The Myth of American Love of Liberty
Servility is not the unique province of the foreigner
I was about to start my Substack with a post reviewing the Cambridge History of Latin America, but, due to personal problems combined with insufficient will on my part, I have instead decided to begin by addressing a little bit of right-wing political mythmaking. I will tend to keep such posts free, but cannot guarantee anything at the moment, and encourage you to
for the low, low price of $42 per year for a series of planned reviews of the following books:
The Cambridge History of Latin America, Volumes 1 and 2
Saburo Ienaga’s The Pacific War: 1931-1945
Richard von Glahn’s The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century
…and more to come.
There is a myth, common among the right, that Americans, whether for racial or cultural reasons, are a unique breed among men, unwilling to accept the supposed tyranny inflicted by, e.g., the Australians in their enforcement of COVID rules or the Chinese in their enforcement of Internet censorship. Combined with this myth is the delusion that Americans’ high gun ownership rate is in any respect a defense against tyranny, rather than a defense against common criminals. It is the exact conservative counterpart to the myth of the inherently socialist nature of the American non-elite which socialists often tell themselves to excuse their own lack of popularity, especially, but not exclusively, among the working class. I would not, of course, write such a post merely to combat a conservative narrative. The narrative is not exclusively conservative, but is broadly liberal in character, and, though it is not shared among all liberals, it is certainly common enough among them to make this post a worthwhile public statement. The narrative is founded on several pillars, none of them solid - the reality of historic American libertarianism, the fractiousness of present-day American politics, and Americans being relatively right-wing by First World standards.
To remedy any misunderstandings, however, I am explicitly not here to deny potential racial and cultural reasons for differences in political attitudes between nations. Such reasons may well exist, and likely do in certain situations. They may well explain, for example, how Afghanistan fell to insurgents much faster than Japan did to the Americans. Such differences, however, do not come close to universally explaining large gaps in political outcomes among countries. My goal here is to show White Americans are, independent of contingent institutions, not fundamentally different in their political outlook from similar peoples in Australia, Western Europe, etc., and have much more in common, independent of their contingent institutions, in their political outlook with the peoples of Asia than they often realize.
First, it is clear America is not a particularly libertarian nation. Though the historic legacy of American libertarianism cannot be denied, today is not 200, or even 150 years ago. The progressive era and its succeeding periods have long served to drain the unusual degree of libertarianism that existed in America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Prostitution is banned in every state in the country, except for a few districts of Nevada. Marijuana remains illegal in numerous states, and psychedelics remain completely illegal. Internet gambling remains sufficiently banned so as to hamper the formation of useful prediction markets. Government spending on healthcare and education is vast, and hikes in both are vehemently demanded by the public. There has been no great pressure among any notable group of the American people for Biden to go back into the Iran Deal or to remove the Trump tariffs. Though America, despite its declines in liberty over the course of the Progressive Era and its succeeding periods, remains more libertarian than East Asia, it compares poorly to much of Europe and Latin America in this regard. As a result of the mythology that America is a particularly libertarian nation, there is similarly widespread mythology that America’s relatively dovish and ineffectual COVID response corresponded in the manner of a thermostat to the nature of American public opinion (or, worse, objective Science), rather than being simply failure of American democracy and institutions. More than 80% of Americans considered mandatory quarantine for anyone testing positive with COVID-19 important as a condition for normalcy. Did any state implement that? No. Were they prevented from doing so by institutional constraints? As Caplan so often argues in cases like this, no. The failure of American governors on COVID policy resulted not from lack of ability, or lack of potential of being rewarded by public opinion (Moon was certainly rewarded for relatively effective COVID policies in the 2020 South Korean presidential election, as was Ardern in New Zealand), but lack of will and idea. Australia’s COVID policies had a 95% approval rating within Australia, not because Australians are either genetically or culturally different from Americans, but for the simple reason that Australia’s COVID policies were a wild success, keeping COVID deaths to one fortieth of the comparably populated Florida and resulting in unemployment falling to below the pre-pandemic level. Indeed, countries ranking high on economic freedom like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Singapore also tended to score very well on the prevention of COVID deaths. For all the complaints about Australia banning drinking outdoors without a mask, public drinking had been banned in most of the United States long before the pandemic. Who thinks the American people have been deformed by some cultural or Lamarckian method into becoming an entirely different breed from the inhabitants of a remarkably similar English-settled colony? The only major demographic known for deadly confrontations over mask requirements in stores remain American Blacks, who are, to say the least, not entirely representative of the American public, and with whom conservatives are generally uncomfortable being compared to. Unlike America, Australia and New Zealand will resolve their present COVID outbreaks and will, in the course of a couple months, go back to zero local transmission and, consequently, normal life, outside of the realm of international travel. The American people would be similarly appreciative of their governments if their governments were similarly proactive and effective.
