Americans think they’re No. 1. They’re wrong in so many ways.
For many Americans, the proposition that they live in the most powerful, richest, and most advanced society on Earth is something close to a statement of faith.
A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans disagree only whether the United States is the best country in the world (29 percent) or one of the best (56 percent). Only 14 percent of Americans agree instead that there are other, better countries.
Elites agree, too. Forget the current president’s flag-humping rhetoric—even the cool and cerebral Barack Obama said it was “objectively” true that the United States holds “the best cards of any country on Earth.”
That might be the case in a game of geopolitical Risk, where the cards that count are military strength and overall GDP. But in ordinary life, it’s harder to make the case for America as No. 1. The rest of the world is developing and adopting policies that can make everyday life in the United States, outside of a few coastal oases, seem … old. Even backward. And the U.S. reluctance, or inability, to learn from other countries is making life worse for its citizens than it has to be—not just in the big ways, such as the disasters of American health care and student debt, but in the little, everyday ones, too.
By many measures, the United States looks like a decidedly middle-of-the pack country or even one at the bottom of the set of rich countries. Consider the classic three American goals: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On measures indicating the quality of life, the United States often ranks poorly. The U.N. Human Development Index, which counts not just economic performance but life expectancy and schooling, ranks the United States at 13th, lagging other industrialized democracies like Australia, Germany, and Canada. The United States ranks 45th in infant mortality, 46th in maternal mortality, and 36th in life expectancy.
What about liberty? Reporters Without Borders places the United States at 48th for protecting press freedom. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks the United States as only the 22nd least corrupt country in the world, behind Canada, Germany, and France. Freedom House’s experts score the United States 33rd for political freedom, while the Varieties of Democracy project puts the quality of U.S. democracy higher—at 27th.
As for happiness: The World Happiness Report places America at 19th, just below Belgium. Belgium!
That might explain one reason why the United States proves so resistant to learning from other countries. Using terms that officials since have echoed repeatedly, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the United States and its role by saying, “We are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future.”