Is America the Best Country in the World?

(Photo / Danny Huizinga)

(Photo / Danny Huizinga)

Is America the best country in the world? With Independence Day fresh in our minds, it’s a question worth examining.

Some certainly don’t think so. In the pilot episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, main character Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) unleashes a tirade of depressing statistics, claiming, “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

On the surface, admittedly, that statement may seem to be true. We are outranked in education, with each new report praising the systems in Finland and South Korea. We rank 51st in life expectancy, which would seem to indicate that our healthcare system is woefully inadequate compared to the rest of the world.

But hesitate before jumping to a conclusion. “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable,” cautioned Mark Twain. Re-examining the above indicators, we find a number of alternative explanations.

Test score comparisons between countries can be extremely misleading. Some American students do as well (or better) than anybody in the world. International comparisons measure different populations and falsely suggest that America was, at one time, the leader in test scores and has since fallen. Instead, according to the Cato Institute, scores in the United States have been remarkably constant over the last 40 years.

The life expectancy statistic also suggests the wrong conclusions. When measuring life expectancy, countries simply average the amount of years lived. However, if we truly want to measure the quality of a healthcare system, we should exclude those with fatal injuries from the statistic to control for the crime rate. If this is done, America is actually first in life expectancy among OECD nations (rich countries). Further supporting this claim is the evidence from health economists Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider. They conclude that the United States leads in five-year cancer survival rates.

What about the philosophical argument? In McAvoy’s Newsroom speech, he argues that we used to be the greatest country in the world. “We stood up for what was right … we sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.” It’s an easy mistake for him to make, assuming the citizens that went before us did not have similar societal problems or political disagreements.

Yet this supposes an idealized view of history. We tend to look on past events through rose-colored glasses. Back then, just as today, we were still likely to “identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election.” If you read historical accounts of America’s past elections, you can still see the vitriol, the false accusations, and the corruption present in many aspects of American life today.

So what makes us special? We are a nation founded on the principle of natural rights. We believe a government should have the consent of the governed. There is a collective understanding of something never before tried, a new experiment in government that has shattered expectations and improved the quality of life for millions of people in ways we never could have imagined. We strive always to do better. Throughout the many trials of our past, we have endured.

America is not perfect, nor have we ever been. But going forward, former presidential candidate Herman Cain best sums it up,

 “If this is not the greatest country in the world, leave!”

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9 responses to “Is America the Best Country in the World?

  1. Please consider again:

    Random Thoughts:
    1. I strongly dislike Cain’s quote.
    My mom was not the best mom in the world, but I loved her as much as anyone loves their mom. Must I be criticized for being willing to speak of her flaws? Sometimes love and loyalty require precisely that.

    I don’t understand this need to claim America is the best or leave. Part of what makes America so great is my freedom to say she isn’t the best, without fear of recrimination. For a presidential candidate to make the kind of statement he made is reprehensible, even though I’m glad he has the natural right to say it.

    2. Are Cato Institute’s stats less ‘pliable’ than others? The Cato institue has a clearly stated bias. Does the agency who does the comparison stats also have a clearly stated bias? If so, what is it?

    3. When considering considering whether or not America is the greatest, wouldn’t it be wise to consider death rates from crime as well as health care?

    • Welcome back! I think you’re misunderstanding me. I speak of America’s flaws often (see many of my past articles.) Notice where I said we’re not perfect. That being said, I tire of ceaseless complaining. Also, Cain was responding to someone who started yelling at him in the middle of a lecture at a university, so I also grant him some slack.

      I just picked Cato because they had the pretty graph. The stats themselves are undisputed, as far as I know. They’re from the NAEP, part of the Department of Education. Feel free to let me know if you’ve found differently.

      In response to the last point, yes. Obviously I can’t cover everything. My point is that we still do have a great healthcare system, and we do the best with what we have. I didn’t even get into the fact that comparing a country with 300+ million people to a country smaller than many of our states won’t translate too well.

    • I continue to think that quote was inappropriate for Cain to make. I believe that quote did not fit your point or fit the tone I hope you wished to create.

      The test scores could have remained constant while other countries improved thus our rankings could still have slipped. As stated, I do not see one set of stats calling into question the other.

      When judging whether or not America is the best country in the world, does size matter?

      Still considering…. 🙂

      • Well, judging by the other comments I’ve received, the quote was very effective for other readers. I’m still a Cain fan. Yes, there’s more we could study on this issue. But I am truly proud to be here.

        Glad you enjoyed the article!

        • “The quote was very effective for other readers.” That makes me sad. The quote expresses a sentiment I do not wish my fellow citizens to have. I’d prefer a sentiment that recognizes flaws and agrees to work on them together (a sentiment I think you have), rather than a more divisive sentiment that says, “either think we’re the best or we’d rather have you leave.”

          • In all honesty, if someone shouted at me in the middle of my lecture to a few hundred students, I’d hope they leave too. Or find a better way to express their discontent. I think you’re reading into it too much.

            • My last comment was a response to your use in your piece’s context, not Cain’s. When folks respond by saying that comment worked well, I assume they are speaking of how that comment worked in the context of your piece rather than Cain’s use. It’s those responses to how you used it to which I am reacting. It’s those responses that I find sad. I’m afraid that even though you may be willing to speak of flaws and work together to fix them, that quote, in your piece, communicated a more divisive sentiment.

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