Re: What forces have shaped America most?

David Kennedy: Particularly if we ask the question, “What does American history have to offer to the rest of the world today?” What are the experiences that have characterized life in this society in the last several centuries that might provide guidance to other peoples going forward? I do think it’s something in the realm of how people of very different historical, and cultural, and religious, and so on backgrounds have managed to . . . if not exactly make common cause, at least make space for one another. I think we can get over-romantic and mythologize the idea of how we are one people. I think our genius is we are a lot of different peoples that have managed to get along with one another reasonably well over historical time. That record is not perfect either by any means. But that’s the genius of the American experience, it seems to me, or part of the genius. Another part of it, I believe, is again the rather peculiar relationship – at least in the framework in the history of the western world – that we’ve had between political society and civil society. That is the role of government and the role of just citizens in their own individual capacities. It’s a distinctive feature of American history from the beginning right down to the present, that the public, or political, or state sector is much smaller than it is in the societies that we usually compare ourselves with. One rough and ready index of that is the tax burden in the United States, which took the sum of all taxes and all public revenues – state, local and federal – in the United States is about 30 percent of gross domestic product. And most of the west European countries that we typically compare ourselves with, and from which we are culturally and historically derived . . . that percentage is usually in the 40 to 50 percent range. So again, it’s just a crude indeed of how, in the balance between state and society, or the political realm and the civil realm, we’ve maximized or maintained a larger civil realm than other societies. Among other things, that means that we’re kind of looser, more porous, and some would say an even undisciplined society than others. And that’s maybe the price that we pay for this. But it has . . . For whatever price we’ve paid, it has liberated enormous energies amongst the people that constitute American society. And it’s what makes us so dynamic, and such a source of innovation – not only technological innovation, but cultural and institutional innovation. This is, you might say, the payoff that we get for the kind of chaotic . . . sometimes loose and undisciplined society that we have. I think it was George Santayana – he taught philosophy at Harvard at many years. I think it was he who said that the American society is like a treeless prairie constantly swept by a tornado. That we’re just a wide open, “let her rip” society in many ways, at least compared to the west European societies that we typically compare ourselves to. Recorded on: 7/4/07

The peculiar relationship between political and civil societies.

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