A Foreign but Friendly Critique of America

“Primum non nocere.”   (First, not to harm.)

Nonmaleficence, as Wikipedia notes, is a fundamental principle in medical treatment reminding “the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do.”   It is an idea that American foreign policy makers ought to consider as well since they tend to see America as the medical interventionist curing the world’s ills.  Unfortunately it seems as if our nation’s political leaders sometimes replace “do no harm” with the mythological belief that “we can do no wrong” resulting in the world watching with great unease what America might do in foreign policy.

WQSpring09 I found the article Can America Fail?  by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, in  THE WILSON QUARTERLY Spring 2009 to be an interesting critique of American foreign and domestic policy.   Mahbubani describes himself as being pro-American and wanting America to succeed as he does believe America has done more good for the world than any other nation on earth.    He is however also a critic of America, though he sees himself as a friendly critic not a hostile one.  As a self proclaimed “loving critic” he writes that one blindspot of Americans is that we do not think we can fail, and consequently we are ill prepared when things don’t go our way.  Mahbubani thinks we need a bit more realism – failure is a possibility in this world – and we should awaken to that reality.  He believes many friends of America around the world can imagine and foresee America’s failings in domestic and foreign policies and these supporters of America are constantly stunned that American’s can’t see this themselves.  He offers this observation:

The first systemic failure America has suffered is groupthink. Looking back at the origins of the current financial crisis, it is amazing that American society accepted the incredible assumptions of economic gurus such as Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin that unregulated financial markets would naturally deliver economic growth and serve the public good. …  In short, the financial players would regulate ­themselves.

This is manifest nonsense. The goal of these financial professionals was always to enhance their personal wealth, not to serve the public interest. So why was Greenspan’s nonsense accepted by American society? The simple and amazing answer is that most Americans assumed that their country has a rich and vibrant “marketplace of ideas” in which all ideas are challenged. Certainly, America has the freest media in the world. No subject is taboo. No sacred cow is immune from criticism. But the paradox here is that the belief that American society allows every idea to be challenged has led Americans to assume that every idea is challenged. They have failed to notice when their minds have been enveloped in groupthink. Again, failure occurs when you do not conceive of ­failure.

The second systemic failure has been the erosion of the notion of individual responsibility. Here, too, an illusion is at work. Because they so firmly believe that their society rests on a culture of individual ­respon­sibility—­rather than a culture of entitlement, like the social welfare states of ­Europe—­Americans cannot see how their individual actions have undermined, rather than strengthened, their society. In their heart of hearts, many Americans believe that they are living up to the famous challenge of President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for ­you—­ask what you can do for your country.” They believe that they give more than they take back from their own ­society.

There is a simple empirical test to see whether this is true: Do Americans pay more in taxes to the government than they receive in government services? The answer is clear. Apart from a few years during the Clinton administration, the United States has had many more federal budget deficits than ­surpluses…

Mahbubani feels part of what has happened in America is that Americans have undermined individual responsibility by demonizing taxes.  Making taxes to be an evil erodes the basis for personal responsibility as America cannot deliver on all its growing commitments and promises while simultaneously cutting taxes.   The endless drive to demonize taxes means the government is forced into deficit spending (since Americans want – feel entitled to – what the government is currently delivering) which discourages personal responsibility and encourages personal irresponsibility.

Entitlement thinking is found not just in those favoring a welfare state.  Americans on every social level tend to believe they are entitled to what they have and what they receive.  Americans often tend to think all the resources of the world and of the country are theirs for the taking.

Next:  A Foreign but Friendly Critique of America (2)

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