President Obama, in his State of the Union Address last January, called upon American students, teachers, scientists, and business executives to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” We are living, the President announced, in a “Sputnik moment.” As polls show the majority of the country considers the United States to be rather in a Challenger moment, his assertion naturally attracted considerable surprise and attention, much of it critical. Republicans, dutifully shouldering their white man’s burden as the responsible opposition, countered that a nation with a $14.9 trillion debt can’t afford the kind of investment the President is asking for, including bullet trains and wireless connections to the remotest towns and hamlets in America. Predictably, the GOP missed the essential question, which is whether a nation with a $14.9 trillion surplus would need a Sputnik moment to beat out every other country in the world in every conceivable field of human endeavor. A sane person, it seems to me, would conclude that it does not, and go on to examine the heretical notion that the critical importance of being Number One in the world might in fact be a rubbishy idea, the product of a shallow, ignorant, greedy, power-hungry, and demagogic political mind.
Number One is a politicized as well as a political idea, and so it is not surprising to discover that it contains an implicit political threat. “Toil harder, O you people,” the Idea says, “on your country’s behalf. Dedicate yourselves to studying and supporting the pure and applied sciences, or at least some practical trade, so that your collective mental power may be made ours. Consign educational policy at every level to Washington’s trust. Consent to paying ever-higher taxes by voting for those of us enlightened politicians who demand them. Look upon Wall Street (which, together with MIT and the National Science Foundation, makes all good things possible) with generosity and forbearance. Do not protest the dedication of the national wealth to building a greater national infrastructure, federally owned (or subsidized) and operated. Make your peace with the increased power that infrastructure allows the political-managerial establishment at home and abroad. Give us your sons and your daughters, including plenty of those huddled masses we continue to import from everywhere, to swell the ranks of our Armed Forces. Support our troops, and the State Department and the Pentagon behind them. Continue to feed this beast whose frightening aspect belies its benign and generous nature. Assist us in keeping America Number One, a beacon to the world and a scourge to the oppressor, so that the god Democracy may triumph in the world. Cooperate with us, finally, in making a world that is safe for Democracy and Equality and in which the United States is recognized as the foremost equal among equal democracies.
“If you don’t, America will cease to be Number One. That would ensure her being overtaken and left in the dust by China, Russia, India, and Brazil. Foreign scientists would come here no more, native-born ones will flee to Asia, and we should lose our competitive edge as critical discoveries are made and inventions developed in other countries, thus compromising both our wealth and our national security. Deprived of the political means for creating a full-blown corporate political state, Washington would be forced to concede the brave new world of the politico-economic future to Moscow and Beijing. Our military, weakened by technological backwardness and lack of funding, would no longer be able to impose our will on the world, and the Pax Americana would be forfeited. The United States would no longer wield the financial whip enabling her to call the shots in the United Nations, and America would rapidly decline from Sole Superpower to join the ranks of those contemptible, relatively well-off, moderately powerful, generally peaceful, apparently content, and otherwise quite normal nations, among them the so-called civilized European countries from which our forefathers came.”
How many Americans really care, in their heart of hearts, whether their country is, or will continue to be, Number One in the world? Number One is a shibboleth of the political, managerial, and financial classes, who invented it in the late 19th century to further their quest for unlimited wealth and unbridled power and have been promoting it ever since. It is the American equivalent of what “empire” used to be for the British; like imperial status, America’s reputation as Number One has been essential to the enrichment and empowerment of the elite, while doing little to raise the standard of living for the mass of its citizens much above that of other nations at a comparable level of civilization. Certainly the British people suffered severe material loss, and a correspondingly severe decline in their own living standard, following the loss of empire after 1945, yet much of that decline was less the result of the loss itself than of the circumstances in which that loss was incurred: World War II.
Our public class’s relentless emphasis on keeping America Number One implies that Americans did not begin to enjoy the good life until that same year, when the country at last attained the primary rank in an internationalized world that Great Britain had enjoyed for the past century. But this is only a myth spawned by the elite—a scare tactic intended to frighten the masses into submission. The reality, indeed, is exactly the opposite. American casualties in World War II include, in addition to 416,800 lives, the old American way of life that, in spite of sustaining near-fatal wounds in the War Between the States, managed to soldier on until it fell at last, mortally wounded, somewhere on the battlefields of Northern France in 1945.
