In 2007, when I lived in France, then President-elect Sarkozy incurred a lot of criticism for being “too American.” Instead of taking introspective French strolls, he went for aggressive, ambitious runs like an American. His policies, his taste in women, his clothes all suggested this same “new world” tendency.
That same year my most “American” French friend noted that the characteristic he most associates with Americans is our desire for more. More wine. More money. More love. We are greedy. More is more. What an accusation, from the people who invented l’amour a trois!
Whenever I first run after a long hiatus — no time like the present to start training for the Army Ten Miler this Saturday — I’m reminded of Sarkozy’s American tendencies. I’m reminded that I want more.
Tonight I went from my apartment down through Rosslyn and over the Key Bridge. That’s my favorite run; it’s the Potomac that keeps me going. There’s something about that moment when a huge brackish breath rolls off the river and smacks my nostrils that just wakes up parts of me I tend to forget are asleep.
My running season starts when it cools down around here, so it makes sense that this first run, coincident with autumn and freshly-sharpened pencils and harvest would make me think of More.
When I first heard this indictment of Americans my reaction was: Of course we want more. That’s the point. To put ourselves in a position where we have the options, the opportunity. We’ve learned we need to protect our power to choose later.
If I give it up and embrace the simple life too early — if I start dipping my hands in dried lentils before I finish reading my Tax homework — then when I graduate I will have no choice but to satisfy myself w/ the touch of dried lentils, because ain’t no firms hiring wayward law grads this year. Money can’t buy me love, but frankly love can’t replace my broken brakes.
Part of what I loved so much about living in France was that people tend to be satisfied. There’s something profoundly elegant about not wanting more. I can count on two hands the number of Americans I know who are similarly so satisfied.
I am neither elegant nor satiable. I am voracious. There are times when I opt for less — less money, when an unpaid job is really interesting; less chocolate, when it’s winter and I want my pants to fit — but I always, always, want more.
For all of this I find the Eurofication of America so unsettling. Many theories can explain why Americans want more while Europeans do not:
My personal standby, the American Dream, suggests that the American self-made man (and his daughters) cannot ever be satisfied, or he’s finished. Americans raise ourselves by our bootstraps; to settle, to stop, undermines what it is to belong to this country.
We can look to the great European middle class, where everyone has always lived in close proximity to their neighbors, and the only difference between this bracket and that one is the depth of velvet on the walls or the name sewn into your boots. Status symbols simply matter less, so status itself becomes imperceptible even among friends.
Finally, American suburban sprawl permits those hungry folks to grow. If you work hard you can find a bigger house and feel like you’ve succeeded. For many areas in Europe, keeping a house in the country isn’t even on the wish list — people have forgotten that they used to like space.
There are many other theories, of course, but the more critical point is that the thing that defines Americans is not having more, but wanting more. We are not satisfied with status quo. We do not settle for “good enough.” We have worked hard for our choice and damnit, our choice we shall have.
There is something noble about wanting more. We may not be elegant, but we will work harder and we will reach more. And the key to all of this is that what “more” implies is choice.
This is what I’m missing about the powers at be right now. I have long called myself “libertarian,” but the reality is that we are all libertarians. We all believe that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Your right to mandate payments stops at my purse. We have celebrated vocal minorities and voted with our feet. The only thing all Americans agree that we demand in excess is choice.
When I say “choice” in this context I don’t mean any one decision an individual makes. I mean that in general we prefer to enjoy the full bounty of our profits, we prefer to wear what we like, drive as quickly as we please, etc. Community requires order in these areas, but we’re talking about the margins. At the margin, I’d rather keep one more dollar for myself rather than throw it into a communal pot for whatever he would like to buy.
Of course what separates political philosophies is the degree to which a person believes other people are capable of making the proper choice for themselves. Of course, I want my choice, but you? You cannot be trusted. And so it goes.
Indeed, I am no noninterventionist; I believe that Iran’s right to swing its nukes ends at Israel’s nose, and that this limitation should be enforced. There is always some degree of intervention, some empowering a decision-maker who knows better than The People what is best for them. The nature of government is to aggregate choice, that is to say, to take away individuals’ ability to make active choices at every turn.
And all of this comes back to more. The purpose of a community is to thrive together, to find something more than the sum of its parts. Certainly not everyone will remain hungry for more, but we will all benefit when there is an option for more.
And this is what I don’t understand about politics. An attempt to aggregate decision-making seems wholly reckless. I don’t know what will solve our policy failures, but I do know that what makes this country great lies in our vigorous obsession with preserving future opportunity. We have voted with our feet for so long, via the Market, to have as disaggregated a decision process as possible. What part of that patterned, active, determined choice indicates that we would prefer a central decision-maker to decide for each of us what’s best?
To vote with one fell swoop to aggregate after all that just seems …ridiculous. Of course it’s tempting to take away his choice – it’s obvious he doesn’t know any better – but once we start down that path we’ve given up control over our own margins. First they came for the gypsies, right?
Here’s the thing about America, and about more. The way to deal with being swept off one’s feet is to hit the ground running. Cooler heads cannot prevail if they are not sufficiently cleared. There may be something elegant about satisfaction, but that something cannot hold a candle to the nobility and humility of the American Dream.