Recently, I wrote that American education pales in comparison to other countries’ school systems. But America is still the place for those hardworking, ambitious people who want a better life, right? After all, one reason so many Latinos have come to the USA is that it is the land of opportunity.
Well, when it comes to social mobility — the cornerstone of the American Dream — we have more of a caste system than most industrialized nations, so “if you want your children to climb the socioeconomic ladder higher than you did, move to Canada.” OK, that’s depressing. But certainly, we’re tops in the health of our residents and per capita income. Oh, we don’t crack the top ten in either category… darn. So this leads to a big question: What leads us to proclaim that America is the greatest country in the world?
Well, the belief that we’re the best comes from the idea of American exceptionalism, which holds that the U.S. is special because of some intrinsic, indefinable trait that doesn’t exist anywhere else. This idea is especially strong among social conservatives, who are torn between their need to insist that we’re culturally perfect, yet we’re constantly oppressed by a huge, dangerous government that Americans themselves elected (yes, it’s a paradox).
In any case, It’s quite possible that this belief — that we’re vastly superior to everybody else — has convinced many Americans that it is our god-given right to bring American values to other nations, by force if necessary. It also encourages us to believe that there is nothing wrong with our nation that good, old-fashioned hard work won’t solve. And we certainly don’t want to look for creative ideas from those “socialist” Scandinavian countries (even though they perform better than us by many objective measurements).
Yes, our country is number one when it comes to the size of our economy, which has certainly paid off for the mythical one percent. We’re also, by far, the biggest military presence on Earth, which has convinced al-Qaeda that we’re the Great Satan (terrorists seem to have little interest in attacking Canada, the apparent new home of the American Dream).
But, being the biggest doesn’t mean that we actually offer the best quality of life for our residents. The truth is that many Americans are not happy people. Indeed, other nations “are far ahead of us when it comes to things that matter more to people.”
For much of our recent history, we have insisted that we’re the greatest, but we’ve taken very little time to ask “why, and at what?” Perhaps we should look to those nations that are now surpassing us. We might find that “what these societies have in common is that rather than striving to be the biggest they instead aspire to be constantly better.”
In essence, maybe being number one isn’t that great after all.