Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What is America's moral responsibility to the rest of the world?

If you're not a regular follower of Dr. Keyes's blog Loyal to Liberty as I am, you may be interested in his entry The USA- A special nation with special responsibilities and the discussion that ensues.

I think Dr. Keyes is more-or-less arguing for the "proposition nation" theory of America (i.e., America is an idea), a theory of America that I personally do not wholly reject, but one which I think can very easily be taken too far as it tends to set aside or dismiss certain aspects of historic Americanism that are unique to America and its founding, namely the original overwhelming WASP majority.

I'm by no means an expert on this, nor do I claim to be (how's that for unnecessary repitition?), but I think that simple common sense will teach us that there has to be a connection between the loss of freedom in America and the dilution of that majority. Perhaps I personally make too much of it, or, perhaps not. You be the judge.

To be clear, Dr. Keyes is one of my favorite, most respected provocateurs of American idealism, but the favoritism and respect I personally afford him has little to do with my larger respect for the American Idea of Nation-making.

As I wrote in a comment to Dr. Keyes's entry:

Dr. Keyes wrote:

Those who talk about the "American" idea of freedom" have already abandoned it.

I don't think that's necessarily true, although it's probably true as a general rule. People sometimes (hesitantly) use descriptives like this in an attempt to make a finer point. But of course "freedom" is expressed and exercised differently in America than it is in other parts of the world where it exists or has existed. Taken as a whole I'm not sure that America represents no-holds-barred Randian libertarianism, although there seems to be that (growing) element.

I certainly agree that any genuine notion of liberty begins with a belief in the Sovereign God of the universe and his will for His moral creatures. But then again, that's what I would personally call the "American idea of liberty" since this nation is unique among nations in that vein. After all,

" it not that in the chain of human events the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked to the birthday of the Savior of the World?..."

In any event I think this is an important discussion to have, and I look forward to your next edition in the series.

And the next for that matter. In any event I'll be closely monitoring Dr. Keyes's follow-on entries. I don't particularly give two hoots about black or white Americanism, only about Americanism, black or white. On the other hand, I've opened myself up to all manner of criticism. So be it.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I hold to the theory that there is something about the particular geography and natural resources of America which is especially conducive to personal, political, and economic freedom, but I also regard the American idea of freedom as being globally applicable.

I could discuss the first issue, if you like, but I doubt it is of special relevance to the issue of contention you highlight. I am in doubt merely because I cannot see how either you or Dr. Keyes are disagreeing about the conceptual character of freedom.

It is possible that Dr. Keyes is reacting to those who think that freedom is 'just an American idea' (as though the American origin of it were not a resounding endorsement by itself). You may be reacting to having been reacted against. Or I may be unaware of some conceptual distinction between the positions you each espouse.

Terry Morris said...

Actually, I hold to the theory that there is something about the particular geography and natural resources of America which is especially conducive to personal, political, and economic freedom,

Y'know, if you'd like to discuss it I wouldn't mind. Indeed, I'd probably rather enjoy it, and I might actually, believe it or not, be able to have an (semi) intelligent conversation with yuou about it. I've read a lot of Guyot (Physical Geography, The Earth and Man) and Maury, their theories of teh geography of man and the geography of nature, of political geography, of geographical America's unique suitabiltity to the facilitation of commerce and human interaction, and so forth and so on. So yes, a topic like that is of great interest to me.

Anonymous said...

Well, there are basically only three or four factors to it. First, America has a tremendous variety and abundance of natural resources overall. The variety is more specific to the encouragement of freedom than the abundance, but both matter. With so many natural resources to be developed, it opens up the choices of individuals not just whether to utilize them but which ones to use. The variety means that this effect tends to scale with technology level too, though that's not terribly important to freedom itself (it's more like a bonus ++innovators, but innovation is not the most meaningful measure of freedom).

Second, America is generally habitable despite its geological variety. America has large mountain ranges, great deserts, and other 'impassible/inhospitable' terrain types, but the resource distribution generally means that these places aren't really uninhabitable (Nevada is something of an exception). The difference is usually a matter of a few subtle factors, but there are relatively few places in America where a population just couldn't be self-sustaining.

At the same time, the natural variety does mean that there aren't a lot of universal practices which can be profitably imposed everywhere or even for most places in America. Different crops flourish in different areas with divergent problems, different mineral resources are found in geologically diverse conditions, different weather and climate, and yet it's all still pretty good (some places are better than others, though).

In other words, America is well suited to supporting a diversity of cultures, but ill-supplied with natural barriers between them. The Civil War was a great example. Looking at it culturally, it might seem natural that the North and South would have separated based on their defining cultural differences. But if you look at the terrain, it was utterly impossible, all the major natural boundaries ran the wrong ways and none of them were substantial enough to establish a boundary between really distinct nations. The Mason/Dixon survey line on the map was as good as any existing natural boundary.

In other words, migration and exchange from one culture to another isn't naturally restricted the way it is in most other areas of the world. The founding American meta-culture of political freedom is a response to the impossibility of either imposing a highly uniform culture or having stable boundaries between the number of nations that would naturally arise otherwise. There is a reason that American history once characterized the Mongolian antecedent cultures as bloodthirsty warriors...because in the absence of natural barriers, genuinely distinct nations have no alternative except continual warfare, just as the Civil War could not have ended without the eventual total military defeat of one side or the other.

Of course, Europe has a similar situation when it comes to natural boundaries (and thus a dismal record with respect to diplomacy)...but the variation of geography isn't on a remotely comparable scale. Which means that in Europe the different nations are similar in the fundamentals of economics and technology even if they make a deliberate effort to remain distinct.

So if we look at the basic options for utilizing a habitable region, neither completely independent nations nor generic cultural uniformity are really workable for America. America has to have political unification but maintain local independence simply as a matter of effective use of the land (I'm including Canada here, but not anything south of the Rio Grande, a natural border proved in war).

Er, running up on the limit here.

Anonymous said...

So...going back to the top, real economic disparity based on individual choices is far more sustainable in America because of the abundance and variety of exploitable resources. In lands where there just isn't enough variety or abundance of natural resources, communities cannot permit individuals the same freedom to exploit the environment. I realize that "exploiting the environment" has been assigned a pejorative value in American parlance, but that's clearly the clever ploy of a blatantly anti-freedom faction.

At the same time, there are places where society just can't survive letting individuals freely exploit the environment, there's just not enough latitude to permit it. So clearing that bar is significant. This combines with the lack of natural barriers to migration and commerce, and the impossibility of imposing real uniformity on the fundamentals of economics, to ensure that individuals have a chance to move somewhere more felicitous if they have trouble finding success where they are (a classically American notion, "starting over somewhere new" as though that weren't the last option of the utterly dispossessed...because in America it isn't, your land is that good for freedom).

To the extent that the kinds of freedoms invented in America have penetrated 'cosmopolitan' society, they have done so because of the prosperity and influence of America. With the decline in both, those values will lose their toehold elsewhere (as has already begun). But the decline is temporary. The assault on freedom has already failed, though of course your enemy does not regard the meaninglessness of any additional destruction as a deterrent to continuing the battle.

Grant was not an especially evil man, but I must admit that his ability to tolerate the mass murder of his own men wasn't a clearly non-diabolical trait. I do not believe it necessarily a non-divine aspect of command either, so perhaps I should simply call it inhumane.

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