All my life, Americans have been accustomed to thinking of theirs as “the richest, freest” country in the world. By most measurements, it was long a contender for that honor, and — among the larger countries, if equal weight were given to wealth and indices of freedom — probably did deserve to be so described. As matters have slipped, American apologists have taken to excluding, as meaningless for purposes of comparison, smaller countries: not only such petro-states as Qatar, Kuwait, and Brunei, but small countries generally, including those that live by their wits, such as Luxembourg, Singapore, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Switzerland. When we strip all of these out, and Norway as well, which, although an oil-rich state, is a serious country of a clear ethnic and geographic rationale that antedated offshore oil by many decades, the United States is in a fierce competition with many countries it has not been in the habit of considering as serious competitors in prosperity and general quality of life.
In straight gross domestic product per capita adjusted for purchasing power — apart from railing at the countries just mentioned, and trailing some of them badly (e.g., poor little Luxembourg has a 75 to 100 percent higher standard of living than the U.S. and has never produced a barrel of oil or an ounce of gold) — America finds itself in a ding-dong battle with Denmark, Taiwan, Belgium, Iceland, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands. Canada and Australia are naturally rich and large countries, and the engineering skill and industriousness of the Germans are well-known, but how could the others be so successful? The Netherlands has no resources and a third of it is below sea level; its ethnic problems with Muslims are notorious. And Ireland! When I first visited Ireland in 1963, it was a poor country and, at the railway platform at Limerick, the public-address system advised to “change here for Cork and America.” Sixty years ago, South Korea was a war-ravaged, destitute sea of mud with millions of penurious refugees squatting in huts in its filth. They didn’t manufacture anything and had no resources, and were governed by a corrupt dictatorship with the help of an American army of joint defense. Today, South Korea’s per capita income is about two-thirds that of the U.S., and it is an industrial powerhouse, even in shipbuilding and automobiles, not one of which was manufactured in that country 40 years ago.
If we stray further, into the admittedly slightly esoteric world of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s estimation of quality of life, where we find ourselves factoring in life expectancy, divorce rates, church attendance, and union membership (the last two being considered plus points by the rather secular open shop at The Economist) as well as political stability and security and political and individual freedom, climate, geographic congeniality, job security, and absence of gender and other discrimination but staying clear of less precisely measurable factors such as culture and going fairly light on environmental conditions and urban services, the race tightens further. The U.S. is tied with Canada and trails, in ascending order, Finland, Singapore, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, Australia, Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland (the Irish again, whom less than two generations ago Bing Crosby was singing about as a tribe of congenial peasants, in which “the women in the uplands digging praties / Speak a language that the strangers [such as Crosby] do not know”). When I first went to Spain, also in 1963, it was scarcely part of the Western world, a priest-ridden fascist dictatorship where the men always dressed in black, riot police were everywhere and not hesitant to apply their nightsticks to the crania and tear gas to the nostrils of the populace, the media were medieval propaganda, and no one had any idea what really happened in the Spanish Civil War, except that Franco won.