//What's So Great About America?

What's So Great About America?

By Dinesh D'Souza

During the week of the Fourth of July, TAE looks back to its April/May 2002 issue when Indian-born scholar Dinesh D’Souza shared his thoughts on his adopted country of America.

The newcomer who sees America for the first time typically experiences emotions that alternate between wonder and delight. Here is a country where everything works: The roads are paper-smooth, the highway signs are clear and accurate, the public toilets function properly, when you pick up the telephone you get a dial tone. You can even buy things from the store and then take them back if you change your mind. For the Third World visitor, the American supermarket is a marvel to behold: endless aisles of every imaginable product, 50 different types of cereal, multiple flavors of ice cream, countless unappreciated inventions like quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, roll-on deodorant, disposable diapers.

The immigrant cannot help noticing that America is a country where the poor live comparatively well. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s, when CBS television broadcast an anti-Reagan documentary, “People Like Us,” which was intended to show the miseries of the poor during an American recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with the intention of embarrassing the Reagan administration. But it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans had television sets and cars. They arrived at the same conclusion that I witnessed in a friend of mine from Bombay who has been trying unsuccessfully to move to the United States for nearly a decade. I asked him, “Why are you so eager to come to America?” He replied, “Because I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”

The point is that the United States is a country where the ordinary guy has a good life. This is what distinguishes America from so many other countries. Everywhere in the world, the rich person lives well. Indeed, a good case can be made that if you are rich, you live better in countries other than America, because you enjoy the pleasures of aristocracy. In India, where I grew up, the wealthy have innumerable servants and toadies groveling before them and attending to their every need.

In the United States, on the other hand, the social ethic is egalitarian, regardless of wealth. For all his riches, Bill Gates could not approach a homeless person and say, “Here’s a $100 bill. I’ll give it to you if you kiss my feet.” Most likely the homeless guy would tell Gates to go to hell. The American view is that the rich guy may have more money, but he isn’t in any fundamental sense better than you are. The American janitor or waiter sees himself as performing a service, but he doesn’t see himself as inferior to those he serves. And neither do the customers see him that way: They are generally happy to show him respect and appreciation on a plane of equality. America is the only country in the world where we call the waiter “Sir,” as if he were a knight.

The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by very few, to a large segment of society. Very few people in America have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Even sick people who don’t have money or insurance will receive medical care at hospital emergency rooms. The poorest American girls are not humiliated by having to wear torn clothes. Every child is given an education, and most have the chance to go on to college. The common man can expect to live long enough and have enough free time to play with his grandchildren.

Ordinary Americans not only enjoy security and dignity, but also comforts that other societies reserve for the elite. We now live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a cappuccino, where maids drive nice cars, where plumbers take their families on vacation to Europe. As Irving Kristol once observed, there is virtually no restaurant in America to which a CEO can go to lunch with the absolute assurance that he will not find his secretary also dining there. Given the standard of living of the ordinary American, it is no wonder that socialist or revolutionary schemes have never found a wide constituency in the United States. As Werner Sombart observed, all socialist utopias in America have come to grief on roast beef and apple pie.

Thus it is entirely understandable that people would associate the idea of America with a better life. For them, money is not an end in itself; money is the means to a longer, healthier, and fuller life. Money allows them to purchase a level of security, dignity, and comfort not available in other countries. Money also frees up time for family life, community involvement, and spiritual pursuits, and so provides moral as well as material gains.

Yet even this offers an incomplete picture of why America is so appealing to so many outsiders. Let me illustrate with the example of my own life. Not long ago, I asked myself: What would my existence have been like had I never come to the United States, if I had stayed in India? Materially, my life has improved, but not in a fundamental sense. I grew up in a middle-class family in Bombay. My father was a chemical engineer; my mother, an office secretary. I was raised without great luxury, but neither did I lack for anything. My standard of living in America is higher, but it is not a radical difference. My life has changed far more dramatically in other ways.

Had I remained in India, I would probably have lived my entire existence within a one-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have married a woman of my identical religious, socioeconomic, and cultural background. I would almost certainly have become a medical doctor, an engineer, or a software programmer. I would have socialized within my ethnic community and had few real friends outside that group. I would have a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance; indeed, they would not be very different from what my father believed, or his father before him. In sum, my destiny would to a large degree have been given to me.

Instead, I came to Arizona in 1978 as a high-school exchange student, then a year later enrolled at Dartmouth College. There I fell in with a group of students who were actively involved in politics; soon I had switched my major from economics to English literature. My reading included books like Plutarch’s Moralia; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s Federalist Papers; and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. They transported me to places a long way from home and implanted in my mind ideas that I had never previously considered. By the time I graduated, I decided that I should become a writer. America permits many strange careers: This is a place where you can become, say, a comedian. That is very different from most places.

If there is a single phrase that encapsulates life in the Third World, it is that “birth is destiny.” A great deal of importance is attached to what tribe you come from, whether you are male or female, and whether you are the eldest son or not. Once your tribe, caste, sex and family position have been established at birth, your life takes a course that is largely determined for you.

In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life. When your parents say to you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the question is open ended, it is you who supply the answer. Your parents can advise you: “Have you considered law school?” “Why not become the first doctor in the family?” It is considered very improper, however, for them to try to force your decision. Indeed, American parents typically send their teenage children away to college where they live on their own and learn independence. This is part of the pro
cess of forming your mind, choosing a field of interest for yourself, and developing your identity.

