American Exceptionalism

It’s the classic question that students get at some point in school: Why is America exceptional? I was recently asked this question myself. The question itself is loaded: Is America even exceptional? Who or how many people have decided it was? What metric is used for comparison to determine its exceptional level?


What is exceptional?

The question is problematic, but not insurmountable. The first obstacle is defining the word “exceptional”. All language and vocabulary is learned knowledge given meaning and association depending on the individual. We can first agree on the fact that “exceptional” is a superlative, the best at something or far surpassing relative standards in an exorbitant manner. But what is that something?

Individual judgments are subjective; every person has different value judgments and weigh the importance at which ends are aimed in different manners. What end is America trying to achieve that it does achieve in an exceptional way? There are several conventional possibilities of exceptional ends that we could use to measure our exceptionality – equality, security, material wealth, development, opportunity, freedom, happiness, violence, ignorance, drug use, etc. Which one do we choose? To take them all into account would lead us unto contradictory paths.


What is society?

“The aim of improvement should be not solely to place human beings in a condition in which they will be able to do without one another, but to enable them to work with or for one another in relations not involving dependence” – J.S. Mill

Any country is a society, a collection of individuals cooperating. To find out why or if America is exceptional, we must look at society itself. Why does society exist and what would make a society exceptional? It exists because individuals see themselves better off cooperating with other individuals. Their lives and standard and living are better through social cooperation than it otherwise would living as an individual away from society. There are 2 primarily reasons for this:

  1. The division of labor – Individuals specialize in employments where they are most productive according to their individual skills, talent, and knowledge
  2. The use of capital – Individuals replace their labor with tools and instruments to increase their output per labor hour expended

The consequence of these 2 truths result in increased productivity for the society as a whole. Rather than a single individual farming, hunting, sewing, building houses, blacksmithing, etc. all by themselves to provide for their individual needs, we can each work in our own specialized industry. One person becomes the farmer, another the hunter, the next a tailor, another a builder, then finally a blacksmith. By dividing labor, individuals can become more productive by developing more productive methods or thinking of new ways to replace capital for labor.

Before, if an individual only hunted enough for him/herself, they would only hunt enough to subsist, maybe an hour or so; any surplus would be wasted. One would not worry about creating a gun instead of a bow and arrow because the time expended making the instrument of a gun is not worth the trouble of forgoing the time that was needed to create it instead of hunting or performing other tasks.

But suppose this same individual lives in a society. This individual now hunts all day for food, and exchanges the surplus with other individuals to provide for other needs. Now, this individual who hunts all day will have a higher incentive to make the gun. S/he will personally benefit if more game is hunted successfully because the surplus game can be exchanged for more goods with others in society. On top of this, by hunting all day instead of for an hour, this individual becomes more skilled at the task, increasing the amount of game hunted per labor hour expended.

The division of labor allows more capital to be created, which replaces labor, increasing individual productivity. Furthermore, there are some tasks that cannot be made by individuals alone. However, these tasks become possible by the collaborative, collective action of several individuals, bringing into the world new products that before were unavailable.

So far we have recognized the theories of the division of labor and capital formation as a necessary corollary to society. Individuals subscribe to a society, to exchange their productive supply of goods from their own labor for other goods that satisfy their wants. The further these two theories are progressed in society, the more productive each individual becomes, allowing each to replace more labor with capital to increase individual productivity.


What is an exceptional society?

If we have determined that we are better off in society with the preceding positive and productive consequences, then how would we define an exceptional society? Individuals will only subscribe to society if they have security in life and property. To undermine security in life and property is asocial behavior, disbanding the reasons of society coming together in the first place. On the contrary, to prevent members of society from the asocial behavior of others is to protect social cooperation.

To prevent asocial behavior then would be the best metric to compare how exceptional a society is. This is the purported role of the coercive body known as government; to protect individuals from asocial actions that undermine society. Such examples include security from violent acts not initiated in defense, fraud or theft, legal enforcement of contracts, etc.

Society is a collection of people, but the laws of government restrict the people. To say one race or nationality of individuals is more talented would be moot; it doesn’t matter how talented the people are if government restricts the free social cooperation of individuals (restricting beyond the designated role of preventing asocial behavior). Soviet Russia had several talented individuals, but few bore economic fruit because the government extended its restriction beyond preventing asocial behavior. In this manner, government is the porter controlling the elevator, determining which levels of economic prosperity we can achieve. Individuals can only rise if government does not restrict them from doing so.

Capital, like government, can restrict the people. It doesn’t restrict in a rigid way like government, it more so guides which employments are more profitable depending on natural resources, location, or other conditions endemic to a certain land. A country not possessing necessary factors of production is not doomed from ever using them (they can be obtained through exchange), but it will be more costly because these factors are not endemic. Capital not indigenous will be more costly due to transportation costs. In this way, endemic factors will guide certain societies to other employments that are more propitious to their environment.

