It’s Sad When Bad Ideas Drive Out Good Ones

Recently there was a piece by William Pfaff in the New York Review of Books. It starts off by pointing out that deeply rooted in American political culture is the idea that the United States is not a country like other countries, but rather has a unique (or nearly unique) world historical moral mission, and then makes a more-or-less standard lefty case that this idea has been and continues to be the source of a great deal of misguided and evil U.S. policy.

Pfaff may or may not be right that this widely held belief in a special American moral mission has been a major cause of the many terrible things that we have done in our history. The interesting thing about the piece is that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that there really is, in some meaningful sense that a liberal could get behind, something morally special about the United States. But the United States was explicitly and self-consciously created on the basis of Enlightenment principles, and has a national identity based on a progressive political creed rather than on tribal ties or obedience to kings and priests. This is a remarkable thing, and you would think that it would merit some discussion in a piece on this topic.

But there is none. Why not? One likely reason is that the great majority of the people who talk about the unique moral mission of the United States are illiberal jingoists whose “moral clarity” on subjects related to the use of U.S. power does not stem from a belief that there is an objective moral truth that can be apprehended and should be acted upon, but rather from a belief that whatever the U.S. does is axiomatically right and moral simply because we did it, no matter how stupid or corrupt or homicidal. So Pfaff and others like him are unlikely to pay much attention to anyone who wants to sell them a story about the great moral mission of America. And this is not crazy (though it is very sad); we are stuck in an equilibrium where anyone who makes noises about America’s moral mission is almost certainly a jingoist, so no non-jingoist will take any such idea seriously, so no non-jingoist will have any reason to offer a non-jingoist strain of the idea, and so such a strain never gets a chance to develop or spread. I think a lot of good ideas get frozen out this way.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Stanford

    I think religion is another example one might use. Many intelligent left/libertarian leaning people are put off by the sometimes crazy religious types that we see everyday. Our definition of religion becomes what we think they believe, rather than what religion actually is. We mistake the forest for the trees.

  • Doug S.
  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    From a comparative politics perspective, I think it would be more fruitful to recognize that every country has a unique story, and maybe even an unique moral mission. Just consider our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, each of which has a unique story with positive and negative implications for the world. And I think we could say that convincingly for just about any other country whose history we knew enough about. I’m not sure what is the direct relevance of our moral mission to specific policy questions, but I agree that it would be helpful to take the moral mission into account in understanding policies of the U.S. and other countries as well.

    In any case, I suspect that broadening to other countries will get you out of the pattern that you’re worried about.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Pity the poor real Nigerian diplomat trying to smuggle ten million dollars out of his country by emailing random people.

  • David J. Balan

    Stanford, For religion to be a good analogy, it would have to be the case that there are certain moderate religious ideas that cannot find their way into popular discourse because whenever they are expressed they are immediately mistaken for other, altogether different religious ideas that the moderate rejects and condemns. This condition does not seem to hold, at least not here and now. Moderate religious types can and do talk about God or faith without everyone immediately concluding that they must be extremists, and anyway the moderates are typically very squirrelly about condemning the extremests.

    Doug S., Neat paper.

    Andrew, while my major ideological committments are universalistic, I do think that a mild, cosmopolitan national pride can be a good thing, like other group identities can be. And you are right that this can be enjoyed by anyone in any country. My claim is that the United States really is, in some meaningful sense, objectively a model for the entire world in a way that most countries aren’t (although Canada has adopted most of the best features of the United States, and surpassed us in some, and so should more or less be lumped in with it).

    Robin, I didn’t understand your comment. What am I missing?

  • rcriii

    Robin that is a case of a bad idea driving out a dumb one.

  • David J. Balan

    Now I get it. Little slow.

  • Doug S.

    Off-topic: “But I really am the Minister of Finance for Nigeria!”

    Anyway, one thing that makes the unusual founding of the United States and its “moral mission” less significant today is that, well, we’re no longer unique. Europe is no longer a collection of warring monarchies, and the form of representative government that developed in England has become the accepted prototype of how a government ought to be organized. In other words, much of the rest of the world has already accepted many of the ideals that the United States made its mission to promote. The two World Wars in the first half of the early twentieth century was the final nail in the coffin for most of the remaining European empires, and more recently, Russian Communism has collapsed and has been replaced with what is at least nominally a British/American style “democracy.” We’ve won (mostly), so our “unique world historical moral mission” is becoming less relevant.

  • David J. Balan

    Doug, You’re certainly right that the most important distinction is between countries that are liberal democracies and those that aren’t. But the U.S. (and now Canada and Australia and maybe one or two others) are still unusual in that they are not based on tribal ties. Like I said earlier, I have a modest place in my heart for tribal ties, but ideally (in some cases this is not yet practical) they should not be connected to state power, and the U.S. remains the leading example in this respect.

    But this is a fine point. The more general point is this. Even if the relevent distinction is between countries that are Enlightenment-based liberal democracies and those that aren’t, someone who wanted to speak of the special moral status of liberal democracies would probably still run into a response like that of Pfaff.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jhertzli/ Joseph Hertzlinger

    As fas as I can tell, most of the people referring to the United States as a “propositional nation” are trying to convince self-described patriots that they should be in favor of open borders.

  • Michael Rappaport

    What is your evidence for this claim:

    One likely reason is that the great majority of the people who talk about the unique moral mission of the United States are illiberal jingoists whose “moral clarity” on subjects related to the use of U.S. power does not stem from a belief that there is an objective moral truth that can be apprehended and should be acted upon, but rather from a belief that whatever the U.S. does is axiomatically right and moral simply because we did it, no matter how stupid or corrupt or homicidal.

