The United States Must Not Become a "Normal Country"

Peter Thiel gave an interesting speech endorsing Donald Trump. Many people are very unhappy about the endorsement. I am ambivalent about this aspect, because it is beyond my poor powers of calculation to determine which of the worst pair of major party presidential candidates in American history would do the most long-term damage to the republic. But I disagree strongly with the theme of his speech—that what American needs is to become a “normal country.”

What Thiel seems to mean is that America should resemble most other nations, which are less interventionist in foreign affairs and whose citizens see themselves as acting out of interests rather than some set of unique principles. Becoming a normal nation in this respect would not only represent a change from America’s historic role in the world but be against our long-term interests.

The United States is a very unusual, indeed extraordinary nation, because it is founded on principles rather than ethnicity or conquest. And its principles were mostly fine classical liberal ones. That has made it look and behave very differently from other nations. For instance, it has not had as large a welfare state as other industrial nations or even a socialist party. One of my greatest fears is that this election is making it more “normal” in this respect.

The Republican standard-bearer is not trying to trim our burgeoning entitlements; the Democratic candidate, now influenced by the socialist Left of her party, wants substantially to increase them. Insofar as citizens see themselves as part of a “normal nation” rather than one dedicated to principles of liberty, the United States will decline, as the ever-larger entitlement state creates economic stagnation and a war of all against all.

As a result of its Founding, the United States also has had a different attitude toward immigration than nations founded on ethnicity. That is not to endorse our current immigration policy, which does not penalize illegal immigration, does not take account sufficiently of the skills of immigrants, and does not demand more assimilation before citizenship.

But a sensible and open immigration policy accords with Founding principles and our history of welcoming those who want to live by our principles and will not disturb them. And its advantage lies not only in the economic boost that it will give the United States. Immigrants also become the best ambassadors for our principles among their relatives and friends in their countries of birth. And the United States benefits in safety and prosperity from moving other nations even incrementally toward its Founding principles. This policy is one of the many instances where being principled is consistent with our interest. It is long-term greedy—something business people should understand.

Finally, the United States is not only extraordinary by virtue of its Founding but because of its uniquely powerful position in the world—a position that is has attained in no small measure by following its principles. As Ilya Somin and I have noted, since the United States is by far the world’s largest economy, producing some 20 percept of world GDP, it will often have incentives to provide international public goods—like peace and the policing of terrorism—that further economic growth and prosperity, even if many other nations choose to free-ride. Because of the disproportionate benefits the United States is likely to receive, it will often be a “high demander” of such goods, wanting to “consume” more of them than other nations. As the “hegemon” of the international system, the United States thus will often have incentives to take the lead (even as it enlists allies) in providing public goods such as free trade, a stable reserve currency, open sea lanes, and protection against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction because American leaders know that these goods cannot be provided without it.

That is not of course to say that U.S. interventions in the past decades have all been wise—far from it. But the United States is not and should not be a normal nation when it comes to international affairs any more than it should be one in domestic affairs.