Last week, after the first presidential debate, I spoke at an architecture school in downtown Los Angeles. One of the questions the moderator asked was about American exceptionalism. The foam flecked to his lips at the very phrase. What, pray tell, was American exceptionalism, he asked?
I answered by referencing the Founding Fathers and the freedoms they guaranteed us via the American Constitutional System of checks and balances. What makes us unique guardians of liberty, I said, is that our system is designed to counterbalance interest against interest -- we only act together with the full power of unity when we're actually unified. We prize the individual over the collective.
He scoffed at that suggestion. He derided the founders and the Constitution -- "a 200-year-old document written by dead white slave owners!" -- and suggested an alternative vision of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism, he said, was characterized by "the things we do together." When he thought of an exceptional America, he thought of certain images: American footprints on the moon, the interstate highway system, Hoover Dam, nationalized health care.
The moderator's perspective was that of President Obama, too. He prizes reliance on the collective because no man can alone build roads or bridges or skyscrapers. As President Obama said, "You didn't build that." Government, says Obama, is the only thing we all belong to. We're "stronger together."
These are two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. One is based on the value of freedom. The other is based on the value of monuments.
The monument society looks at the Chinese high-speed rail and says: "Let's build one of those." The freedom society looks at the Chinese high-speed rail and says: "At what cost to individual freedom?" Sometimes, collective projects do outweigh the needs of the individual -- see, for example, World War II, in which we mobilized collectively to preserve individual freedom. But the monument society always errs on the side of building the monument, of activating the collective; the freedom society always errs on the side of individual liberty.
We are now at the tipping point in America between these two visions. We must make a choice. Do we want to give our children monuments -- tremendous buildings, vast bureaucracies, bulwarks of human collectivism? Or do we want to give them freedom? Do we want to build pyramids? Or do we want to build families?
These two visions are in opposition now because we have moved too far in the direction of the monument society. And that diminishes human happiness.