Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 April 2005

Reply to An Indian Colleague

Your diatribe about whiners in America has more than a germ of truth. Nobody likes a whiner, and Americans have been whining a lot lately.

Yet I think your diatribe ultimately presents an unbalanced picture of the United States’ impact on the world, especially during the last century. I think the world owes much to America particularly, and to Anglo-American society in general.

Let’s take economics first. The English “discovered” free markets about the time of the Statute of Monopolies in 1623. They later they discovered economic science with Adam Smith. The United States was and is the first human society ever to be built from the ground up on these rational principles, rather than on ethic or religious lines, or by following whatever despot caught the current popular fancy. For the last 400 years, Anglo-American society has been in the process of transferring the self-evident benefits of rational government and rational economic law to the rest of the planet. The current explosion of international trade and commerce called “globalization” is just the latest and most dramatic manifestation of that general phenomenon. It brings with it accelerating and widespread increases in living standards, the beginning of a worldwide “Golden Age.”

What’s fascinating about globalization is the lie it gives to all the old myths about race and culture. You don’t need to be white, or Christian, or Western to create a finely oiled social machine for building wealth and innovating. All you have to do is have free markets, the rule of law, and some semblance of democracy and human rights. Even China can play this game. England and the U.S. taught the world as much, first by demonstrations at home, then by exportation abroad. That’s hardly a worthless lesson.

Has any other country done the like? China? Russia? India? France? Spain, whose former colonies still languish in corruption, oscillating among feudalism, weak democracy, and despotism? Germany, whose two world wars nearly destroyed Western civilization? Japan, whose leaders still can’t quite acknowledge responsibility for atrocities in Asia? Any honest look at the world today would have to acknowledge the contributions of England and the United States, if only as social and political teachers and role models.

Now let’s look at education. You bemoan the “brain drain” from Asia to the West. But no one forced all those foreign students to come to the U.S. or U.K. for their education. Nor did either country force them to stay afterward. Indeed, both countries short-sightedly forced many educated foreign students back to their countries of origin (sometimes for despicable reasons of racism). The students that stayed did so because they wanted a better life in the West. Now that standards of living and life have improved abroad—often courtesy of the teaching, influence, assistance and example of England and the U.S.—those same students are leaving in droves, going back to improve their ancestral homelands. After fifty years, “reverse brain drain” is in part responsible for the rapid rise of living standards worldwide.

Then let’s look at technology. The list of innovations that the United States gave the world in the last century is astounding: the airplane, phonograph, telephone, television, laser, transistor, integrated circuit, digital computer, atomic energy and the Internet. Although the U.S. didn’t discover DNA, it shared with England and Europe construction of the biotech industry. And it gave these wonders to the rest of the world, sometimes for pay but often (as basic science) for free.

The Internet is the most recent crowning glory. . . . It arose as a secret project, designed to decentralize communications “command and control” in order to survive a nuclear war. Yet once our “Yankee traders” got wind of its commercial potential, they couldn’t be stopped. They bent it to commerce and spread it around the world, mostly for free.

Think of that: probably the greatest invention in human communication since ancient China invented printing, and the U.S. gave it to the world, all for free and all in less than a decade. Would Russia have done the same? Would China? India?

Finally, let’s talk about those ugly subjects: war and the military. If a Martian had visited our planet in the middle of the last century, he would have feared for the future of the human race. He would have found humanity mired in a planet-wide war involving three tyrants—Hitler, Stalin, and Tojo—each of whom treated human life like so much junk. He would have found fifty million dead in the conflict, and tens of millions more mired in poverty, despotism and despair. Then he would have noticed another tyrant, Mao, rising from the ashes of world war. Worst of all, he would have found mankind with a new power that might have made despotism permanent: atomic energy. Can anyone doubt that the world would be a much, much darker place if Stalin, Tojo or Mao, let alone the Nazis, had got the Bomb first?

The U.S. did not win World War II alone. Russia bore the greatest brunt, but it was mired in despotism, too. Largely alone, U.S. kept the light of democracy alive during mankind’s darkest hour. It continued its largely lonely vigil throughout the Cold War that followed. Is it arrogant to say that the world would be much more grim had we Americans not stood that vigil?

Even Iraq is a story not yet told. You can argue with Bush’s excuses for the invasion, but can you really complain Saddam is gone? Can you quibble about the first relatively free election in an Islamic Arabic country in world history?

The one-sixth of the human race that calls itself Islamic has been mired in poverty and stagnation for five centuries. In the last thirty years its extremists have made international air travel—arguably one of the most important achievements of human civilization—much more complex, expensive and dangerous than need be. In addition, they have killed a whole lot of innocent people all over the globe, from Paris to New York to Bali. The United States can sometimes be clumsy, arrogant, bullying and self-righteous. But at least it’s a problem solver. It’s doing something about one of two great remaining problems of human history: integrating Islamic society back into the rest of the world, as a modern equal partner, not a medieval tyrant. Would you prefer to have this senseless war of attrition last another century or two, as appeared (until recently) to be Kashmir’s fate?

We Americans don’t expect gratitude or admiration. France, which we and our allies saved from Hitler, certainly disabused us of hope for them. As the world’s only superpower, we are rightfully the target of special scrutiny and special criticism. We deserve special criticism because our steps make large footprints. Yet it would be nice to hear acknowledged, once in a while, that the pains much of our middle class are suffering right now are a direct result of the greatest transfer of “know-how” and wealth in human history, which we Americans (among others) are in the process of making to the rest of the world.

To be sure, that transfer is not a gift. We’re not making it out of altruism, but out of enlightened self-interest. Yet if you look at human history, from the Spaniards’ rape of the Aztecs to the Soviets’ “stewardship” of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, doesn’t the adjective “enlightened” make all the difference in the world?

I, too, fear what my country, still democratic and free, might become with increasing religious fundamentalism and self-righteousness, coupled with thousands of nuclear weapons. But the genius of our country is constant renewal through immigration. . . . New immigrants keep us alive by constantly renewing our faith in democracy and giving us new citizens willing to work hard without complaining.

So, as you look at America from abroad, try to cut us a little slack. We always knew that, once the rest of the world caught on to free markets and democracy, there would be no holding it back. We’re now engaged in the toughest economic competition we’ve faced since becoming a major power, and it’s only going to get tougher.

Bush says American workers can compete with anyone, but the smart ones among us know that’s not necessarily so. Our major comparative advantage was always our social system. Recent history suggests that others are beginning to understand that secret and copy it. As the rest of the world absorbs the lessons of rational social organization, we’ll be enjoying few, if any comparative advantages, competing against people as smart and well-educated as we. And most of them will be hungrier, more ambitious, and willing to work harder.

So please excuse us if we whine or grumble a bit from time to time, for we helped to make it all possible.

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