Life was better for the majority of the American people in the first decades of the 19th century (before the Old Republic was challenged and finally wrecked by democratic ideology, on the one hand, and political and economic nationalism, on the other) than it ever was before, or has been since. Political, social, and economic equality was as nearly realized, perhaps, as it has ever been in any country known to history. The United States, excepting war with Britain in 1812 and the inevitable Indian conflicts here and there, was peaceful, mindful of Washington’s injunction against foreign entanglements. She had no standing army, whether to be served in or paid for, and the average, law-abiding citizen rarely encountered a policeman. Americans were left free by their governments to pursue their own ends, as close to the pursuit of happiness as they were ever to get. Free enterprise was encouraged, honored, and rarely interfered with. Taxes were not onerous—though of course, being taxes, they were often resented and protested. America did have an unofficial national project, set in motion by Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and furthered by the Americans’ expansion westward to the Pacific Coast and southwestward into Mexico. Western expansion, indeed, was what the country had instead of a foreign policy (that, and the Monroe Doctrine) before the War Between the States. America was exceptionally prosperous, well off, and well fed, by comparison even with the countries of Western Europe. The large majority continued to be rural folk, husbandmen living on fat farms, essentially self-sufficient and economically independent, while an urban proletariat had still to form within the greatest American cities. America never developed an intellectual and artistic culture to rival that of Europe, yet the culture it did produce represented the mental flowering of a unique, and uniquely interesting, people. Mechanical and scientific invention thrived in America, although still based to a considerable extent on the pure science previously developed in Europe. All things considered, it is by no means fanciful to insist that Americans were never so free, peaceful, prosperous, and content as in the antebellum years, when the United States (even while her progress was under continual scrutiny by democrats and antidemocrats abroad) remained a remote outpost of Western civilization, lacking great influence in world affairs and thus untroubled by importunate would-be allies, aspiring protectorates, and foreign clients. All this began to change after Lincoln’s resupplying of Ft. Sumter and the creation of the aggressive American nation-state, and later of the informal American empire.
Advocates for Number One threaten dire consequences to America in a world where scientific discoveries and technological initiatives occur beyond American shores. But they are only blowing hot air. The medieval Chinese invented gunpowder, but, in no time at all, the Europeans had gunpowder, too. James Watt, a Scotsman, is credited with inventing the steam engine; yet that same invention (with British funding) transformed the United States after the Civil War. Mme. Curie discovered polonium and radium, which American scientists were quick to utilize. And the process works in the opposite direction as well. American advances in automotive technology and computer science were acquired, almost instantly, by the rest of the world—as, of course, were the scientific knowledge and technique that produced the atom bomb. Today, the nations of the world, from Number 2 down to Number 195, are all beneficiaries of American scientific expertise. The notion that happiness, prosperity, and freedom depend on a country’s status as First Nation is nothing more than a self-serving falsehood, propagated by people whom Americans ought never to have entrusted with their future in the first place. One would think that the professional One-Worlders would understand that (as, indeed, they privately do).
I anticipate the (now almost certain) prospect of living in a normal, ordinary country that ranks modestly in power and influence with, say, France, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, or even Italy, where life today remains more pleasant and more civilized than American life has been for many generations: a country that is not being constantly begged, badgered, or threatened into intervening in the latest international crisis to bail out, politically or financially, some other country; or to defend the so-called human rights of its citizens; or to build democracy here or there; or to abolish poverty, disease, and general misery wherever they exist—a country, in short, that is plagued no longer by the political onus and cultural pollution created by the Number One Complex. If Americans can only resign themselves to the at present unimaginable role of the dispensable nation, we shall find ourselves free and at ease to enjoy the leisure, personal resources, and modest wealth required to divert our attention, as a nation, away from building fiber-optic networks and bullet trains and toward recovering the things that really matter to civilized life.