Liberalism

America the Exceptional?

The 9/11 attacks did not kill liberty in America.

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America suffered massive casualties in the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago: Thousands perished, families were splintered, and hearts were shattered. But was American exceptionalism—the notion that America's commitment to liberty gives it a unique resistance to the forces of statism—among the casualties?

Although the vast expansion of the security state makes it seem like it was, the answer remains "No."

America's critics see American exceptionalism as a dangerous form of nationalism that legitimizes bellicosity abroad and swagger at home by suggesting that America has a God-given mission—a manifest destiny—to remake the world in its own image. But this is a perversion—which, unfortunately, President George W. Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy agenda of spreading democracy by the sword did nothing to dispel.

However, that is not how Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who first described America as "exceptional" in 1830, saw it. He thought Americans took justified pride in their new nation. Rejecting European feudalism and monarchy, they had consciously crafted a republic based on the ideals of liberty, equality, individualism, and laissez-faire. Its project to keep tyranny at bay and create maximum political space for individual self-determination had, in Tocqueville's view, produced a different "species" whose success might become an example to the world.

Not everyone, of course, buys the idea that America succeeded in creating a new species immune to the wonders of Big Government.

After all, right from America's inception, whites used the state's muscle to perpetuate slavery. Nor did the much-ballyhooed self- reliance of Americans withstand the test of the Great Depression, when FDR erected the architecture for government planning, regulation, and the welfare state. Over time, Americans have become every bit as fond of entitlement programs as Europeans. Even more ironically, the denizens of the Sweet Land of Liberty seem even less favorably disposed to free trade and open immigration than folks in less free countries. More to the point, Americans were perturbingly unperturbed by the massive abrogations of civil liberties following 9/11. Only 34 percent believe that the Patriot Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to snoop and spy in order to fight terrorism, goes too far.

All this seems more than enough reason to banish forever talk about American exceptionalism. That, however, would be neither right nor fair.

Very often the biggest triumphs of ideals are invisible. They lie not in what they prevail against, but what they prevent from coming into existence. For example, Americans might quarrel about prayers in public schools, but the separation of church and state is so thoroughly embedded in the American consciousness that neither an established church nor mandatory secularism (à la France's burqa ban) are conceivable in this country. Nor could one ever imagine Americans worshiping the symbols and trappings of state power, as the British do with their king and queen.

But what is truly exceptional about America—especially to non-natives like me—is the remarkable absence of class consciousness. This expresses itself culturally in a thousand ways: in the downplaying of differences of wealth and status in American attire; in the avoidance of honorifics to denote station or seniority; in the informality of manners that makes using the wrong dinner fork a correctable faux pas, not a sign of an immutable lack of breeding.

This innate egalitarianism of Americans has major consequences for liberty. While there are occasional outbreaks of class warfare, to be sure, there are no political parties seeking to use state power to protect class privilege—as the Tory Party historically did for the aristocracy in England and socialist parties do for the working classes everywhere.

Indeed, when the pendulum swings too far toward statism, America's commitment to freedom automatically generates pushback. The courts repudiated much of FDR's grand experiments in economic intervention, such as the National Recovery Administration. Likewise, the Tea Party, whose express mission is to fight economic statism, has gained major traction in recent years. Meanwhile, Ron Paul, a non-mainstream candidate whose pro-civil liberties, anti-war message constitutes an open rebellion against security statism, has gained a powerful cross-political following. And a whole slew of nonprofits across the political spectrum, such as the ACLU on the left and libertarian think tanks on the right, have sprung into action, often joining hands, to stand up to the advancing government juggernaut.

All of them have two uniquely American weapons to advance their cause: First, a rich, homegrown vocabulary of freedom—phrases such as "Those who give up liberty for security deserve neither" and "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"—that give them instant moral high ground against statist arguments.

