When I was a boy growing up in England 50 years ago, the United States stood for everything modern. Americans, we learned from comic books, movies and TV shows, lived in skyscrapers, watched something called cable television, and cooked their dinners in microwave ovens. They flew around in airplanes, effortlessly drove from sea to shining sea on interstate highways and were about to put a man on the moon. They ran their wars with computers, and, apart from when they were busy protesting against those wars, lived lives of freedom, ease and sex.
I knew when I was eight that I wanted to go there. But when I actually did, in the 1980s, I found — surprise, surprise — that it was not exactly what I had expected. I settled in Chicago, one of the world's great cities, yet much of what I saw seemed distinctly old-fashioned to an immigrant from northwest Europe. It was a paradox. The United States was clearly the most dynamic country on earth and the leader in global innovation. It was, in fact, in the process of winning the Cold War, ushering in an unprecedented era of unipolar power. And yet it also seemed to have missed some of the most important lessons of social development across the last 200 years.
What did it mean?
Two gigantic social transformations mark the modern world off from all earlier ages. The first is liberalism, in its 19th-century sense of individual freedom, which required the destruction of the hierarchies based on gender, class, race and religion that had characterized pre-modern societies. The second is the decline of violence, without which no liberal order could survive. The result, according to my Stanford colleague Barry Weingast and his co-authors, the Nobel laureate Douglass North and political scientist John Wallis, in their book Violence and Social Orders, was the creation of "open-order societies," distinguished by their commitment to rule-based norms that in principle guaranteed all citizens equality of opportunity and protection against bullies.
In some of my own work — particularly the book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels — I have suggested that the twin social revolutions that brought forth the open-order society actually rested on three infrastructural revolutions, in energy, transport and communications. Without these, the liberal world could not have emerged. The United Kingdom led the way in all three infrastructural revolutions during the 19th century, thanks to its coal, railways and postal services. But the United States then took over, blazing the trail as oil began replacing coal in the late 19th century; the automobile and airplane triumphed in the early-to-mid 20th; and television and the internet linked the world together in the mid-to-late 20th.
The United States also innovated in opening up citizenship and developing democracy. In certain ways, though, it has been far more cautious about pursuing the implications of liberalism than have many European societies, and much more willing to leave traditional boundaries and hierarchies in place. I will mention just four of the many possible examples.
The U.S. Position on Gender
I'll start with gender. Unlike so many other countries, the United States does not guarantee equal legal rights for citizens regardless of sex. An Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1921 but lost traction when the League of Women Voters insisted that women in fact needed special workplace protections. When the amendment was reintroduced in 1971, both Houses of Congress passed it, and by 1977, 35 of the 39 states required had ratified it. It looked certain to become law until the activist Phyllis Schlafly organized conservative women against it. President Jimmy Carter pushed the deadline for ratification back from 1979 to 1982, but no further states ratified it — and five tried to withdraw their ratification — until 2017, when Nevada did so, 35 years late. (Illinois followed suit this year.)
Observers in other rich countries often find this astonishing. Yet it is no more out of step with the rest of the wealthy world than the fact that the United States has never had a female president or vice president, or the kinds of arguments Americans have over abortion. Some Americans appear to outsiders, particularly in Europe, to want to deny women the most fundamental of liberal rights — rights over their own bodies. The question U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris put to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings last week — whether he could name any comparable laws "that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body" — would simply not make sense anywhere else in the rich world.
Lingering Divisions of Race and Class
Race is another area of American anachronism. No country is free from racism, but in all my years in British cities like Birmingham and Liverpool, nothing prepared me for the racial hostilities I encountered on the South Side of Chicago. Historians sometimes suggest that the animosity is a largely accidental legacy of the "peculiar institution" of slavery, which persisted until 1865 and ignited the Civil War. After the war's end, of course, Americans quickly reversed the Reconstruction of the southern states, tolerating institutionalized segregation there for another hundred years and accepting de facto segregation in northern cities such as Chicago for longer still. Racial hierarchies today are nowhere near as rigid as they were 50 or 100 years ago, but they still matter more than in most open-order societies.
American attitudes to class and wealth can also surprise foreigners (again, particularly Europeans). Opinion polls suggest that Americans have long been more willing to tolerate differences in income and assets than people in other rich countries — although that might now be changing — and middle- and low-income Americans regularly express more admiration for the wealthy than do their peers in other countries. Americans are also more skeptical compared with citizens of most liberal democracies about government-provided public goods and services, such as health care and unemployment benefits. And while no one on earth seems keen on paying higher taxes, Americans are almost uniquely convinced that governments never provide good value for the many when they confiscate their citizens' cash. As with race, historians regularly disaggregate these attitudes, arguing that each is a separate phenomenon, to be explained by the legacy of ideologies of rugged frontier individualism or the multiplicity of the immigrant experience. Once again, though, Occam's razor would suggest that we are looking at multiple parts of a single larger package of surprisingly old-fashioned values and institutions.
The question U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris put to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings last week — whether he could name any comparable laws 'that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body' — would simply not make sense anywhere else in the rich world.
Where Life Is Still Surprisingly Brutish and Short
Fourth on my list is violence. The United States is certainly not as rough as it used to be; according to the historian Randolph Roth, roughly one European-American in 20 died violently in the 17th century, whereas today the figure for American citizens is one in 142. Nevertheless, the contemporary rate of violence in the United States remains an astonishing six to eight times higher than in other rich democracies. The rates are lowest in New England and the upper Midwest, and for white women, the rich and the middle-aged; they are highest in the southeast, and for non-white men, the poor and young adults. Yet even a Caucasian 40-something woman in Vermont is three to five times likelier to be murdered than her equivalent in Ontario or Oxfordshire.
