You bet America is exceptional

Anybody who’s lived and worked in other countries can’t fail to be struck by it: Americans are, above all, striving. Sloth is as antithetical to the national character as irony. Americans work incredibly hard, and they take play so seriously it’s comical. They’re acquisitive and competitive, but they’re also friendly, as well as amazingly open to interaction with other people and to joint endeavors in business and with neighbors. With strangers, they’re both welcoming and demanding (which the British find especially odd). They detest incompetence and won’t settle for mediocrity. They’re pragmatic — they believe in what works — yet they’re reluctant to compromise. They venerate innovators and risk-takers. They see failure as a temporary setback. They expect to rely on themselves and ask the same of others. They don’t think the world owes them a living.

Live somewhere else for a while, then tell me you think those traits are universal.

All this goes a long way to explain America’s extraordinary economic success. The same goes for the country’s political institutions — themselves a result of the underlying culture. I’m not the first to notice that American culture is communitarian and individualist at the same time. There’s a kind of reverence for popular sovereignty and the institutions that express it, including the Constitution and the flag, but this is combined with suspicion of government. On the one hand, “We the people.” On the other, “Don’t tread on me.” The result, by the standards of other advanced economies, is a bound on the size and scope of the state.

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