Second, Americans widely regard individual liberty as an end in itself. Hence it is possible to make a principled rather than a prudential case for it without getting laughed out of court, something that is virtually impossible in other countries that lack an ideology of liberty and therefore regard liberty as just one among many values. Indeed, when liberty lovers have to prove the practical utility of, say, protecting due process rights or the right of citizens to bear arms when an allegedly mortal terrorist threat looms, they have not a fighting chance of winning.

That they do here in America is great testimony to the strength of American exceptionalism, even when liberty does not ultimately prevail. The 9/11 hijackers wounded this great American tradition—but not fatally. Signs of a strong recovery are everywhere.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.

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  1. Signs of a strong recovery are everywhere.

    *cough*

  2. ahem. enough with the 9/11 articles.

    1. Don’t they have a book to sell?

  3. “Nor could one ever imagine Americans worshiping the symbols and trappings of state power, as the British do with their king and queen.”

    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

    No “symbols and trappings of state power” there, no, none at all.

    1. We need more national anthems before the presidential debates.

    2. Liberty and Justice?
      Liberty. Doesn’t that mean the right to be free from ever being offended or exposed to anything you don’t like?
      Justice. Doesn’t that mean the right to other peoples’ property if you envy them?

    3. I have nothing but contempt for the government, and I think it should be scrapped and not replaced. But if I did give a shit about it even I couldn’t defend the pledge, even if I was on the mainstream left or mainstream right. I’m still dumbfounded by anyone looking at that and saying “wow that’s a good idea” if you aren’t an absolute authoritarian.

      1. What?? You find something problematic with this kind of behavior?

      2. I’m not going to try and argue with you, but I’m just curious. What is your vision for what would happen if the government was scrapped completely and not replaced?

        sidebar: I completely agree that the pledge is ridiculous and it always makes me uncomfortable.

        1. Depends on how it’s done. The false dilemna you’ll try and present is one of absolute chaos vs. absolute chaos. This is what is generally seen when a government rapidly collapses when it’s people are dependent upon the government to provide all essential services and can’t provide for themselves. See: Somalia, Russia, New Orleans.

          When a people willfully dispose of a complex government in favor of a smaller one, they will foresee the consequences and will work to prevent any losses of services that the government would provide, such as security, power, and water. The time, will, and ability to implement a plan to compensate would makes all the difference.
          Those that loath the idea of a smaller government and having to essentially “fend for themselves” either have no ability to reach out to their fellow neighbors and community to establish some kind of order, or as I suspect, would be the first ones to don a ski mask and start looting.

    4. Not to put too fine a point on it, but wasn’t that written by a socialist?

  4. “But what is truly exceptional about America?especially to non-natives like me?is the remarkable absence of class consciousness.”

    Someone should alert the President immediately.

  5. What made us exceptional was our freedom.

    It wasn’t terrorists who destroyed it – we forfeited our liberties voluntarily in favor of security (physical and economic).

  6. “Even more ironically, the denizens of the Sweet Land of Liberty seem even less favorably disposed to free trade and open immigration than folks in less free countries.”

    Even more ironically, Ms. Dalmia seems blissfully unaware that the U.S. has used high tariffs as a trade weapon for close to two centuries. Remember the “Tariff of Abominations”? Folks down in South Carolina do.

    And, if you can stand even more irony, Shikha seems to think that slavery and the home-grown caste system that replaced it were less offensive to liberty than the welfare state. Perhaps the welfare state is so prevalent because people like it. That’s the way the market works, isn’t it? Supply increases in response to demand?

    1. And, if you can stand even more irony, Shikha seems to think that slavery and the home-grown caste system that replaced it were less offensive to liberty than the welfare state.

      That would be absurd if she thought so, but how did you get that from anything she wrote?

  7. OK. We have yet another 9/11 article here at H&R. If I print all of them out I will have enough kitty litter tray liners to last me a month.

    We used to be the free-est country on the planets. With the Patriot act in place and a tax code that asks invasive questions like are you married, how many children, what color are you etc. etc. I am thinking there must be free-er places out there now.

