A strange title, I know. The first question people wonder when we talk about wanting to move somewhere else is often “Why would you want to leave the US?”. (When I start to explain my reasons, I also often am asked to run for office to change things for the better, which I am disinterested in doing.)
I’m sure this won’t be a comprehensive answer because the reasons are complex. I’ll try to break down some of the different areas.
The original ‘version’ of the nation was pretty focused on minimal government power, non-interference in world affairs, and individualism. As I’ll also cover in later posts, there is also a horrible track record with civil rights and labor, regardless of the Bill of Rights so enshrined in our society. Additionally, it is interesting is to see the threads of fear that still constrict around the heart of the nation, even if the target has changed over time.
The Great Experiment
The United States of America has an interesting history (and I’m going to be vague since I’m not a historian, I just like history). Much as you have to study the childhood and adolescence of someone with severe mental disorders, you have to understand some elements of US History to see where has gone a bit off the rails. It was a remote colony that was being taxed heavily (that was the point of it being a colony, mind) without having much say in the matter. So, the highest educated and wealthier folks in the US decided they’d rather fight to the death than keep paying those taxes. Now, sure, when it came time to say “well, how would we setup a country”, they came up with some nice experimental notions of how to do it, with a lot of compromises to make it work.
Something to remember – if anyone talks about “what the founding fathers wanted”, they’re talking out of their arse. There were a vast array of differing philosophies all smashed together, and so very many times, the Great Experiment almost collapsed. Compromise on wildly different views was the only way things managed for quite some time.
The US is also a patched version of that core vision to the US – the least amount of Federal (central) government possible to survive. Articles of Confederation came first, but was too weak to hold things together (Congress could only ask states to voluntarily give money, not actively tax anyone, for example – unsurprisingly, states tended to decline the opportunity). The Constitution was written to make the country as much a Republic as possible (note: NOT a Democracy).
Aside for non-US folks, to give you some sense of things: In the original vision of the US, the States were to the Country as in the countries are to the EU. States in the US held ALL powers, except as explicitly declared in the new constitution. The analogy works well, since the Dollar is a 200 year old equivalent of the Euro. Heck, there were even civil wars in some states. The powers originally granted to the new Federal Government was a short list, and meant to be. I’ll reproduce it here from the Wiki:
- The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
- To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
- To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
- To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
- To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
- To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current coin of the United States;
- To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
- To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
- To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
- To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
- To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
- To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
- To provide and maintain a Navy;
- To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
- To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
- To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
- To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And
- To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
This means that the original Premise of the country (let’s call it a Mission Statement, much as a business might have) was “How little central government can we possible manage with?”
Non-interference to World Police to …?
Non-interference was not only an assumption, but the law in our civilization for about a century. Most US kids have heard of the Munroe Doctrine (for example), memorized what it was, passed the history exam, and then have forgotten it.
Short and sweet: From about 1801 to 1898, the US was extremely committed to non-interventionism. In the 1890’s, the Industrial Revolution was really starting to get kicking, and the nation was building some immense wealth – as long as their interests abroad remained safe and they could trade with the recently opened (well, forced to open at gunpoint) Asian Markets. Spain was fighting Cuba to hold it as a colony, where Americans had over 100 million ($2,360,000,000 adjust to today dollars) in trade. When the war between Cubans and Spain got violent enough, trade dropped over 60%. Pulitzer and Hearst started whipping up public sentiment against Spain, which was pushed and pushed until finally the Navy sent the Maine, which was then blown up.
With the public outcry from the Maine, the US went to war with Spain, not only in Cuba, but also in the Pacific. As a result of the war, suddenly the US was an empire, with the territories of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. There is also plenty of speculation that the Pacific battles were simply to take shipping ports to make it cheaper and easier to have a reason for a Pacific Navy to protect US business and shipping en route.
