America, the Exceptional

President George W. Bush once said “the desire for freedom lives in every human heart.” In reality, we find that tyranny is everywhere and its temptation lurks deep within us. History teaches that liberty is rare, fragile and fleeting, while tyranny is common, strong and enduring. The quest for control —of others, as much as of things— has always been a sign of the human condition. But America is different. It is exceptional because in its very essence and since its founding, the American experiment, with its love of freedom, individuality, religion, equality of opportunity and free enterprise, is a good fight against human nature.

Near the end of the 18th century two developments changed the world forever. The first one was the American Revolution, the second the French Revolution. Both occurred within 13 years of each other, both were inspired by the Enlightenment, both overthrew their respective Ancien Régime, and both created new political realities. That is where their similarities end. Their differences are much more important.

While the American Revolution is not generally recognized as a revolution, it was a total success: “The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.” Multiple copies of the French Revolution have appeared throughout Europe, Russia, China and Latin America. In fact, it gives birth to equally failed children, every year, somewhere in the world. The American Revolution is still unique. Why?

The key to understand why a revolution succeeds or fails in founding “a nation of laws and not of men,” is the way it handles three crucial problems:

The first problem is the source of power and of law: “Hence, the framers of American constitutions, although they knew they had to establish a new source of law and to devise a new system of power, were never even tempted to derive law and power from the same origin. The seat of power to them was the people, but the source of law was to become the Constitution, a written document, an endurable objective thing” … which in turn was based on “promises, covenants, and mutual pledges” between equal and free men “in a country articulated from top to bottom into duly constituted bodies,” with “representatives freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours.”

In the French Revolution, the source of both power and law was the people: “Law is the free and solemn expression of the general will.” (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Article 4). This “deification of the people” has enormously negative consequences. It makes the revolution a law unto itself, a cosmic force that sweeps away everything and everybody and which, without mediating institutions that can check its power, is prone to be led by demagogues and dictators. Blinded by democracy, the people has replaced one oppression with another.

The second problem, one that can be seen today in every Third World revolution, is the difference between liberation and liberty: “Liberation may be the condition of freedom but by no means leads automatically to it.” Liberation is freedom from want, from abject poverty, from crude oppression. On the other hand, liberty is a rare gift that up to then only ancient Greeks, English freemen after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 18th century Americans enjoyed, because they wanted to bind themselves in freely chosen laws.

The third problem is that of economic means and ends or, in the felicitous words of Hannah Arendt, “trying to solve the social question by political means.” After so many examples of socialist disasters, we understand what this means. America, from its very beginnings, let the social problem solve itself in the economic realm by embracing democratic capitalism. Everywhere else, from the French Revolution to today in so many parts of the world, collectivist thinking has led politicians to enact laws to “end poverty.” Socialists try it time and time again, with the same dire results. Sadly, they are also doing it now here in America.

(The inspiration and all quotes except for the first one, come from Hannah Arendt’s wonderful little book, On Revolution, The Viking Press, Compass Book Edition, 1965)