    Look at Alaska. Fuckers are supposed to be frontiersmen. Right? Well they voted that bitch Lisa Murkpowski in after she lost the primary. Why? because her Republican opponent was against government hand outs. The state is awash in federal money, some frontiersmen.

    Accepting help from someone is a great path to getting enslaved by them.

    1. At the Federal level, the Republicans like to trade liberties away for physical security. The Democrats absolutely love to find innovative ways to destroy economic freedom whenever possible. Together they make a great team. Results vary at the state and local levels.

      Everything has been criminalized. Any freedom we have left is based on avoiding the attention of the authorities.

      1. “Any freedom we have left is based on avoiding the attention of the authorities.”

        Great line, I’m stealing it for personal use.

        1. +1776

        2. Trademarks and royalties apply or I will alert the authorities.

      2. jesus christ, the histrionics here can be worse than DU …

        for example, the state of WA just significantly INCREASED liberty via our state supreme court making case law decisions.

        you will never read about this in reason.com

        based on several decisions, people in WA state are IMMENSELY more free from various search and seizures than they were 3 months ago, and 5 yrs ago. decision after decision.

        it does NOT only move one way. but the ignorati continually use selection bias to claim that it does.

        let’s review some freedoms here…

        1) dui checkpoints? illegal
        2) search of vehicles incident to arrest? nope
        3) pretext stops? illegal
        4) overhead curtilage searches (like via helicopter) ? illegal
        etc.

        note that many freedoms in WA didn’t exist BEFORE 9/11

        note we also passed medical MJ, etc.

        iow, at least when it comes to the actions of STATE , COUNTY, and local law enforcement in WA state, people are MUCH freer from govt. intrusion now than they were 3 months ago AND freer than they were BEFORE 9/11

        you will NEVER read that here. because it runs contrary to the meme that since 9/11 freedom has been lost,but none has been gained.

        we are in a laboratory of states. it’s a democratic republic. iow, it doesn’t all run one way, and people in some states are much freer than others. the constitution (federal) sets a minimum level of freedom that all states must respect. any state can, and most do, respect more

        1. Yeah, until you get to the airport.. or travel outside the state, or even when the Feds decide to investigate you on some bullshit.
          Those are nice laws, but when you have to tell your toddler why you have to let a man at the airport touch them in places you would otherwise shoot someone in the face for, those laws are..well, just nice laws.

          1. Or start a business, or hire an employee, or buy some wood from India, …

            1. Wood from India is not a problem if you donated to Team blue. After 2012, you will need to change you donation habits if you want to buy wood from India.

          2. again, i gave it with those caveats.

            but put it this way? which freedom encroachment is worse?

            if you travel on commercial flights, you get rapiscanned

            however, you have (in WA state)

            1) the right not to be pretext stopped (ladson case)
            2) the right not to be stopped in a DUI checkpoint
            3) if you are arrested in a car, the cops CANNOT search the car (there is one circuit decision that says they can search ONLY for evidence of the crime you are being arrested for. that is only in one circuit in WA and is not statewide, and will probably be overturned. IN all of WA, they cannot search the car if you were arrested for a warrant, or driving suspended or a DV assault you just committed, etc.)
            4) cops cannot use helicopters etc. to search for MJ grows (outdoor ones obviously)
            5) cops cannot get your power records without a warrant
            (and i could give a lot more)

            many of these rights were GAINED post 9/11, some pre 9/11, etc.

            the point is – while i find a rapiscan to be BAD, i find all of those to be good, but you will probably NEVER read of court decisions that have expanded civil liberties post 9/11. despite the fact that there have been some. there have also been initiatives etc. like medical MJ.

            in brief, at least in WA, most people are a lot freer than they were pre 9/11.

            yes, they have given up some when flying commercial, but gained a LOT elsewhere

            1. “) cops cannot use helicopters etc. to search for MJ grows (outdoor ones obviously)
              5) cops cannot get your power records without a warrant
              (and i could give a lot more)”

              If I’m gaining the ability to not get harassed by local law enforcement in favor of, most likely anyways, getting SWAT style raids by the DEA or FBI or ATF, what am I gaining?

