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Old 02-02-2006, 05:15 PM   #1
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The United States is not its government ...

so says a European in a British newspaper ... just some food for thought ...

[q]The President is a dolt – so how can America be such a success story?
Anatole Kaletsky

TWO CEREMONIAL events occurred in Washington on Tuesday evening that shone a spotlight on one of the most important but paradoxical features of a modern democratic society.
The more widely reported was President Bush’s State of the Union address, a weak and defensive speech even by his undemanding standards.

At the other end of Washington, meanwhile, Alan Greenspan, the retiring chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, was bidding farewell to the institution whose skilful management of US monetary policy made him the dominant figure in the world economy for the past 18 years. What connects these two events is a paradox that has baffled many people, especially in Europe, ever since George W. Bush became President.

For the past five years, America has been led by a president who is clearly not up to the job — a man who is not just inarticulate, but lacking in judgment, intelligence, integrity, charisma or staying power. Yet America as a nation seems to be stronger, more prosperous and self-confident than ever.

As the State of the Union address made clear, President Bush has more or less given up on all the grand goals that were supposed to define his presidency: social security reform, peace in the Middle East, even the axis of evil doctrine, which was supposed to disarm North Korea and Iran. Most embarrassingly, President Bush seems to have given up on capturing Osama bin Laden or bringing to justice the perpetrators of 9/11.

But now comes the paradox. While America has been run by one of the most doltishly ineffectual governments in history, it has forged ever further ahead of Europe in terms of wealth, science, technology, artistic creativity and cultural dominance.

Why does America’s prosperity and self-confidence seem to bear so little relationship to the competence of its government? The obvious answer is that America, founded on a libertarian theory of minimal government, has always had low expectations of politicians. In America, it is not just business that thrives independently of government, perhaps even in spite of government. The same is also true of other areas of excellence which in Britain are considered quintessentially in the public domain — higher education, leading-edge science, culture and academic research. Because Americans expect so little of their government, they are rarely disappointed. They do not slump into German-style angst when their governments fail to find solutions to the nation’s problems.

This anarchic spirit was summed up by Ronald Reagan: “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’.” In Europe, by contrast, the public expect government to solve all problems, and the media try to hold politicians accountable for everything. The result is a culture of dependency that extends far beyond the welfare state, to business and to the worlds of education, medicine, arts and science.

The American approach has a powerful advantage rooted in human nature: private sector activity is powered by economic incentives, while the State must operate by rules and sanctions. Since incentives, as Adam Smith observed, are much more likely to stimulate creativity and effort than sanctions, private enterprise tends to achieve ambitious objectives, while government often fails.

But while the weakness of US government may in some ways have helped to widen the gulf of achievement between America and Europe, there is another and opposite side to the story — which is where we must return to Mr Greenspan. American politicians may be incompetent and venal, even by European standards, but this is not true of the public realm as a whole. America has a host of public institutions, ranging from government bodies such as the Federal Reserve and the National Institutes of Health to charities such as the great universities, museums and hospitals, that are driven by a sense of public service that puts British and European bureaucracies to shame.,00.html


yes, yes, i know the article fellates Mr. Greenspan nicely, but let's concentrate on different attitudes towards government -- i think that's where the most interesting discussion might lie.

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Old 02-02-2006, 06:34 PM   #2
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Well for starters, it sounds suspiciously like his personal fantasy of what Europe ought to be is leading his analysis of what America actually is. (I like how he managed to slip in that little dig about Germanic angst--very British of him, even though his name suggests he's not.) Yes, we value entrepreneurship and individual ambition very highly, something which European commentators as far back as de Tocqueville have gushed about, but I think describing us as "founded on a libertarian theory of minimal government" overstates the matter. Actually, I think this guy could stand to read de Tocqueville and reflect a bit on why he identified in American culture--not necessarily in politics proper--an everpresent danger of "democratic despotism" ("Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, yet they wish to remain free"). Or for that matter, read our Constitution and Bill of Rights in light of Locke's Treatises on Government and note their not-exactly-pathbreaking indebtedness to good old European Enlightenment social contract theory.

The bit about our glorious public institutions and their public service ethos sounds rosy, but I get the feeling it's rhetorical filler and not based on any study of the performance of these "charity" (?!) universities, museums and hospitals over time. How many university students did he interview about how "well served" they felt before making that assessment?

And at the risk of inviting ridicule, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that we "have always had low expectations of politicians," either. If anything, I think we may have more of a tendency to lionize (or demonize) them than Europeans generally do. Perhaps that's a bit different from what's implied by "expectations," but at any rate, I really don't see a dismissively indifferent attitude to the role and power of politicians as characterizing our political culture.

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Old 02-02-2006, 06:39 PM   #3
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Re: The United States is not its government ...

Originally posted by Irvine511
yes, yes, i know the article fellates Mr. Greenspan nicely, but let's concentrate on different attitudes towards government -- i think that's where the most interesting discussion might lie.
Funny you say that, considering that Blair's likely successor and current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has now formally hired Greenspan as a consultant. Greenspan is doing it for free--his own insistence. The two have had mutual respect for each other for years.

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