Exceptional Down to the Bone
From the June 21, 2010, issue of NR.


Modern life has of course made developed nations, Anglophone and non-Anglophone alike, more individualistic. In an era when most such nations are experiencing birth rates of less than two children per family, patterns of property division between brothers begin to seem irrelevant. Yet the historical family practices remain important today, because the expectations and demands once made on the family by the individual, and on the individual by the family, have been transferred to the state. This has had liberal effects — the state had no need to dictate marriage partners — but it has also aggravated the bad consequences of collective wealth-sharing. In pre-industrial times, the ideal of equality of wealth in egalitarian cultures applied only within the family or clan, or at most within a village.

This still permitted the feedback of reality: Unless all worked hard and exercised peasant thrift, there would be little or nothing to share. When in modern times the ideal of paternalistic egalitarianism was transferred to the state, the chain of cause and effect weakened dramatically, especially when techniques like sovereign debt and inflation caused consequences to be pushed far out of sight.

The paternalistic welfare state is a recent import to the English-speaking world, and in adopting it we have not been immune to the attraction of the (illusory) free lunch. Yet we still do not have the bone-deep expectation of entitlement seen in other nations. English-speaking people generally do not feel the sense of outrage and betrayal displayed by, for example, the Greeks when their expectations of paternal beneficence from the state are violated.

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, and scholars building on his research, have done fascinating work speculating on the correlations between historical family patterns and contemporary attitudes and expectations toward the state. Many details of these studies remain debatable, but it is becoming clearer that bone-deep cultural patterns contribute, perhaps decisively, to the appeal of (broadly speaking) government-skeptical, individualist politics in America, as opposed to many other countries. These studies seem to explain both the limited success of such policies elsewhere and the fact that fascist and Communist movements failed to develop mass followings in any English-speaking country.

When it comes to these fundamental characteristics, then, the histories of all the English-speaking countries are virtually identical. For all the differences between the U.S. and the other English-speaking countries, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are more individualistic, market-oriented, enterprising, and averse to taxation and regulation, and less likely to look on the state as either the provider of benefits or the guarantor of equal outcomes.

At the same time, particular characteristics, histories, and situations have created important differences between America and the rest of the Anglosphere at the levels of flesh and clothing. America’s uniqueness can be explained in two main ways. First is the “frontier thesis” of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. In the 1890s Turner wrote that early settlers in America underwent a psychological transformation because of the constant lure of open land to the west, which turned deferential, class-conscious Englishmen into egalitarian, assertive, republican Americans. The other view, most recently stated by David Hackett Fischer, is that, in essence, all the ingredients that made Americans what they are today were present when the first colonists left the British Isles. According to Fischer, what the Americans brought to the wilderness was at least as important as what they found there.

What Fischer showed was that the early settlers in what is now the United States came from different regional cultures in England. The middle-class Puritans of East Anglia settled in New England; Quakers of the English North and Midlands moved to the Delaware Valley; and the aristocratic younger sons of southern England planted themselves in Virginia. These first settler groups were not fixated by the frontier; it was not until the Scotch-Irish arrived in the early 18th century and found the best coastal land taken that large numbers of people began to move inland and settle the trans-Appalachian West. These first settlers established the culture of the American regions that they and their descendants settled in as they spread across the continent. Immigrants who came after them adapted themselves to that culture.


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