leave!”