It is entirely understandable that the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany took the occasion of the G-20 summit in London to gloat. After years of listening to the Anglo-Americans tell them they were, economically-speaking, fuddy-duddies, wedded to archaic regulatory schemes that impeded the more robust growth attainable with Thatcherism and Reaganomics, it was their turn to say "I told you so."
American exceptionalism is one of the oldest and strongest of national myths, in part because there is something to it. America’s national origins are not shrouded in the mists of the Middle Ages when Britannia and La France began to emerge as nations. We were birthed by committee in Philadelphia and subsequently renewed by immigration every generation. But, the worship of rugged individualism that is at the heart of many ideas about American exceptionalism, and which has been at the heart of conservative economic theories since at least the tenure of Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, that has always had less truth and less to commend itself than, say, our belief that immigration strengthens and enriches us as a nation.
The less truth part is easy: Ever been to the dam named for Mr. Hoover? It was not built by private investment and, without it and the network of federally built dams that dot the Western states, there would be no Las Vegas, no Pheonix, no Los Angeles, all of which rely on these federal projects for water and electricity. And for every rugged individual pioneer who headed West in search of his destiny, there is a less rugged pioneer who did not make it, who failed, and whose story has gone untold by whatever progeny he had. History belongs to the victors.
Laissez-faire, which draws strength from this worship of individualism, has little to commend itself these days. Was there anything more pathetic in contemporary public life than the testimony of Alan Greenspan in which he said he did not foresee that companies would act in such an avaricious manner? This, from a long-time member of the Ayn Rand Society here in Washington? You build a system upon greed, mark the levels of achievement by the attainment of wealth for oneself, not for one’s employees or even the long-term health of one’s company, watch the launch of magazines devoted to celebrating the antics of the rich and infamous, and then express shock that they behaved so?
But back to France. You know, their growth rates were never that far behind ours. And, the social contract they enjoy – shorter work week, universal health care, one month paid vacation for everyone – certainly beats ours. Is one-half of one percent less annual growth worth a social system that makes life less harsh for those who can’t keep up? If the fabulously rich have more of their income taxed, would it be such a defeat for American culture if Architectural Digest went back to publishing articles about architecture?
I am not much of a fan of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but I do not begrudge him the chance to rib the Americans and to push for the kind of international regulations that might have lessened the economic collapse, or at least its spread, if the Anglo-Americans had not been so fiercely defending laissez-faire principles that are universally admitted to be indefensible today. President Obama, who was not party to the enactment of Reaganomics and must now over see its burial, was able to limit the amount of venom unleashed upon the United States. But, all Americans must ask themselves: Wither that extra one-half of one percent of GDP? What do we have to show for it today? The French at least still have their health care and their holidays.