Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, and the Myth of American Exceptionalism
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
- The preamble to the US Constitution
America is the greatest country in the history of the world, and that is how God created it. At least that is the narrative we often hear from politicians, particularly on the right, but from across the political spectrum. This is a problematic claim as it is not supported by the evidence. In fact, I find it hard to imagine anyone making such a claim has ever visited any of our peer-competitor nations or even critically evaluated the greatest nation claim.
Many who read these words may not perceive it, but I write this as a deeply patriotic American who loves my country. In fact, a large part of the reason I spent over two decades serving as an Army Officer is the love I have for my country and my fellow Americans. Unlike some, however, my love happens to spread beyond my own borders and is not limited to my fellow citizens, and I see many flaws in our way of life that deeply need to be addressed. Loving something does not mean you are blind to its imperfections.
America is not only far from perfect, but the myth of American exceptionalism is one of the most significant obstacles to achieving the more perfect union set out as a goal in the preamble to the US Constitution. I want our country to be better but getting better begins with admitting relevant imperfections. If we feel the only solutions are American solutions, we are unlikely to look for answers in other countries or even acknowledge apparent possibilities.
While belief in America’s unique greatness is an extensive topic that can be addressed from many angles, I thought it might be instructive to frame this discussion around the ideas of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If America is truly exceptional among nations, we should rank above all on these three ideas. If we do not clearly outpace all other countries, we should ask why and how it is that others may be faring better than we are in any or all of these areas. Let’s address each in turn.
While there are more ways to look at “life” than simply how long one life may last, this is a pretty good place to start. Do Americans live longer than citizens of other countries? In some cases, yes. In others, not so much. Stop reading for a moment and consider, if you don’t already know, where the US might rank in life expectancy at birth when compared to all other nations.
Do you expect the US to be at the top and have the highest average life expectancy at birth? Or perhaps the US is in the top five? Top ten, maybe? Would you be surprised to learn that the United States ranks somewhere around 50th? I say “ranks somewhere” because of the myriad ways the data can be interpreted. Some nations may tie for third place (Japan and Norway), and also on some lists, US territories, Puerto Rico, for example, are listed separately from, and above, the United States.
How about infant mortality? Surely, we rank near the bottom (or should I say top?) of this list and have among the lowest rate of infant mortality? Again, for those who proudly profess the United States is the greatest nation on earth or ever in the history of the world, it may come as a surprise that we rank around 50th compared to other countries. With approximately five infant deaths per one thousand live births, we fall far behind countries like Iceland, Estonia, Japan, Slovenia, Norway, Singapore, and nine other nations with two infant deaths per one thousand live births.
The US not only has the highest infant mortality rate, but the same also holds for maternal mortality. When looking at deaths per 100,000 live births, the United States outpaces other industrialized nations by a wide margin. Per 100,000 live births, the US currently stands at 23.8, which is 2.7 times higher than France, the country with the second-highest maternal death rate.
To make matters worse, and this goes to the heart of this article, the United States spends far more on healthcare than all these other nations, with far longer life expectancy and lower maternal and infant mortality rates. But because of our collective conviction that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, we seem incapable of learning from other nations with greater success in these areas. What, for example, is different between the United States and every other industrialized nation that ranks better than we do in life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality and does so at a lower cost per person spent on healthcare? Could it be that universal healthcare plays a role? Blindly accepting the myth of American exceptionalism makes it challenging to accept that we should consider following the lead of others, and this is to our detriment.
How do you define liberty? While different ways of looking at freedom may be valid, I believe it safe to say that the degree of freedom one has is among the most important determinants of well-being. Freedom, both personal and economic, has tremendous implications for the individual and the society in which each person lives. Human flourishing does not grow well in barren land unfertilized by freedom.
Let’s measure liberty using the Human Freedom Index as a baseline for our purposes. The Human Freedom Index, published by the Cato Institute and Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom jointly. Twelve categories are used to provide an empirical measure of freedom in a country to determine a country’s ranking on the Human Freedom Index. Among these categories is the rule of law, security and safety, movement, expression and information, and freedom to trade internationally. This is important because it is not enough to espouse freedom or claim to be the freest. Freedom must be demonstrated.
On liberty, we must surely have good news. The United States is, after all, the land of the free and home of the brave! Indeed the United States is the freest nation on earth. Right? Again, you may be surprised to learn the United States does not even rank in the top ten freest countries. Switzerland, New Zealand, and Denmark all do well, holding the top three spots for freedom. The United States, on the other hand, ranks as the fifteenth freest nation, tied with Germany and Japan.
PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
So, what of happiness? Happiness is, after all, important enough to be specifically called out as one of those unalienable rights with which we are endowed. We may not be the freest or healthiest nation on earth, but are we at least among the happiest of nations? Well, here is, maybe, a bright spot. We do not rank around 50th as we do with freedoms or life expectancy at birth, or among the worst, as with infant and maternal mortality.
The World Happiness Report, which uses statistical analysis to compare countries’ happiness, has determined that Finland is the happiest nation on earth for the 5th year in a row. The happiness ranking is determined by analyzing Gallup polling from all countries evaluated and comparing six categories: social support, healthy life expectancy, personal freedom, gross domestic product, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels. When evaluated against other nations on a World Happiness Score, the United States barely makes the top twenty, coming in at 19th.
WE CAN DO BETTER…
Do the preceding paragraphs mean that I view my own country as a basket case, or what the twice-impeached former President might call a “shithole country”? Of course not. I love my country and its people, and there’s a reason so many people risk life and limb to get here. The United States has much to offer. We simply need to be more open to the successes of others, as well as our failings and look clear-eyed at how we might better pursue those unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I have been fortunate enough to see much of the world, and I have visited most of the top ten happiest, healthiest, and freest countries. During each of these visits, I couldn’t help but wonder how much we could learn from them and ponder why we are so hesitant to do so. The myth of American Exceptionalism is, I believe, a significant reason for this.