Habitual Blindness

If, somewhere on our warming globe, a migratory bird is insisting that, by God, his ancestors went no further north than this, and whatever the heat this year, he's staying put -- well, we know what nature has in store for creatures who mistake habit for virtue.

But what God's creation does at its peril, the United States of America does on a regular basis: we claim that our old habits still suit us, and, moreover, that everyone else should follow our lead. Somehow, though, our call to tax less and spend more, eat more and exercise less, and throw our weight around in the world with little care and less success has made us a role model others find easy to resist. The only puzzle, for them and us, is how we could have pursued our illusions for so long, failing to notice that our peculiar approach to managing globalization and engaging the world is unsustainable.

In truth, we are neither especially cheerful nor stupid; our politics represent a reasonable past adaptation to specific historical circumstances. But they are circumstances we no longer enjoy, and no other nation ever has. If we don't shift course we're as cooked as that stubborn bird, and we'll have even less of an excuse -- because we learned this lesson the hard way once already, a century ago.

Most nations learned to govern themselves by solving standard problems of modern economies. Industry enriched them, but it also used up workers and raw materials at an alarming rate. So rich countries developed welfare states to keep workers from revolting, and warfare states to get and hold resource-rich colonies.

Not so the United States, which developed incredible industrial riches without likewise developing its central government. This is not to say that Americans lived in a libertarian idyll: they developed a government suited to their own problems. They just faced different problems, because they occupied a different place in the global economy.

Unlike other rich countries, the United States was a labor-importer -- most of the Europeans who went overseas between the Irish potato famine and World War I went to America. But unlike other immigrant-receiving countries, the United States welcomed a wide variety of immigrants, with no ethnicity dominating among American newcomers.

There's an old argument that leaps from this point to say that this is why Americans didn't want or need a welfare state. Places with lots of ethnic or racial diversity adopt less generous social policies, especially when ethnic divisions parallel class divisions -- that is, when swarthier people are, generally, poorer. But in fact Americans did pay considerably for education and for public health measures. These payments were made at the local level, and we can see that American cities with more diverse populations were more likely to spend money on public health (to make sure foreign germs got stamped out, lest they infect Americans) and on education (to make sure foreign ideas got stamped out, lest they infect Americans).

So instead of a national welfare state to deal with a permanently resident, native-born class of workers who needed unemployment insurance and pensions, the United States wound up with a set of local welfare policies to deal with a mobile working class of whom a noticeably large portion was foreign-born.

Americans also developed policies to reach natural riches, but instead of overseas colonies, the United States had its western territories. While other rich countries lent capital and staffed armies to build and defend railway access to faraway colonial interiors, the United States developed its frontier on the cheap and with other people's money. The U.S. Army after the Civil War enrolled maybe half as many men as had marched with Sherman to the sea. American railways went through the West on the strength of immigrant labor and often on the tab of immigrant -- usually British -- capital.

Thus was the West made wild -- lightly policed, full of indigenous people rebelling against settlers, and settlers rebelling against both the fickle favors of the international capital market and the competition provided by the international labor market. The brand of political radicalism that developed in the West resembled a protest against globalization more than a protest against capitalism.

So while other countries built big states equipped for class conflict at home and colonial competition abroad, the U.S. instead built itself a lean government, equipped to handle migrants rather than pensioners and to fight frontier wars rather than establish colonies.

Which was fine, except for two things: after 1918 the United States no longer occupied that same place in the world, and neither did anyone else.

The Great War stopped global capital and labor flows, and afterward, nobody -- certainly not the Americans, who knew how to use government to limit the effects of globalization, but not how to keep it going -- started them up again. Inhabiting a society adapted to a vanished world, the United States -- the last nation standing -- nevertheless preached the virtues of its outmoded ways to nations unable to follow their lead. By decade's end, this approach to world leadership had plunged the world into the greatest economic crisis in modern memory. It took this collapse, plus the ensuing, horrific bloodletting of World War II, to get Americans to support international institutions designed to re-create the global economy that had once served them so well.

But since the Cold War, the United States -- the world's sole superpower -- has increasingly acted like its victory-drunk 1920s self. We claim that we need only protect ourselves from immigrants and fight an occasional frontier war with a few soldiers, that we need not concern ourselves with the complexities of international debt or peacekeeping, and everything will turn out fine. We forget that it takes work to make the global economy peacefully move, insisting instead that the world will take care of itself, and that we can depend on the kindness of strangers, who pay our tab.

It's no better an adaptation to reality now than it was before. It's like that bird staying put in the migratory destination of his ancestors -- stubbornly pursuing a strategy for extinction.

Eric Rauchway is the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America. He teaches history at the University of California, Davis.

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