Red, White, and Better

Pepperdine Prof James Q. Wilson on What Makes America Superior

Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation is a 700 page oddity-a book about America, published in the year 2008, that makes almost no mention of American foreign policy, American relations with China, India, and Russia, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our anxiety-inducing search for energy security. Instead, it’s dedicated almost entirely to domestic politics and culture-a tome of essays by eminent scholars about the biggest question of all: what makes America different (and, dare we imply it, great)? Recently I spoke with one of the book’s two editors, James Q. Wilson, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University.

Why does the world need another book in which Americans write about why America is exceptional?

We believe that most Europeans and many Americans do not understand why the United States is an exceptional democracy. By exceptional I don’t necessarily mean better. I mean different or unique. In the final chapter, when [co-editor Peter] Schuck and I summarize all of this, we also say that it is not only exceptional in being different-we also think it’s exceptional in being better.

Why is America a “better” democracy?

We think America is almost the only democracy that has combined three things: remarkable levels of economic growth, productivity, and consumer welfare; a commitment to personal freedom-you can’t be sued here for many things you can be sued for in Europe; and we have done a better job [than European countries] of integrating immigrants into our society.

Well, if those are the linchpins of what makes America better, you’re courting controversy. Let’s start with economics.

The chapter on the economy, written by Benjamin Friedman at Harvard, explains that we have rules that permit a very flexible re-allocation of labor and capital. People can change jobs easily; increasingly their pensions can be carried with them; capital can move from one target to another fairly easily; we don’t have government-directed investments; the regulatory system permits the financial markets to adjust very quickly to change; and all of these things produce a share of gross domestic product that is higher in this country than any other country except places like Luxembourg.

Lax federal regulation of the economy is one of the chief reasons many economists cite for the current sub-prime mortgage crisis and the credit crunch.

James Q. Wilson

We don’t talk about the sub-prime mortgage crisis-that developed after the book was written. But speaking for myself, hardly anyone fully understands the sub-prime mortgage crisis, but there’s as yet no reason to think this crisis can’t be handled by the market:

There’s a big rift in the Republican Party right now on immigration. It’s a significant problem for John McCain that he’s seen as too pro-immigration by many rank and file Republicans-the same is true for President Bush.

In the chapter on immigration, Peter Shuck cites a great deal of data about this. Most Americans do not want the number of immigrants in the country to increase. The great majority of Americans think that [illegal] Latino immigrants who are here should be put on a path to citizenship. The two things Americans don’t like are the word “amnesty”, and having an uncontrolled southern border. So if we can control the southern border, and if we can avoid using the word amnesty and instead say, “Let’s put people on a path to citizenship by requiring them to pass certain tests,” I think the American people would be quite happy with that.

You make it sound like Americans are eminently reasonable about immigration, so why is McCain, who seems pretty reasonable to me, vilified?

McCain’s controversial partly because certain persons, Lou Dobbs among them, have hurled around the word “amnesty,” or “exporting jobs,” when in fact these words don’t have any meaning.

So you think McCain’s views are essentially aligned with most Americans?

They’re very close to what most Americans want.

411: James Q. Wilson will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, May 5th at 8pm. This lecture is free to the public, and books will be available for purchase and signing. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit


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