George Will on the American Idea

by Don Boudreaux on October 16, 2007

in History, Media, Politics

The Atlantic asked several prominent people to offer their thoughts on the meaning of "the American idea."  Lots of ideas that are as mistaken as they are trite are served up by bright and talented people — such as John Updike and E.O. Wilson, each of whom warns that our materialistic way of life is causing us to run out of resources, and that we must alter our behavior if we’re to survive.  (Geez, I miss Julian Simon.)

George Will, in contrast, delivers wise counsel:

It is a good and very American idea to avoid the definite article in
locutions like “the American idea.” “The”? There are many American
ideas pertaining to liberty under a constitutional government of
limited, delegated, and enumerated powers. The best of these ideas can
be found in the Federalist Papers, which are agreeably untainted by

It has been often said that any idea is dangerous if it is a
person’s only idea. Talk about “the” American idea is dangerous because
it often is a precursor to, and an excuse for, the missionary impulse
that sleeps lightly, when it sleeps at all, in many Americans. After
all, if the essence of America can be distilled to a single idea, it
must be supremely important, and there might be a moral imperative to
export it.

In 1990, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall still reverberating
around the world, Jeane Kirkpatrick wisely warned Americans: “There is
no mystical American ‘mission,’ or purpose to be ‘found’ independently
of the U.S. Constitution.” With the Cold War over, and the moral and
military mobilization it demanded no longer necessary, Kirkpatrick
wrote: “The time when America should bear such unusual burdens is past.
With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation.”

If, paradoxically, “the American idea” is that the definite article
is definitely inapposite in that phrase, then the greatest challenge to
it is the false idea that American patriotism is inextricably bound up
with the notion that being a normal nation is somehow beneath America’s
dignity. Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea
of American normality: Our nation is exceptionally well-founded
and exceptionally faithful to an exceptionally nuanced system of
prudential political axioms. But one of those axioms—it is the crux of
the Madisonian persuasion—is that no polity is exempt from the passions and failings that make governance problematic, always and everywhere.


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