Second, it is clear that the fractiousness of American politics, so often made out to be an essential feature of the American character, is simply a contingent product of its electoral system. Implement an American-style First Past the Post system for the legislature and chief executive plus an electoral college for chief executive, and see Germany’s and Sweden’s politics dissolve into an American-style morass. Implement score voting, parliamentary government, and proportional representation in the United States, and watch its politics become a model of civility. There is also a great confusion on what the fact that American politics is, by world standards, highly fractious illustrates. It does not illustrate any inherent disagreeableness among the American people, but an extraordinary level of conformism, where partisans’ opinions flip on a dime in response to policy actions, and flip back again when their own side’s man does the same. When the two parties agree, as on sanctioning Russia, there is hardly a man who would object to such a policy. Indeed, the only prominent figure in America who objected to it was Glenn Greenwald. It is also a mistake to view the “backcountry base”, the demographic supposedly most exemplifying American liberty, as having any influence on American political life. There was no storming of the Mississippi state capitol when the state legislature sought to remove Confederate symbolism from its flag, nor was there any great Republican objection when Kevin McCarthy supported the removal of statues of Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol. The influence of party leaders on partisans’ public opinion, on the other hand, should never be underestimated. No matter what Trump does, Republicans will always approve of him, and largely the same goes for Democrats and Biden. If Trump enthusiastically supported mask wearing and containment of the virus, the pro-virus propaganda one constantly hears from today’s right would be completely unheard of, and masks would be a distinctly right-wing political symbol. Consider how partisans’ views of the economy totally flip when the White House switches party.
It is true Americans are relatively right-wing and religious relative to Europeans. Corporal punishment is much less regulated in the United States than in Europe. Europeans are much more liberal on sex before marriage than Americans, as well as substantially more left-wing on economic topics. Prior Obergefell, they were also substantially less traditionalist on same-sex marriage. Given that libertarians are considered to be on the political right in the United States, this might overall mean that American public opinion is more libertarian than European. But this does not make Americans any more libertarian than Europeans (or Australians) in the most crucial sense -their willingness to resist an imposition of arbitrary state and nonstate authority. Indeed, when it comes to such an imposition, Americans are more likely to overwhelmingly support it (see the 2001 spike in the opinion of George W. Bush) than to oppose it. The TSA remains supported among the majority of the American public, with younger people more likely to approve of its performance than older. Unlike in Bulgaria, where only 16% of the population has been fully vaccinated despite strenuous efforts on the part of the government, vaccine mandates in America are substantially more popular among the electorate than Joe Biden, as are mask mandates in schools. Similarly, there was absolutely no great American protest movement against the social media corporation speech crackdown in the name of anti-Russian sentiment or that in the name of opposition to racism. Instead, in a fashion similar to that in mainland China, well over 50% of Americans declared their opposition to freedom of speech on the Internet, with this opposition growing over time as propaganda intensified, especially among the college educated.
The fact is, in my experience, in the political realm Americans are overwhelmingly nationalistic, conformist, and (much unlike the Japanese and Israelis) willing to excuse their leaders’ failures. They had high expectations for their leaders coming into the coronavirus pandemic and, when those leaders failed to meet those expectations, simply acted as if they (Trump in the case of Republicans, the public health agencies in the case of Democrats) met or exceeded them anyway. The same goes for virtually any other subject one can name.
This conservative LARPing as ghetto Blacks or 1870s Redeemers -and the liberal pretense that there is anything to this conservative LARPing- is childish and sad. There was no great outrage over the imprisonment of Maria Butina, Ricky Vaughn, Daniel Hale, or even the January 6th protestors (which one might expect some support for if only out of sheer political hackery), and there isn’t likely to be any in case of future American political imprisonments. The sole exception, the outrage at the imprisonment of Assange, remains confined to marginal and unrepresentative elements of the public sphere. The most fundamental preferences of the American public have little major divergence from those of their brothers across the continent, and even have some real resemblance to those of many of the nonwhite peoples of the world.
As to what would make me change my mind about the supposedly uniquely strong tendency towards resistance to tyranny by force of arms among the American people, my request is simple: any evidence that two or more schoolteachers (or people in a similar position) have been killed for teaching Critical Race Theory.