American Exceptionalism Not Good

American Exceptionalism Not Good

Cuban hospital (Sven Creutzmann/Polaris)

Ever since Ronald Reagan, conservatives have been in the habit of defiantly asserting that the United States is so uniquely virtuous that we should not be held to the standards that we apply to other countries. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, habitually do just that, often to the disadvantage of the US. We are thus from time to time accused of not loving America because we consider it as part of the larger world. But if we love our country uncritically, are we serving it well?

In fact, a review of data on some current issues reveals that we are indeed exceptional, but in ways that should concern all Americans. These data are easily available: everything I cite here is from Wikipedia.

American Exceptionalism Not GoodIn the course of the debate on the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), it was common to point out how much more we spend on health care than other wealthy countries. How bad is it? Consider that in 2010, before implementation of ObamaCare, The US spent $8233 per capita, or 17.6 percent of total GDP. The second-ranking country, Norway, spent $5388, but only 9.4 percent of GDP. The average of the ten countries following the US was $4624, or 10.8 percent of GDP. In short, we don’t just spend more: we are off the scale.

The issue of guns is red-hot right now, since the Newtown shootings. How many more guns do we have? The chart shows how far ahead we are.

In the US there are 88.8 guns per 100 residents. The second-ranked country is Yemen at 54.8; the third is Switzerland (where most males are in the national militia) at 45.7. The average for the ten countries following the US is 38.4. Again, we don’t just have more guns: we are off the scale.

What about deaths resulting from guns? Here, the United States is NOT number one! Look at the table to see who’s ahead of us.

American Exceptionalism Not GoodThe only countries that suffer more from gun violence than we do are of the Third World. Switzerland (which we just saw to have a lot of guns) has only a third the firearm-related death rate that we do. Again, relative to other wealthy countries, we are off the scale.

Finally, another sphere where we truly distinguish ourselves from the rest of humanity is the rate of incarceration. We have 716 prisoners per 100,000. The second country is St Kitts and Nevis at 649. The next nine are: Seychelles, Virgin Islands (US), Rwanda, Georgia (the country; the US state of Georgia is at about the same level), Cuba, Russian Federation, Anguilla, Virgin Islands (UK), and Belarus. Again, these are all either Third World or formerly Communist countries. The highest-ranked developed country is Israel, ranked 55 with a rate of 236, or about one-third of the US rate. We are not in the same league as other wealthy countries.

john peelerSo, yes, we really are exceptional, indeed unique. On guns and prisons, we are more like a Third World country than like other rich nations. On health care, Third World countries simply cannot afford to waste the amount of money we do. And it is doubtful that we can, either.

Are we exceptional? You bet. Nobody has wandered further into the wilderness. It’s not even close.

John Peeler

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Appreciation. This piece points to key issues – guns, incarceration, health care – on which the practices of the USA shame the nation’s claimed commitments and principles.

    Carp. The graphic on guns should have been presented with the warning
    that it is incomplete: it shows only some of the nations that the text
    talks about (e.g., Switzerland is omitted).

    Comment. Just how to correctly rate the USA in regard ‘guns’ is complicated by two factors. On the one hand, the USA would look even worse were the discussion to extend to weapons exports and not just domestic guns. On the other hand, likely many USA domestic guns owe to popularity of hunting – an activity which I don’t endorse but anyhow is relatively innocuous and more feasible in the USA compared with other developed nations, which typically have far less mass access to good wildlife habitat. And as hinted in the article, the presence of guns is not terribly shocking in the case of a small vulnerable nations (e.g. Switzerland and Israel) with a near-universal military draft to ensure a ready defense reserve.

    Comment. The article’s lead sentences do not do justice to how Americans tend to understand the concept of USA ‘exceptionalism’. For many Americans – ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ alike – this ‘exceptionalism’ concerns not specific practices (be they commendable or – as in the cases discussed here – shameful) but the country’s historic and constitutional principles and ideals of liberty that limit arbitrary governmental power in favor of individual liberties and rights (e.g. presumption of innocence; first and fifth Amendment rights, independence of the judiciary, etc.).

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