Why Does America Work?

Saturday, September 17, 2005
I just came across this article by Mark Steyn, in which he discusses the hoariness of the American Constitution. The British writer Jonathan Freedland wrote a book praising the American Constitution, but after Gore's defeat he was so horrified at its actual workings that he ended up "trashing the very system he spent hundreds of pages rhapsodising". In all fairness to Freedland, he was writing for The Guardian.

Steyn's rejoinder is another classic.
Americans' misguided attachment to this yellowing parchment may explain why, for the past century, they've lagged so far behind in technological innovation, economic performance, military prowess, cultural influence, etc. Maybe if America's governors all went on a retreat somewhere - Nice, say - and held private sessions behind closed doors and then informed their respective electorates what they'd decided to inflict on them, things would work out a lot better.

But that begs the question: why do we do so well?

When I was young, All The Kids knew the answer. It was because we were blessed (unfairly of course) by natural resouces. Natural resources were the source of wealth, we had more than our share, the only reasonable path forward was for us to be forced to share our wealth with all the poor people around the globe. Plus we had stolen our resources from the Indians anyway so we had no real right to them.

That theory kinda went into the toilet during the Japanese Eighties. It became rather apparent that a country having no natural resources could become enormously wealthy in a very short time. It became apparent that there is something about the social structure of a country which makes it wealthy. Or not.

What is that something? What is the elusive "quantity x" which makes America, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, etc. rich, while Mexico, most African countries, and the arab countries sans oil wealth are dirt poor?


flenser said...

I believe Jared Diamond once floated the idea that European civilization has been successful because of the geographical configuration of Europe, with it's indented coastline and varied topography.

Sounds like bunk to me, but I have not read his book, so maybe there is something there.

Myself, I'd say the explanations are either nature or nuture. Either their is a genetic predisposition to engage in what might be be called "wealth creating activities", or else the answer is cultural.

I suppose it could also be some combination of genetic hard-wiring and cultural soft-wiring at work.

Identifying the characteristics common to successful societies would be a good starting point.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Personally, I'm pretty much convinced that Jared Diamond is full of it, but that's the subject of another post.

Knucklehead said...


I'm gonna go out on a limb here.

America works because we still have a birthrate at, or slightly above, replenishment and we still have some parents who take responsibility for their children.

As an example of what I'm blathering about, see our one link that isn't Roger (KitchenTableMath).

Somehow, someway, we're still going to make sure our children are prepared for the world at approximately such time as they reach adulthood. At least, if only barely, enough of us to make a difference. By hook or by crook, whether we have to move our households or teach 'em ourselves, we're going to make it work.

Consider, on the other hand, an EU country where children are apparently not a generalized high priority and the state is expected to make sure they are cared for from cradle to grave. Who, under those circumstances, is going to hold to "Failure is not an option!".