The Good In American Culture

Easily 99% of what American libertarians talk about is the demise of the country, with countless daily examples of new regulations, and the devastating results of those regulations. The US is, after all, in what to many appear to be an accelerating rate of decay compared to other countries around the world. The endless complaining and whining of the libertarian is not without merit–“our” federal government has for decades now been a worldwide aggressor. That said, there are a few aspects of American lifestyle that, in my opinion, are worth mentioning. These are things that I think are at least superior to that which exists elsewhere. In making this list I asked for comments by fellow TLS bloggers.

Full disclosure: for what it’s worth, personally, my only point of comparison is having lived half of my life in Perú and the other in the USA.

Of course, for each one of the points mentioned below there is some sort of state intervention that makes things more expensive or complicated. Still, there is something to be said about Americanism that is not all negative.

Affordable access to technology. Though things are improving in South America, import taxes are so high that it is not uncommon for people to travel to the US and bring back all kinds of electronics in their suitcase, pass them as their own, and then give them to buyers.

Can-do attitude. Everyday life is not a challenge. For the most part, people are cooperative, helpful, thankful and attentive. Special circumstances are not often resisted or met with disdain. In Perú, things are impossible, difficult, and take eons, but only because of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Speed of business. My cousin spent a year doing lab research in Italy. He noted that things got done “whenever” and nobody ever knew when an order would be fulfilled. Sure, there is a difference in culture. In my opinion, so long as things are done well, faster is better–it also makes you less poor.

Homeschooling. In large parts of Europe homeschooling is illegal or extremely regulated. Yes, there is always the black market, but there are huge risks involved (losing your kids or parenting rights, fines, jailtime, etc.). Homeschooling is legal in every state of the US, with some states giving homeschooling parents very favorable conditions (see a href=””>this map).

Entrepreneurship. Nobody blinks an eye upon being told, casually even, that the person conversing with them owns a business or two or three. The idea of starting a business, even a tiny, one-person operation, is not special.

When working on this post I received the following comment (edited for bloggability) from Anthony Gregory:

Music — jazz, country, blues and rock, all ours. Film — we invented it and still dominate. Literature — some of the best stuff written in English. Food — lots of stuff was developed and created here. Culture — we kick ass in everything from clothing to modern art. Political philosophy — we said goodbye to empire, ushering in two centuries of global liberalization. Modern libertarianism — our people invented the freaking thing. I love America as much as anyone in this country, goddamn it. I will defend America until I’m blue in the face.

Let’s continue.

Optimism. “Americans are uniquely (and, to foreigners, obnoxiously) optimistic. Pessimism is the order of the day elsewhere, but not here.” ~Akiva

Service. Granted, this one varies widely, but in my experience, in the US those in the service industry are either happy to see you, or, most likely, pretend to be. That’s fine, because in other countries, you are sadly more than often treated as a burden. Yes, customers treated like a burden who ruin a clerk’s otherwise completely idle day.

Drive-thrus. A convenient, time saver. No need to get out of your car and walk in the cold or in the heat. Once, years ago, my wife and met a German exchange student. He said that in his country, drive-thrus were seen as inhuman and were not popular. I just rolled my eyes and thought “FAIL” at such a comment. Do they have stoves in Germany or cars?

Charity. Personal and corporate charitable donations, foundations, scholarships, memorial funds abound. Americans tend to rank near the top when it comes to non-profit financial support.

24/7 places. Some years ago Gabriel Calzada (founder of the Instituto Juan de Mariana) and I were walking around Manhattan. He still got a kick out of seeing businesses actually opened on Sundays, as well as businesses running 24/7. In Spain, he told me, some businesses are prohibited from opening on Sundays, supposedly for protectionist reasons (big stores vs. small stores).

Guns. Though a few states have it almost as bad as Europe, in most of the US you can go buy a firearm in minutes from a store; in most states you can also (legally) buy one from a private seller with no government notice, permit or registry. And in a handful of states you can take a handgun and carry it concealed without a permit.

Classlessness. In developing countries, where income mobility is not high, a de facto class system has therefore been established. In Perú, for example, it is common–indeed expected–for the poor to not generally approach or talk to the non-poor unless they are begging for money or asking for business. For the upper middle class and above, it is just not usual, and sometimes even frowned upon, for the “privileged” to mingle, chat or engage in random conversation at a checkout lane, with the lower classes. In the US there can be a bit of this, but it is nowhere near as pronounced. Most folks have no problem interacting with any other person regardless of their position in life or income. Americans greet, and shake hands, with anyone else, and tend to respect the other person for their accomplishments and work. There are even linguistic examples of “classiness.” If you are upper middle class, it is expected for you to use the informal version of you (tu) when speaking with someone of a “lower” class, whereas the “plebes” are expected to use the formal you (usted) when addressing their “betters.”

Fellow TLS blogger Akiva shares the following comment regarding American optimism and individualism:

On the first day of B-school, they had an expert on international culture who consults with major companies come and give us some behavior and attitudes test and then explain the outcome. The bottom line is that Americans are *extreme* outliers. American culture is unique. Despite all the crap that has happened, Americans are as culturally exceptional as they were in de Tocqueville’s day.

They reject fate and believe in in the power of individual choice. American celebrate mavericks; they’d never say, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. On a very fundamental level, Americans value others as free individuals and expect those around them to do the same. There is no deference to authority, experience, or seniority, Americans expect people to justify themselves by their words and deeds, not because of who they are. Individualism and freedom are not political ideas here, they are cultural values, to the point that even the enemies of freedom must pay lip service to them.

Americans believe in the rule of law with almost religious fervor. That the state has to justify not only every exercise of power but even its very existence, is a uniquely American attitude. When Americans say that the state “can’t” do something they don’t mean it as a procedural formality, but as a statement of metaphysical reality.

America succeed b/c of the people and despite the government. Everywhere else seems to have *needed* political leadership to get anything done, but Americans by and large just take care of business. Politics is not a field that attracts the best and brightest, America doesn’t produce great statesman, but that’s b/c its best people have
better things to do. Politicians may talk of taxing the rich, but even on the left, very few would begrudge Gates, Dell, or others who made their fortunes with “honest” work.

In short, what is good about America is everything that riles the Europeans, offends those from the Far East, and mystifies everyone else.

To this list I can probably add tolerance and heterogeneity. Unlike places where there is significant pressure to never deviate from “standard” behavior, in the US people do not care too much if individuals or families do things that are not “the norm.” There are numerous “private holidays” and events and activities of all kinds. These exist all over the world, but in my opinion (again, drawing from my Peruvian experience) folks who deviate from what is standard are easily categorized as weird or outcasts, even if their interests are not, for international standards, extravagant or radically unusual.

For the “average” Austro-anarcho-libertarian, the US is free-fall, with totalitarianism around the corner. But there is also plenty of good.