Bringing it all together, an exceptional society would be this:

  1. A society where the social cooperation of individuals is as free as possible
  2. Where the only restricted individual actions are asocial actions
  3. The only laws from government are those that restrict the asocial behavior of individuals that undermine the social cooperation

Therefore, the end that society attempts to attain is the free social cooperation of individuals and only restricts individuals from making asocial actions. Freedom, then, is free to choose any action so long as that action is not asocial.

“Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or with a general commandment to love one another. People do not cooperate under the division of labor because they love or should love one another. They cooperate because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiments but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society, to respect the rights and freedoms of his fellow men and to substitute peaceful collaboration for enmity and conflict.” – L. Mises


Is America exceptional?

We can finally answer the lingering question: Is America exceptional? The best we can do is to compare America relative to other countries. Exceptional can only apply to relative cases; if all countries were perfectly free according to the standards previously laid out, then none of the countries would be exceptional though they are indeed perfect.

There are certainly many spheres that must be evaluated to determine this. We must consider the amount of freedoms, increased productivity from social cooperation, and the amount of restrictive laws beyond preventing asocial behavior. The most important variables that come to mind would be these:

  1. Political freedom
  2. Economic freedom
  3. Social freedom
  4. Legal system and enforcement against asocial behavior
  5. Regulations beyond preventing asocial behavior
  6. Growth in wealth due to higher productivity possibilities (standard of living, GDP per capita, etc.)

Books can be written on each of these for each country. The best possible snapshot we can get without exhaustive research would be to compare indices as proxies that most closely resemble the respective categories. Indices aren’t perfect by any means but we can get a perspective of where the United States ranks versus other countries.

The biggest shortcoming is that nominal values do not tell the whole story in regards to measures of wealth. This is a problem because current wealth may be the product of past exceptionality (capital can take several years to mature) and also ignores a country’s wealth per capita. Large countries may have great wealth but only because they have an even larger population in proportion to other countries. The best measurement we could use would be to take the changes in wealth year on year versus other countries, but for practical reasons, I am restricted to shorthand methods.

Here is how the U.S. ranks according to certain indices that cover in some form spheres we wish to evaluate:

Index of Economic Freedom – 12 of 178 (top 7%, 2014)

Freedom in the World – The best score of 1 for political rights and civil liberties (2014)

Social Progress – 16 of 132 (top 13%, 2014)

International Property Rights Index – 17 of 130 (top 14%, 2013)

GDP per capita PPP – 10 of 185 (top 6%, 2011-2013)

Human Development Index – 5 of 187 (top 3%, 2014)

Ease of Doing Business Index – 4 of 189 (top 3%, 2013)

As we can see, and we shouldn’t be surprised, the U.S. ranks very high on these indices. But is it exceptional? As a single country we must answer (the best we can with this information) to the negative. If it was exceptional it would rank the higher on these indices which would indicate that the U.S. is far surpassing relative standards compared to other countries in sustaining social cooperation. But there are several countries (Scandinavian or some European countries, Canada, Hong Kong) that consistently rank just as high or higher as the U.S. among these indices. As a country that is part of this select group of countries we can answer that the group is (the best we can with this information) to the affirmative, exceptional.

Remember, we are not measuring exceptional only by nominal wealth, technology, or development; they are part of it but all of these things may be the products from past exceptional conditions or population. Exceptionality is measured to the extent that the country currently promotes social cooperation. The U.S. possesses a large amount of the world’s wealth, technology, and development, but this can be due to a large population or past exceptionality.

As we already saw, society is predicated on greater means of production with social cooperation through the division of labor and capital formation. A faster (slower) growth tends to be indicative of more (less) social cooperation. The fact that the U.S. is a material superpower does not mean it is currently exceptional. The most it can prove is that it previously was exceptional compared to other countries during the same interval of time. This isn’t to discount its current ranking, which is still one of the highest, but other countries also rank comparable or higher to current American standards of social cooperation.

There’s nothing concrete to set America apart as exceptional. This may not even be due to domestic changes, but more due to changes of other countries improving their promotion of social cooperation. In other words, America may be at the same level of social cooperation as it has in the past in absolute terms, but relative to other countries it has dropped due to increased social cooperation from these other countries.



Countries are societies composed of individuals cooperating. The freedom of social cooperation is the only way to measure how exceptional a society is. Through the division of labor and capital formation, economies become the most productive. In order for these conditions to progress in society, social cooperation must be maintained by preventing asocial behavior from undermining individuals that live within society. The role of government is to prevent this asocial behavior without extending its reach beyond this relegated duty of maintaining the framework of social cooperation.

From this brief analysis and according to the promotion of social cooperation, America is not exceptional. It may be considered part of a group of exceptional countries, but it is not itself in its present form exceptional to the rest of the world. It currently does not appear to promote social cooperation more noticeably than other top countries. This analysis has been rudimentary at best, but I do not have the means of ascertaining the necessary information to come to a conclusive conclusion.



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