Is the US the greatest country on earth? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard politicians say this, most notably Ronald Reagan. But is it true?
We certainly have the largest economy in the world, and the largest military. But that doesn’t seem to be what politicians mean when they say it (if they mean anything at all). Reagan seemed to be talking about our principles:
Oh, there have been revolutions before and since ours. But those revolutions simply exchanged one set of rules for another. Ours was a revolution that changed the very concept of government.
Let the Fourth of July always be a reminder that here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights; that government is only a convenience created and managed by the people, with no powers of its own except those voluntarily granted to it by the people.
We sometimes forget that great truth, and we never should.
Today’s America does not follow that point about government powers being limited to those granted by the people. It may sound nice but government at all levels is growing out of control, and most of us feel we have little or no say.
One might also wonder how much those who say this know about other countries. From a brief review of Reagan’s life, he never lived in any other country. I lived in Japan for a year. I thought then and still do that it’s a great place. Japan and many other countries are better than us in a variety of ways, including mass transit and conservation measures.
The Japanese manage to maintain a large per capita GDP while using far less energy, for example.
The Japanese and French have spectacular train systems. I’ve ridden both the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, literally “train of great speed”) and the 新幹線 (Shinkansen aka the bullet train). They’re awesome, and unlike Chinese high speed trains or American low speed trains, they don’t seem to crash. Japanese people also live a lot longer than we do. I suspect that’s from a healthier diet and a lot of walking. They are usually a step ahead of us on having the latest technology for consumers, and South Korea is also ahead of us these days. Japan also feels extremely safe everywhere, which is one of our greatest failings. There’s nothing in Japan resembling Watts, the South Bronx, or Opa Locka. On the downside most Japanese homes are smaller than my garage, and most of the cars they drive remind me of roller skates.
I’ve also traveled a fair amount. I still remember, imprinted on my brain, when I was visiting a friend in Belgium back in 1989. He introduced me to one of his friends whose first words were: You’re from America? That must be great!
I got that kind of reaction from people in Japan also. So at least some people in other countries think we’re great. But of course, most of those people had never been to the US, so they didn’t really know what life is like here. Maybe they think we all live in Disney World.
In researching for this blog post I came across some other opinions about being the greatest country. For example Slate’s Joseph Stiglitz argued for the tiny island of Mauritius. Considering the small size of the country and their low GDP per capita, I think we can write them off. Michael Kinsley argued in Politico that we’re not the greatest country, but he didn’t really offer an alternative. Perhaps he meant that there is no greatest country, but he didn’t quite say that either.
I became motivated to write this post after reading a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: Canada Beats America, which argued that Canada is doing better on taxes, spending and energy. Canada’s national debt is much lower than ours as a percentage of GDP, and they appear to be going in the right direction (toward a balanced budget). If it wasn’t so cold, I’d give Canada a shot at the greatest country. Similar arguments could be made for Australia.
Some might argue for China because of its large population and strong economic growth in recent decades. Maybe that will continue but my gut tells me their political and economic system is headed for major problems.
Down the road we might see real progress in Brazil or another Latin American country. We’ll see. The truth is there are many great places in the world. I’m partial to the French countryside (but not Paris), Japan, and have a strange fascination with Costa Rica and Panama. A close friend spent a few years in Germany and he really liked it. But for me, the US is still #1. However, our fiscal and monetary policies are disturbing and we are at great risk of an economic collapse. That would have ripple effects across the world, and might make Australia look even better.
What do you think is the greatest country in the world? Why? Please post comments.