              “yes, they have given up some when flying commercial, but gained a LOT elsewhere

              Gaining the freedom to not get stopped at a DUI checkpoint and versus the freedom to be physically secure in your person against unreasonable searches..

              You and I have much different definitions of “gained” and “freedoms”

              1. when you don’t have a freedom, and then due to a court decision, you now do.

                that is a gain in freedom.

                Period

                1. Wow..

                  What do you not understand about the examples you’ve been given? And you’re not really given a “freedom”. Authorities are just limited in what avenues they can use to enforce drug laws. It’s still ILLEGAL, right? But it doesn’t matter because last I checked, the Feds still enjoy supremacy and sovereign immunity over those examples.

                  I know you don’t honestly believe what you’ve just written..

                2. Some reading for you:

                  “Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent” Harvey Silverglate

                  “Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything” Gene Healy

                  “The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice” Paul Craig Roberts, Lawrence M. Stratton

                  1. already read that, thanks. i am a strong advocate that people read that book, and have stated so more than once.

  8. Yes, well, Tocqueville wrote before Marx wrote his book; and after that, well, those old hoary ideas of state power were brought right back into play; for Marx, in a way, simply changed the names of the powers from King to Commisar, and called it nirvana — the result is the same, however; endless state power. It’s royalty without the ermine, that’s all.

    And then, over time, we have built up an astoundingly sclerotic and moribund bureaucracy; ceding vast power over minute details of life to unelected nameless people in office seemingly for life, and controlled more by executive orders than legislation.

    On top of that we added a confabulated tax code that Byzantium would have cringed at; and pushed the effective taxation rate from all taxes up to 50% of one’s income and wealth.

    Now we are giving government control over our very bodies, through the health system, and drug testing, and if some Republicans get their way, right down to whom we may smooch.

    So our experiment in limited government and maximum freedom of action and personal responsibility has now become a nanny state — and the socialists and the theocrats are now arguing over whom is to control the behemoth to their own ends; and our detriment.

    Meanwhile, the 70% of the people who want to be left alone are torn between the lesser of two evil control freaks which have taken over the only two political parties we have. And we middle rational 70% are so disorganized that we can’t stop the 30% who want to rule us; which sounds a lot like the Europe we left (and the Asia, South America and Africa at this point people are leaving, for they are still worse than our diminishing liberties.)

    And the current crop of candidates for president shows no sign of wanting the Great Dismantlement we need.

    1. The issue in this column, Jim Halvac, is not whether liberty will eventually win in America. The issue is if America has more inner resources to put up a fight for it than countries elsewhere. And I think the column is persuasive that it does. So you might be right, but so is the column.

  9. “America suffered massive casualties in the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago: Thousands perished,…”
    “massive casualties” Are you serious???? It was 0.001% of our population!!!

    “Thousands perished”
    It was less than 3 thousand.
    How about hyping the story a little.

  10. “Likewise, the Tea Party, whose express mission is to fight economic statism”

    Uh, when are Reason writers going to wake up about the Tea Party? We learned last night (if we didn’t know it already) that the Tea Party is at most – and even this point is arguable – against economic statism. But they are pro war, pro-government restriction of immigration, pro-medicare, pro-social security, pro-religion in government. Ron Paul got booed for being anti-war last night. Rick Perry got booed for being modestly pro-immigrant last night.

    The Tea Party is pro statism when it benefits them, just as they were four years ago when they were just angry, old, white voters without a catchy name.

