In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama bemoaned America's standing in the world. The U.S., he lamented, is "the only advanced country on Earth" that doesn't guarantee "paid maternity leave to our workers."
Apparently this is supposed to be some kind of devastating argument, because you see it a lot. When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a paid maternity leave policy for city workers, he also noted that "the United States is the only developed nation in the world without a statutory right to paid parental leave." PBS NewsHour has made the same point: "Almost every country in the world offers more generous maternity leave than the U.S." (To prove just how backward we are, PBS lumps America in with Papua New Guinea. Boy, someone in the PBS newsroom needs some remedial training in cultural sensitivity!)
And it's not just maternity leave, either. The U.S. gets rebuked for being an outlier for lots of things. "Here's a Map of the Countries That Provide Universal Health Care," scolds The Atlantic. "(America's Still Not on It)." It's a popular point to make in arguments over capital punishment, too. As a Los Angeles Times news article reprovingly noted after a jury condemned Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, "today 105 of the 192 countries represented at the United Nations have abolished the death penalty by law, and at least 43 more have abolished it in practice. … Those that still employ the death penalty—among them Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, China, Japan and the U.S.—are outliers and strange bedfellows."
Oh, and "The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth," says a piece on the Huffington Post, "that it's in the league of corrupt underdeveloped countries, no longer in the league of the developed nations."
You get the point. If the rest of the civilized world is doing something and we're not, then clearly we need to mend our ways.
But this line of reasoning recently came to an abrupt halt when it slammed into a brick wall labeled "abortion." The Family Foundation of Virginia had claimed the U.S. "is one of only seven nations that allows elective abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization." The others: China, North Korea, Singapore, Canada, the Netherlands, and Vietnam. PolitiFact Virginia rated the statement true. Similar statements have been made before, by Rick Perry's wife Anita (PolitiFact checked that in 2013) and Carly Fiorina (who was checked by Politifact on the point in 2011). Their statements received ratings of half-true.
The ratings, however, matter less than the reaction. When asked about the figures, a spokesman for the Center for Reproductive Rights said data showing the U.S. fails to conform to international norms are "an imperfect way to think about abortion laws." Oh.
Just a guess, but most supporters of abortion rights probably don't give a fig what the rest of the world does. They believe abortion should be widely available even in later pregnancy—and if America's laws are more liberal in that regard, then it's the rest of the world that needs to catch up, not the other way around.
The U.S. is exceptional in other ways as well. As The New York Times reported in a 2008 article, we are the only country that blocks prosecutors from introducing certain evidence in criminal trials if the police obtained it improperly: "The rule applies whether the misconduct is slight or serious, and without regard to the gravity of the crime or the power of the evidence. 'Foreign countries have flatly rejected our approach,' said Craig M. Bradley, an expert in comparative criminal law at Indiana University. 'In every other country, it's up to the trial judge to decide whether police misconduct has risen to the level of requiring the exclusion of evidence.' "
The U.S. also deviates from international norms by providing for punitive damages. After an Alabama couple won $1 million from a company for a defective motorcycle helmet that contributed to their son's death, an Italian court refused to help them collect because, the Times said, punitive damages were "so offensive to Italian notions of justice that it would not enforce the Alabama judgment."
If you're running in one direction and everyone around you is running the opposite way, it's prudent to wonder whether you haven't made a mistake. But it doesn't prove a thing by itself. The Xin dynasty Emperor Wang Mang abolished slavery, however briefly, in China in the first century. It must have seemed mad at the time, but that didn't make it wrong.
Policies are good or bad policy independent of how many other countries have them, and in some cases—such as the exclusionary rule—the trait that makes the U.S. unique in the world is a significant virtue. "Collective wisdom" often isn't. Remember the Demotivator poster about business meetings: "None of us is as dumb as all of us."