While he was living in Europe during the 1990s, an American journalist was repeatedly asked the following question: How can your country contain so much apparent disorderliness (specifically “so much litigation, adversarial confrontation, hype, spin, glibness, and overwrought scandal”) and yet at the same time function with such incredible productive efficiency?
Why analyze it?
The journalist had difficulty coming up with an answer—at least a convincing answer. It was not a question to which he had previously given serious thought. Like the rest of his countrymen, he had no doubt persisted in that nonchalant state of mind which success induces: Why concern yourself about something that is not a problem? America works; why analyze it?
Such comfortable indifference is not a natural response or a logical option for the rest of the world. Its inhabitants cannot help perceiving the power and prosperity of the United States, and they would like to acquire similar benefits for their own respective countries. But when they scrutinize America in the hope of understanding it, they encounter what appears to be a disjunction between the way its inhabitants behave and the results they achieve.
Through the course of two hundred years of international travel and observation, it has often seemed to puzzled foreigners that America is a nation which defies the social equivalent of the laws of nature. In 1803, a French politician attempted to explain to his fellow citizens that, despite the notorious dishonesty of American businessmen, the economy of the country as a whole was prospering. About a century later, a German sociologist tried to correct the popular notion that the United States was nothing but a heap of unattached individuals, a sand pile of separate human grains. On the contrary, he declared, they formed groups very frequently and effectively. Another century after that, we have our journalist (mentioned above) being questioned by similarly perplexed Europeans.
Why isn’t the
United States a
country filled with
Don Quixotes and
The questions posed by this national paradox are indeed bewildering. How can so much stability, cooperation, and productivity exist in the United States? In view of all the liberty and license that is celebrated and actually permitted by this nation, why is the disorder that results sufficiently isolated and superficial as not to cause serious disruption? What prevents all the supercharged individual egos—or at least a crucially large number of them—from running amok? What channels their unrelenting activity in constructive social directions? What keeps America from becoming a nation, not merely of self-absorbed egotists, but also of fanatical idealists? Why isn’t the United States a country filled with Don Quixotes and Madame Bovaries, all obsessively intent on living exciting, extraordinary lives and all leaving trails of chaos and disorder behind them.
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There have been a few explanations on offer. One obvious and popular though shallow and inadequate answer is the law and its agent of enforcement, the criminal justice system. Unlike societies that seek to impose order and control on everyone from the outset, the American government gives its citizens extensive freedom and then punishes those who abuse it by injuring others. Harshness and frequency of judicial penalties are a logical consequence of this approach. Alone among developed countries, the United States continues to inflict capital punishment, and its rate of incarceration is the highest in the Western world, by some calculations the highest anywhere.
For a specific example of the connection between breadth of liberty and severity of punishment, one may consider Texas. It is well known as the state where individual egos grow big and range free, producing personalities that are “larger than life” or at least more rambunctious than normal (President Lyndon Johnson, for example). It is also the state that performs over one-third of the executions in the country, that has undertaken the nation’s largest program of building prisons, and that boasts laws which are extraordinarily lenient to those who resort to lethal force in defending themselves or their property.
by old women
by young men
Unquestionably, the legal system performs a necessary function in maintaining a minimal level of social order. But beyond this, the power of the law in the United States has crucial limitations. Americans assume the right to subject any government measure to their own personal judgment. If they regard a law as unjust or unreasonable, they have few qualms about disobeying it, so long as they think they can escape its penalties. Observers, foreign and domestic alike, have noticed that Americans are ready to pass laws for the remedy of just about any complaint, but they are equally ready to flout laws for just about any excuse. The prohibition act of 1919 and its subsequent widespread violation for more than a decade provided what was probably the most notorious example of this contradictory behavior, but there have been countless other instances, before and since, such as the state laws against gambling that the English visitor Frances Trollope characterized as made by old women and broken by young men.
A more fundamental objection to the idea of the law as a sufficient source of social stability and an effective curb on dangerous impulses is the fact that it handles only the worst transgressions and disputes. Daily life contains innumerable situations in which people come into conflict. While these are usually too small and too numerous for the law to address, they can be significantly disruptive in their aggregate effect, and they have the potential to grow into more serious forms of disorder.
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One solution that has often been suggested is for each person to respect the rights of others, to resolve that he will not pursue his own interests if they injure those of his neighbor. This sounds fine in theory, but it breaks down in practice, under the beguiling and distorting influence of the individual ego. Prompted by personal desires and advantages, people disagree in their evaluation of a transgressive action, depending on whether they are the ones to initiate it or the ones to suffer its consequences. The same harm appears as a tolerable and trivial annoyance to its perpetrator but as a serious wrong and affront to its victim. This subtle persistence with which self-interest warps and clouds the perception of facts and realities to its own advantage is so natural and familiar a part of human behavior as to require no extended demonstration or discussion.
Traditional cultures long ago perceived the injuries that individuals could do to each other and to the social fabric, and they sought to restrain them by imposing authority. This took the obvious form of a ruling elite and the more adroit and pervasive form of inherited customs and mores. America has rejected both tactics. Its spirit of egalitarianism bridles at the very notion of a select minority leading the majority, either formally as government officials or informally as an upper class.
Americans have no use for practices still common elsewhere in the world, where family and kin rather than one’s own preference determine the intimate and significant decisions of life, such as those involving marriage and occupation. In the United States, each person is supposed to choose and decide everything pertaining to himself. He does not automatically accept the identity handed to him by the circumstances of birth. He is allowed, even encouraged, to leave parents, siblings, and other relatives behind and go off to assume a new identity, fashioned by his own selection and contrivance.
Europeans have been bemused and occasionally aghast at the ruthless thoroughness with which Americans dismiss the authority of tradition. Religion might seem to be the one thing above all that is routinely transferred from parents to children with each new generation. But even here, the United States recognizes the option of the individual. Foreign visitors have been surprised to be asked on bureaucratic forms to indicate “your religious preference” or “the religion of your choice,” which imply that religion may ordinarily be a matter of individual preference and personal choice.
If authority, either governmental or non-governmental, is so weak in the United States, what prevents or resolves conflicts between people? This question becomes all the more baffling when one goes beyond the task of maintaining basic social order and considers the means of promoting economic productivity. It is one thing to keep individuals from attacking and robbing each other; it is something else, something much more difficult and subtle, to induce them to work together harmoniously. The liberties granted and implied by America’s ethos of egalitarianism have stoked every person with a personal fire of self-esteem and self-interest. What keeps them from running into each other in the resulting scramble? What keeps the competition between individuals from becoming so intense that it damages the collective effort? With everything up for grabs and everyone up grabbing for it, what prevents the entire enterprise from collapsing into chaos?
One answer is at least as old as Tocqueville: the principle of enlightened self-interest (he called it “self-interest correctly understood”). It is the realization that by acting collectively and cooperatively, individuals will gain more for their personal selves than if they acted separately and in opposition. It does not eliminate the conflicts and rivalries that naturally arise among people, but it curbs and channels them. Americans generally understand the idea, in concept if not by name, and it is in practice everywhere.
But enlightened self-interest is a description and a rationalization of what already exists, rather than a genuine force that guides or impels human conduct. Like the idea of respecting the rights of others, it is too cold to counteract the burning demands of the ego, and it is too abstract to adjudicate the specific situations where those demands come into play. At what point should two persons stop competing and start cooperating? The principle of enlightened self-interest is incapable of giving a precise answer. In addition, its benefits tend to appear over the long term rather than in the short term, which makes them seem dubious and illusory to the immediate desires of the naturally and spontaneously unenlightened self.