Many Americans are also passionately committed to gun ownership. The Constitution's Second Amendment, passed in 1791, says that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Tens of millions of Americans interpret this to mean that 227 years later, anyone who wants to buy a gun, including semiautomatic weapons that the Founding Fathers could hardly have imagined, should be free to do so. That notion, to put it mildly, strikes many citizens of other rich democracies as insanely out-of-date.
American Exceptionalism …
There are plenty of other ways in which Americans cling unusually firmly to tradition. Religion is an obvious one, but we might also note the American use of the English language, which preserves spellings and words — "bailiwick" is my personal favorite — that British English abandoned centuries ago. Or, for that matter, the American adherence to imperial weights and measures long after the rest of the world has adopted the more rational metric system.
Readers might well object that everything I am calling "modern" is actually merely "socialist," "liberal" (in the 21st-century sense of the word) or even "European" and that all I am really saying is that the United States is less left-wing than Europe. Alternatively, they might argue that what I call "old-fashioned" ideas are actually "lower-class" and not "American," because (a) the Americans most likely to espouse them tend to be poor, and similar ideas can be found among the poor of many other rich countries, and (b) the United States' globalized elites and those who aspire to join them actually have more in common with their fellow elites in London or Singapore than with their poorer compatriots in Alabama or Arizona. These suggestions certainly have merit, but they do not disprove my basic points: The richest countries in the world have become increasingly liberal over the last two centuries, while the United States hasn't. It is a standout in the rich modern world.
In fact, the idea of America as an exception is quite popular in the United States. The reason so much about the country looks old-fashioned to foreigners, the theory goes, is that its Founding Fathers got things right in the 18th century. One or two tweaks were subsequently necessary, such as abolishing slavery and extending the vote to women, but the real challenge for Americans has been how to conserve its perfectly balanced laws and values in the face of constant change. If the United States looks old-fashioned, it is because Americans are succeeding.
… With Notable Exceptions
It's an interesting idea, but at best only partly true, because if the United States is a standout today, it's not a standout among great powers in comparative and historical terms. Great powers have regularly struck their neighbors as unsophisticated and old-fashioned. When Philip of Macedon overwhelmed the Greek city-states in the 350s-330s B.C., for instance, cosmopolitan Greeks looked down their noses at this rude warlord. Yet Macedon's ability to combine archaic aristocratic power with the latest Greek financial techniques, along with military technology and organization, proved unstoppable. After Philip defeated Athens and its allies, his son Alexander went on to conquer the entire Persian Empire — the biggest the world had ever seen — in just four years. Historians still puzzle over how on earth he did it.
An adherence to tradition makes the United States a standout today, but not among great powers in comparative and historical terms.
Not two centuries later, something similar happened when backward Italians from Rome shattered the sophisticated Hellenistic kingdoms that Alexander's successors had created. Rome had none of the complicated banking, legal, technological or cultural infrastructure of the Greek East; it barely even had a literature of its own. Yet the rough-and-ready Romans found that their open-ended, flexible societies — unhindered by the rigidities of either the democratic rights or the royal prerogative found in the Hellenistic world — could adapt better to every challenge that came along.
Turning to the other end of Eurasia, we find much the same pattern. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the so-called Warring States of China's Yellow River Valley developed sophisticated civilizations, whose polished literati always found the sprawling Kingdom of Qin, on the far western fringe of the state system, a bit comically old-fashioned. But it was Qin that destroyed every other state by the 220s B.C. in gruesome wars of attrition. Qin, rather like Rome, excelled in adopting the technologies and institutions — but not the values — of its eastern neighbors and adapting them to fit a more flexible society.
England in the 17th century, on the far western edge of Europe's state system, looked in some ways equally behind the times. While French and Spanish rulers had centralized authority under absolutist regimes, those in England had failed to master their own Parliament, making the country look like a comical relic of the Middle Ages. However, as its rivals learned the hard way in the 18th century, the country's more inclusive society was also more flexible, adapting vastly better to the challenges of globalization. (It's no coincidence that "Rule, Britannia!" was first sung in 1740.)
Last but not least, we might take the case of post-1868 Japan, which found ways to adopt and adapt Western institutions and technologies (but, again, not values) to turn itself into an industrialized imperial power, defeating China in 1895 and Russia in 1905. Sophisticated, worldly Britons laughed at Japan's pretensions, making it the subject of comic operas. They stopped laughing when the Japanese took Singapore in 1942 and surpassed the United Kingdom in gross domestic product two decades later.
Striking the Right Balance
Though the pattern is striking, it is clearly not always the case that being old-fashioned is a good thing for a great power. India and China each had bigger GDPs than the whole of Europe in 1700, but across the next two centuries, both proved too old-fashioned to compete, failing utterly to adopt and adapt. Indian and Chinese rulers bought Western guns and ships and hired Western experts, but they never found a way to capitalize on their own strengths and drive the Europeans away. It would seem that there is a sweet spot, where a great power is old-fashioned enough to be able to tap into the strength of its traditions to unleash extraordinary dynamism — but not so old-fashioned that it turns into a fossil.
I confess that I don't know why there should be such a sweet spot, let alone where it is, but it does seem to be an empirical regularity that raises important questions. For more than a century, old-fashioned America has outperformed its more radical, liberal and even socialist rivals in Europe. Will it continue to do so, or is it becoming too old-fashioned, its political and regulatory systems too rigid? Is China now repeating the old trick of adopting and adapting the ways of its more modern rivals while preserving its own culture and traditions, to emerge as the most dynamic power of the 21st century? Can the United States stay ahead of its challengers by modernizing, or would that be a case of fixing something that ain't broke, blunting the unique American edge? I don't know. But answering this question, I suspect, may be the most important challenge this generation of Americans faces.