Is America Exceptional?

Terry to his wife Cindy: “Do you think I am special?”

Cindy: “Honey, everybody’s a little special.”


Lately in the news, we see a rash of commentary about American “exceptionalism.”  Like the word “extremism,” it has no clear meaning without reference to the standard in question.  One can be accurately labeled extreme or exceptional only when the speaker has in mind some range of ideas or behaviors as a framework.

Extremism has typically been lobbed as a grenade against conservatives.  The first time I recall it was Barry Goldwater’s statement in response to accusations that he was “extreme.”  We see a similar attempt on Sarah Palin and her sympathizers with exceptionalism.

Is America exceptional?  Damn right it is.  But what I have in mind by exceptional is probably not what much of the press has in mind.  I do not believe that some deity or other cosmic force has ordained us to be special.  I do not believe we are intrinsically better than inhabitants of other countries.  I sure don’t believe the mother ship is coming to get only us.*

I mean by “exceptional” that we were the first country founded explicitly on the principle of individual liberty.  Other countries made forays into this territory, but the United States was founded primarily on the basis of the primacy of the individual.  We are, or were, exceptional for that reason.  To paraphrase Ayn Rand, human history is in many ways a story of the escape of the individual from the collective–the tribe, the country, the planet.  America recognized that no authority, not even an overwhelming majority, has the right to tell another how to live his/her life as long as the same right in others is honored.

The shift away from the primacy of the individual started almost from our country’s founding.  From the Whiskey Rebellion on, government met resistance to its attempts to take from individuals to fund government.  It persisted, and after FDR virtually all obstacles to the premise that what an individual earns is his/hers by right collapsed. Now, we have our property confiscated and given to others, are groped by Federal authorities, are prevented from eating what we like, and are forced to buy insurance whether we want it or not.

A significant number of members of Congress openly scoff at the document that enshrines those individual rights–our Constitution.  They call the reading of the Constitution on the House floor “pretentious.” They claim that the law is “what a judge says it is.”  They ask, incredulously, “are you serious?” when confronted with the constitutionality of the health care law.  We have slid headlong from a noble insistence on our individual rights to the base assumption that we must do what the government says we must do.

We were once exceptional.  No more.  If we keep this up, we will no longer be even noteworthy.


*With one exception.  This guy is definitely not going with us.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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