The involvement in Cuba didn’t trigger the shift away from non-intervention yet. Throughout much of World War 1, the United States tried to stay out of it (a major campaign point of Woodrow Wilson’s re-election), even after German U-Boats sank the British RMS Lusitania with 128 Americans aboard. Germany later tried to secretly promise Mexico to fund a war against the US, as well as sank more US merchants. At that point, the US entered the conflict.
Much of the population of the US believed that getting involved in WW1 was a mistake, even after the war (right up until Pearl Harbor) and that non-intervention was still so strongly supported, Congress was passing laws supporting it.
After World War 2, the long simmering tension between the socialist philosophy of the Soviet Union vs the capitalist philosophy of (particularly, but not limited to) the United States began to be the infamous Cold War. This marked the beginning of the United States getting involved in conflicts that posed no direct threat to the nation, only the nation’s philosophical or economic interests through a long list of proxy wars. Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan are some quick to come to mind examples. In Afghanistan, the US armed and trained the Mujahadeen to fight the Russians, include one young Saudi named Osama Bin Laden. Some consider the current issues between Israel and some Arab nations to be a continuation of that battle.
That Cold War period was when the US began to intervene militarily in other countries over human rights issues in ways it never had been done before. It was notable during President Kennedy’s Inauguration Speech in 1961:
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. [Emphasis Mine]
This began the attitude that the United States has reason to intervene, in any way necessary, to defend human rights. For example, the recent United States interventions in Libya.
It really reached fever point in 2001, after the worst foreign attack (not by a nation, but by an organization) on US Soil in many decades. President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, with many notable elements, but in this context:
We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
Anywhere in the world was a potential threat, and any nation that might harbor any individuals who may try to harm the US was to be treated as a threat as well. This attitude of ‘destroy anyone around the world who might hurt our citizens someday’ has lead to hundreds of drone strikes around the world by both parties in the past decade, resulting in an estimated death toll possibly over 3,000 people (to put this in context: the trigger for the war on terror was about 2,600 US casualties, whereas the CDC estimates about 443,000 US citizens die prematurely each year from smoking, and drunk driving kills about 41,000 US citizens each year).
Curiously, since there are no US troops involved, the President of the US appears to be able to act militarily around the globe with no constraint from any other branch of government, despite possible legal issues.
Individualism vs Social Welfare
From my limited knowledge (I freely admit), what I can find of supporting the poor in the United States from colonial days through to the Depression Era policies is pretty sparse. Evidently, in colonial and early US, there only a few options:
they were either auctioned off to the lowest bidder (theoretically to work for that employer, although it was effectively a form of slavery), driven out of town (if they weren’t local), or sent to the dreaded poorhouse.
I encourage following that link – poorhouses are a horror I don’t want to spend any time writing about.
In the mid 1800’s, charities were still operating under the assumption that the poor simply weren’t of high enough moral character or lacked work ethic, and were treated to ‘fix’ the problem. I’m also not going to write about the Orphan Train.
The first Federal level welfare program was put in place in 1865, at the end of the civil war – the Freedman’s Bureau, which aided freed slaves during Reconstruction. Privately run social programs (sometimes with state and local funding) continued to flourish and grow as the 1800‘s carried on, and into the 1900‘s.
When the Depression hit, it created an intense collective pressure to address the plight of the populace. (The history for that period of time is deeply worth reading about.) This pressure eventually lead to The New Deal, which was really a couple of periods, the First being 1933-1934 (which mostly poured Federal funding through states and localities), and the Second from 1935-1938 creating a host of new Federal programs, some of which were later found to be unConstitutional and shut down, but a great many of which still exist today (such as Social Security). In the 1960’s, the Great Society built on the New Deal with the goal of “elimination of poverty and racial injustice”, which introduced “the war on poverty”, as well as more Federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
This is critical to understand: The nation existed for 146 years without any permanent Federal assistance programs to the citizenry. For the past 77 years, the country has been battling an internal argument of “Should the Federal government, as chartered by the Constitution, be taking care of the less fortunate citizens? How much?”. That conflict is still heavily underpinning many of the political battles of the present.