America is too proud of its revolution and that’s hurting Americans. They should aspire to be more like Canadians.
So what are we talking about today?
Wasn’t Independence Day last week?
Yes it was. However, it took me time to figure out what bugged me about it.
And that was?
Independence Day is a celebration of ‘freedom’ or ‘American Freedom’ to be more exact. Yet it is far from clear that independence actually promoted freedom.
Hang on I thought the American Revolution was when the plucky colonists grew tired of the arbitrary rule of a monarch an ocean away and demanded there be “no taxation without representation.” How can leaving an empire be bad for freedom?
That’s the familiar narrative and it’s true as far as it goes: in the short run the (white male) people of America probably gained freedom as a result of the revolution.
However, it doesn’t really illuminate the counter factual. To do that we’d need to know what America would have looked like had it not had its revolution. Obviously that’s to a great extent unknowable but we do have a model from which we can make some approximations: Canada. It is essentially Britain’s North American Colonies which did not become independent in the late eighteenth century.
What it shows is that the relationship between the colony and the imperial centre evolved. There has never been a decisive break between Britain and Canada yet the latter steadily accumulated autonomy until it became an independent nation.
Likewise, its system of government has changed. Canada is now every bit as much of a liberal democracy as America.
But does that mean Canada is really better off than the US?
Yes I think you can easily show that Canada exhibits more of the values of the American Revolution is supposed to represent.
Well you know Jefferson’s phrase about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Well Canadian’s get more life than American’s because they on average they live longer. Of particular note is that they are less likely to be murdered and have no prospect of being executed by their own government.
As for liberty, the record here is not in present day America’s favour. The response to the War on Terror has seen the US government engage in mass spying, arbitrary detentions and extra-judicial executions of its citizens. Canada has wisely not gone this far. Nor has it imitated its neighbours to the south’s policy of industrial incarceration.
The past also doesn’t paint the US in a favourable light. Slavery was abolished in Canada (along with the rest of the British Empire) decades earlier than in the States. It also never had legal segregation like the Southern States of the US.
It also seems that Canadians are pursuing happiness rather more successfully: when pollsters ask them they rate their happiness higher than Americans do. There are plenty of reasons why this might be the case. Their educational attainment is better. The relative rates of social mobility in the two countries mean one is more likely to realise “American dream” in Canada. It is true that GDP per capita is higher in the US, despite this there is still more poverty.
Isn’t this all getting a bit Niall Ferguson?
Not really. Ferguson thinks British Imperialism was in general a good thing. I don’t.
Achieving independence was imperative for the bulk of the colonies because they could never have a healthy relationship with Britain because racist assumptions would always colour its behaviour towards them. The White Dominions could deal with London on a basis of equality precisely because they had white populations. And that apparent success stemmed from the elimination and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of those lands.
I’m also not convinced that it is a deficiency of British Colonialism that is America’s problem.
So what is?
I think it’s the sheer power of the mythology that’s grown up around 1776.
The great scholar of American exceptionalism Seymour Martin Lipset explained that: “Born out of revolution, the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism, as different people have pointed out, is an “ism” or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms.”
This is deeply problematic; the conflation of patriotism with subscribing to this ideology of Americanism is a constricting force in American life. The American obsession with its own greatness frequently blinds it from admitting its deficiencies.
It is also unfortunate that America’s forging in a revolution made its constitution into a lynchpin of its national identity. As I’ve written before it might have been a groundbreaking document when it was first written but it is wholly inadequate as a way to govern a country in the twenty-first century.
What is more the idea of the revolution has lent itself to abuse. The Slaveholding Confederate States explicitly used it as a precedent. And even today we have the Tea Party a movement – which as its name reveals takes inspiration from the revolutionary era – and which upholds with destructive fanaticism many aspects of Americanism.
The upshot of all this is that America is institutionally and ideologically incapable of taking positive action to solve many of its problems. It can’t legislate for say a rational gun control or a cost effective healthcare. These kind of notions offend the ideology of Americanism and the constitution provides for many ways they can be defeated by vested interests or small groups of zealots.
So perhaps without the War of Independence America might have been spared its illusions about itself. Instead, it found the price of being born in a revolution has been living with stultifying reactionary institutions and ideologies.