    1. Think you’re thinking of the Republicans.

    2. The operative word their is “economic” statism, not all statism. And, yes, it is muddled on even that as all reflexive movements are. The question is what is it a reaction to? And the answer is rising deficits, debt and other economic instruments of big government. So it might not challenge economic statism in all its forms, but it is challenging it in some forms! The problem with libertarians is their all or none thinking which causes them to miss all kinds of big things happening under their very noses…

    3. If you clean out the bullshit in the economic front, the rest of the forms of statism go away. “WTF!” you are thinking — not so fast. Statism costs MONEY. If the state is going to have someone fondle jr.’s doodads you need to hire some POS to do it.

      Without the money that is derived from economic statism, the rest of it is wishful thinking by asshole control freaks. It is an easier sell to get guv’mint out of peoples wallets than it is to ‘stop all abortion’, or ‘keep abortion safe legal and rare’.

      Same thing goes for most of the other social issues. Legalizing drugs is a much harder sell than shrinking guv’mint. Once guv’mint is shrunk — the means to wage the WOD will not be there.

      Just my 2 cents. Which, given inflation is now $0.67 … we are so fucked.

  11. “For example, Americans might quarrel about prayers in public schools, but the separation of church and state is so thoroughly embedded in the American consciousness that neither an established church nor mandatory secularism (? la France’s burqa ban) are conceivable in this country.”

    UMM…have u missed who is in Congress, those in power that want to make the USA a Christian Theocracy and do u not see all the laws created specifically for Christian organizations and Churches and exemptions they are allowed by law? Least we not forget all those who believe the USA IS a Christian Nation, who have also tainted Congress and the US Milltary making the USA look s if it is in a holy war against Islam. The conservative Christians throughout history have caused only pain, torture, war and death. Time to bring back the Roman culture, where these types of people were round up and tossed into lions pits for the whole world to see them be destroyed…as it should be.

  12. Still cheering the deaths of Americans in uniform in Iraq, Shikha?

  13. polyanna strikes again

  14. The first person to use the term American Exceptionalism in a very broad way was Reagan. Under Reagan, this country fostered new growth in space exploration, advances in health (in the private sector), willingness to help out liberty around the world (QUICKLY!). American enterprise never was healthier and America was looked up upon, not for it’s power, but that it showed restraint and provided inspiration.

    Today we are only a battling nation. The neocons and the DoD federal workforce have become chaos managers – keeping the industry of death going by creating and managing wars. YOu listen to liberal neocons like Hannity practically advertise wars and fighting so that the defense contractors will continue to garnish the annual payout of $400 billion from a treasury that is hawking the country to the tune of $3.5 billion a day!

    Today the liberal neocon RINO’s are on a warpath against the American people to keep us in long wars so their defense contractor campaign donors keep the money flow going. This spending which we are told is American exceptionalism is no less liberal than the out of control entitlement spending. Both factions are killing this country together

  15. 9/11 was blow back for the behavior of the USA government, which includes, but is not limited to; military aggressiveness which includes; invasion, occupation, oppression, rape, murder, etc, and the way the US government pushes Christianity on all other religious cultures of the world. We all see how people treat Muslims in the USA now, imagine if they came here and treated us the way the US government treats them in the Middle East. One man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter. I already blame the violence and death that American’s and their supporters all around the world suffer, on conservative Christians who have taken over the US government, the US Military, School boards, court rooms and at all levels of culture where they are allowed to make decisions that effect everyone’s day to day life her in America and around the world. I believe they should be round up an eliminated. I will agree with conservatives on at least one thing the liberals did to make America a more miserable place; Thomas Jefferson helped stop the religious folks of his time from killing each other off. If he was not allowed to do this, we would be a better off country. Oh, and a h/t to the Romans for trying to silence liberals when they wanted to continue to toss Christians into lion pits for entertainment, but as you know, the liberal ideology won on that one too. DAMN LIBERALISM !!!!

  16. Americans widely regard individual liberty as an end in itself. Hence it is possible to make a principled rather than a prudential case for it without getting laughed out of court, something that is virtually impossible in other countries that lack an ideology of liberty and therefore regard liberty as just one among many values,we should hand in hand to fight aganist terrorism

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