    Could there be a bias leading to this claim? While some American exceptionalists are American apologists, it is far from clear that “the great majority” are. I would guess that most are, like Abraham Lincoln, aware of the problems with America. They may not speak about those things all of the time, because others — the left, the America haters? — focus on them all of the time. Moreover, even if these American exceptionalists do forget about the American defects too often in response to the left, that would be an example of a bad idea (America hating) driving out a good one (American exceptionalism without being an American apologist)

  • http://rightwingnation.com rightwingprof

    “One likely reason is that the great majority of the people who talk about the unique moral mission of the United States are illiberal jingoists whose “moral clarity” on subjects related to the use of U.S. power does not stem from a belief that there is an objective moral truth that can be apprehended and should be acted upon, but rather from a belief that whatever the U.S. does is axiomatically right and moral simply because we did it, no matter how stupid or corrupt or homicidal.”

    Specific examples, please.

  • David J. Balan

    Rightwingprof, The current war in Iraq is the obvious example. Whether or not you think that we might have gotten a more moral, more successful war, it is clear that the war we actually got has been a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead. No reasonable person could claim that, on net, freedom and democracy have been advanced. But the people who wanted a war got one, and they continue to defend it as unambiguously morally good, despite its horrific consequences. Indeed, they congratulate themselves on their courage for their willingness to say out loud that freedom and democracy are good and worth fighting for, in contrast to those lefty defeatists for whom truth is relative. At no time was there a discussion along the lines of: freedom and democracy are good, let’s try to find the most effective and least costly ways to advance them. Rather it was: we wanted a war, we got one, a whole bunch of people we don’t care about paid the price, but the war is still moral because we waged it.

  • Buzzcut

    Yeah, I got off the boat at the jingo comment too.

    Do you think that the Iraq war was justified by jingoist arguments?

  • Buzzcut

    >>No reasonable person could claim that, on net, freedom and democracy have been advanced.

    Well, that’s biased right there! “No reasonable person” can make that argument? Come on. “Type M” argument.

    Let’s see. Iraq has had three elections now? Seems like democracy to me.

    The Kurds certainly have freedom. Are they not Iraqis?

    I agree that the war has not gone well (although I question if “hundreds of thousands of people” have died). But that doesn’t mean that freedom and democracy haven’t been advanced in Iraq.

    You need to be open to the idea that the civil war is in part caused by the fact that there is no longer a police state to keep the Iraqis in control and from killing each other. They do bear most of the blame for the chaos in their own country.

  • Buzzcut

    >>At no time was there a discussion along the lines of: freedom and democracy are good, let’s try to find the most effective and least costly ways to advance them.

    I think that was a major argument by the doves. Give the inspections more time.

    At the time, my feeling was that the inspectors had 12 years. Sadaam was in violation of UN resolution after UN resolution. Inspections and resolutions and embargoes were not going to oust him. Nothing short of war was going to get him out of power.

  • Michael Rappaport

    David Balan’s response to Rightwingprof illustrates one of the problems with a blog on Overcoming Bias. People disagree on what are examples of bias and even appear to be biased about them. Balan’s claim about the defenders of the Iraq War are way over the top.

    Most defenders of the war are not defending it”rom a belief that whatever the U.S. does is axiomatically right and moral simply because we did it, no matter how stupid or corrupt or homicidal.” Rather, most defenders of the war, including me, argue either (1)that it made sense as part of a long term strategy which may still work out or (2) that while it is not working out now and it might have been better had we not entered, it still would lead to worse consequences to withdraw now.

    One more point. Is it not odd to give as an example of bias one of the most heated and controversial issues of our day. Why would a serious thinker do that?

    Our views about the biases of others really are biased, and that, it seems to me, is one of the biggest challenges for this blog and the study of the subject.

  • http://rightwingnation.com rightwingprof

    “Rightwingprof, The current war in Iraq is the obvious example.”

    Well no, it isn’t any kind of an example at all.

    “No reasonable person could claim that, on net, freedom and democracy have been advanced.”

    Really? There’s a representative government, instead of a bloody tyrannical one. No reasonable person could argue that freedom and democracy have not been advanced.

    I see you ignore reality when convenient.

    “But the people who wanted a war got one”

    You can provide no evidence whatsoever that anyone wanted a war, other than the terrorists who make continual attacks. None.

    “Indeed, they congratulate themselves on their courage for their willingness to say out loud that freedom and democracy are good and worth fighting for”

    If freedom and democracy weren’t worth fighting for, then the USSR and Hitler would have overrun Europe.

    “Rather it was: we wanted a war, we got one, a whole bunch of people we don’t care about paid the price, but the war is still moral because we waged it.”

    No, and once again, you cannot provide a single example — just gross generalities for which you’d be failed on any undergraduate research paper.

    You do have a university degree, do you not? It doesn’t show, but I assume you have one.

  • David J. Balan

    Michael, It is true that even among people who have a strong orientation towards trying to detect and eliminate bias, there is always the danger that our perceptions of other peoples’ biases are themselves biased. That’s why it’s a difficult problem to get a handle on, and the only answer is that we should try to do the best we can, with each others’ help. But I don’t see why it is in any way odd for me to choose a “heated and contraversial” issue to make my point. The point may be wrong (I have not been convinced that it is but of course that itself proves nothing about its rightness), but I made it because I think it’s important, and the comtemporary issue about which it is most important is this war.

  • Michael Rappaport

    David, the reason is is odd to choose “a heated and controversial” issue is that our emotions on these matters can often lead us astray. I think if you look back at your claims, in the post and then in your defense of them, you will see that they betray a great deal of heat and excessive rhetoric. This shows your emotional investment in the issues. (This is not either to claim or to not claim that your underlying point about Iraq is mistaken.) These are the type of claims we should avoid as “clear truths.”