It is not uncommon in the United States for two brothers who come from the same gene pool and were raised in similar circumstances to do quite different things: The eldest becomes a gas station attendant, the younger moves up to be vice president at Oracle; the eldest marries his high-school sweetheart and raises four kids; the youngest refuses to settle down; one is the Methodist that he was raised to be, the other becomes a Christian Scientist. What to be, where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, what religion to practice—these are all decisions that Americans make for themselves.

In America your destiny is not prescribed; it is constructed. Your life is like a blank sheet of paper and you are the artist. This notion of being the architect of your own destiny is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of America. Young people especially find the prospect of authoring their own lives irresistible. The immigrant discovers that America permits him to break free of the constraints that have held him captive, so that the future becomes a landscape of his own choosing.

If there is a single phrase that captures this, it is “the pursuit of happiness.” As writer V. S. Naipaul notes, “much is contained” in that simple phrase: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation, perfectibility, and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known [around the world] to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

But where did the “pursuit of happiness” come from? And why has it come in America to mean something much more than simple selfishness? America’s founders were religious men. They believed that political legitimacy derives from God. Yet they were determined not to permit theological differences to become the basis for political conflict.

The American system refused to establish a national church, instead recognizing all citizens as free to practice their own religion. From the beginning the United States was made up of numerous sects. The Puritans dominated in Massachusetts, the Anglicans in Virginia, the Catholics were concentrated in Maryland, so it was in every group’s interest to “live and let live.” The ingenuity of the American solution is evident in Voltaire’s remark that where there is one religion, you have tyranny; where there are two, you have religious war; but where they are many, you have freedom.

One reason the American founders were able to avoid religious oppression and conflict is that they found a way to channel people’s energies away from theological quarrels and into commercial activity. The American system is founded on property rights and trade, and The Federalist tells us that protection of the obtaining of property is “the first object of government.” The founders reasoned that people who are working assiduously to better their condition are not likely to go around spearing their neighbors.

Capitalism gives America a this-worldly focus that allows death and the afterlife to recede from everyday view. Along with their heavenly aspirations, the gaze of the people is shifted to earthly progress. This “lowering of the sights” convinces many critics that American capitalism is a base, degraded system and that the energies that drive it are crass and immoral.

These modern critiques draw on some very old prejudices. In the ancient world, labor was generally despised. The Greeks looked down on merchants and traders as low-lifes. “The gentleman understands what is noble,” Confucius writes in his Analects, “the small man understands what is profitable.” In the Indian caste system the vaisya or trader occupies nearly the lowest rung of the ladder—one step up from the despised “untouchable.” The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun suggests that even gain by conquest is preferable to gain by trade, because conquest embodies the virtues of courage and manliness. In these traditions, the honorable life is devoted to philosophy or the priesthood or military valor. “Making a living” was considered a necessary, but undignified, pursuit. Far better to rout your adversary, kill the men, enslave the women and children, and make off with a bunch of loot than to improve your lot by buying and selling stuff.

Drawing on the inspiration of philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith, the American founders altered this moral hierarchy. They argued that trade based on consent and mutual gain was preferable to plunder. The founders established a regime in which the self-interest of entrepreneurs and workers would be directed toward serving the wants and needs of others. In this view, the ordinary life, devoted to production, serving the customer, and supporting a family, is a noble and dignified endeavor. Hard work, once considered a curse, now becomes socially acceptable, even honorable. Commerce, formerly a degraded thing, now becomes a virtue.

Of course the founders recognized that in both the private and the public sphere, greedy and ambitious people can pose a danger to the well-being of others. Instead of trying to outlaw these passions, the founders attempted a different approach. As the fifty-first book of The Federalist puts it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” In a free society, “the security for civil rights [consists] in the multiplicity of interests.” The framers of the Constitution reasoned that by setting interests against each other, by making them compete, no single one could become strong enough to imperil the welfare of the whole.

In the public sphere the founders took special care to devise a system that would minimize the abuse of power. They established limited government, in order that the power of the state would remain confined. They divided authority between the national and state governments. Within the national framework, they provided for separation of powers, so that the legislature, executive, and judiciary would each have its own domain of authority. They insisted upon checks and balances, to enhance accountability.

The founders didn’t ignore the importance of virtue, but they knew that virtue is not always in abundant supply. According to Christianity, the problem of the bad person is that his will is corrupted, a fault endemic to human nature. America’s founders knew they could not transform human nature, so they devised a system that would thwart the schemes of the wicked and channel the energies of flawed persons toward the public good.

The experiment that the founders embarked upon more than two centuries ago has largely succeeded in achieving its goals. Tribal and religious battles such as we see in Lebanon, Mogadishu, Kashmir, and Belfast don’t happen here. Whites and African Americans have lunch together. Americans of Jewish and Palestinian descent collaborate on software problems and play racquetball after work. Hindus and Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Armenians, Irish Catholics and British Protestants, all seem to have forgotten their ancestral differences and joined the vast and varied American parade. Everybody wants to “make it,” to “get ahead,” to “hit it big.” And even as they compete, people recognize that somehow they are all in this together, in pursuit of some great, elusive American dream. In this respect America is a glittering symbol to the world.

America’s founders solved two great problems which are a source of perennial misery and conflict in many other societies—the problem of scarcity, and the problem of religious and tribal conflict. They invented a new regime in which citizens
would enjoy a wide range of freedoms—economic freedom, political freedom, and freedom of speech and religion—in order to shape their own lives and pursue happiness. By protecting religion and government from each other, and by directing the energies of the citizens toward trade and commerce, the American founders created a rich, dynamic, and peaceful society. It is now the hope of countless millions all across the world.

Dinesh D’Souza, Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of What’s So Great About America (2002), from which this is adapted.