This book seeks to answer the core question: is the United States different from other wealthy democracies, and if so how? Is it exceptional? In this short book political scientist Charles Lockhart compares four basic policy issues—taxation, medical care, abortion, and immigration and citizenship—between the U.S. and other nations in the world. His answer is that the U.S. is different from several other nations; whether better or not Lockhart leaves to the reader.
In every case, Lockhart finds that the different nations’ “unique historical experiences, distinctive paths of institutional development and the resulting disparities in the influence of rival cultures within them routinely produce cross-societal variations in particular policies” (p. 159).
He finds in every comparison that the United States has a set of baseline perspectives that press policy choices in certain directions. First, Lockhart emphasizes that the United States has adopted “a modestly extractive and minimally progressive tax regime, limited public financing of medical care (and limited social programs generally), and abortion policy which locates decision-making in the hands of ordinary women, and policies of relative openness with regard to immigration and inclusiveness with respect to citizenship” (pp. 169-60).
Second, the author then suggests that in relation to the other nations he surveys—Canada, Sweden, France, and Japan—Americans enjoy more freedom to make their own decisions, find their own way, rely less on government support, and “share their collective life with a more rapidly growing number of new immigrants and citizens” (p. 160).
American ideals support this approach to dealing with these issues. Lockhart emphasizes the longstanding American beliefs in individualism, egalitarianism, and opposition to hierarchy as major drivers in making the U.S. different from other wealthy democracies in its approach to these questions. If there is an American exceptionalism, Lockhart suggests, it rests on these longstanding values.