AMERICA, A WORTHY EXAMPLE?
9/15/2012 9:46:54 PM -
Among the many historic events that took place after the death of Presidents Mills, the nomination, approval and swearing in of Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur as Ghana's vice president was particularly interesting. There was a considerably strident debate over whether it was proper for Mr. Amissah-Arthur to be publicly vetted as part of his approval process.
Explaining the decision to publicly vet Mr. Amissah-Arthur, Hon. Doe-Adjaho and Hon. Kyei-Mensah-Bonsu copiously and unashamedly referred to the political and constitutional experience of the United States. This seems not to have sat well with prominent journalist and socialist Kwesi Pratt Jnr. Recently, on GTV's Talking Point, Mr. Pratt referred to America's history of killing millions of native Americans, the enslavement of blacks and the presence of homeless people in the world's richest country to register his argument that American democracy was not worth aspiring to. Mr. Pratt's position, in my view, is understandable but unjustifiable. On the contrary, I firmly believe the United States is a worthy democratic model.
The success that the United States of America has achieved as a country is usually not sufficiently appreciated even by many of that country's fervid admirers. The USA, with 5 percent of the world's population, contributes about 25percent of global GDP. Since the beginning of the last century, America has simply dominated the world like no other nation in history has ever done. For example, it has a network of about 4500 universities and colleges which constitutes by far the world's pre eminent higher-level education system; with an annual budget of 3 billion dollars, Harvard for instance, like a number of America's privately endowed universities, actually command resources that compare with whole countries in the third world.
Indeed, the US spends more money than any country producing food; writing books; developing new medicines; exploring space; investing in other countries; and constantly criticising itself in its thousands of newspapers. And it does this more efficiently than most other countries. People have variously attributed America's global pre eminence to its history of enslaving blacks; the size of its land; the huge amounts of natural resources; the blessings of God; even a certain pact with the devil.
But Brazil had more slaves and for an even longer period in its history and yet never attained America's success; India has a far bigger population than the United States and is definitely not nearly as successful; Russia is almost twice as large as the US and doesn't come close in economic wealth or political influence. As for America being said to be successful because it has been specially blessed by God or because it has sold its soul to the devil, it stretches any intellectual debate over development into a realm that makes analysis unnecessary at best, impossible at worst; I beg to defer such an exercise The facts show that other countries possess enough to do very well for themselves too but haven't. What is special about America can be explained in 'earthly' political economy terms.
If you're still not convinced, look at China: never in the last 100 years has China been a more internationally influential or economically wealthier country than America. Yet China's land size - 9.6 million squared kilometers - is about the same as America's; China has comparable amounts of natural resources; China's population is five times as large as America's; and China has an exceedingly longer history of nationhood. Yet, China's GDP is still only a third of America's, and it only started doing very well since it started reforming in the late 1970s when it began, in the view of some of observers, to become increasingly Americanized.
So what accounts for America's success? The answer lies in the peculiar combination of economic and political freedoms that the US has guaranteed its people since independence in 1776. These freedoms were further consolidated in a democratic order designed by the American constitution of 1787. The American political system was designed by a group of men - yes, sadly men only - who were suspicious of man's capacity to use political power efficiently or ethically. They therefore set up a government with limited power: state rights were meant to check the power of the national government in a pragmatic federal system; civil liberties were enshrined through the first ten amendments to the constitution referred to as the Bill of Rights; and the president, the congress and the judiciary were uniquely constructed to stifle the probable excesses of each other in a first and most skilful application of the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances articulated by the French thinker Montesquieu.
In economic philosophy, the United States system has largely allowed and expected citizens to fend for themselves by applying their energies, wits and resources in 'pursuit of happiness' by acquiring wealth - wealth which ultimately serves the whole nation. Writing in 1960, Harvard Law School professor W. Barton Leach commented, 'The institution of private property is one of the foundations on which the American way of life is built. The founding fathers believed, and we continue to believe, that the ability to own property and transmit it to our families gives each of us an incentive to produce to the utmost of our abilities - and, in producing for ourselves, to produce for the common good.' These words eloquently describe the American economic philosophy which is the inspiration behind the legendary success of US entrepreneurship: Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company; Thomas Edison and General Electric; Bill Gates and Microsoft; Sergei Brin, Larry Page and their Google; Andrew Carnegie and US Steel; Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook; and many thousands more.
The American story - as it was with other historical powers like imperial Rome; the Persian Empire; China under the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties; and Victorian England - has not been without egregious systemic and moral failures. One that we Africans readily identify with (and were complicit in) was the slavery of black Africans.
In 1619, a cargo of 20 black African slaves arrived on the Virginia seaport of Jamestown. This was the beginning of 247 years of enslavement of millions of black Africans. 'This original wrong' and the many more wrongs later committed against black Africans have created a generally poor black underclass in the United States. Today, statistics show that the average African American is more likely to be born into a poor home, more likely to drop out of school, more likely to be imprisoned, and more likely to be the victim of violent crime. Apart from this moral failure of America, the westward expansion of the United States also involved brutal wars against American Indians. Native Americans lost huge numbers of their population, lost their lands, and lost their heritage.
Without making apologies for the US, it must be noted that as terrible as enslavement of blacks and the killing of American Indians were, the world generally wasn't any more morally sound than America in the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Igbos used to abandon twins in 'evil forests'; the Chinese aristocracy ruled during large periods of violent tyranny and oppression of minorities; millions of so-called 'untouchables' from India's lowest castes were treated no better than animals; and in our own pre- colonial Ghana, the powerful Denkyira Kingdom expropriated incredibly cruel tribute from Asantes.
Internationally, America's failures have involved arrogant shows of power; the most recent of which was the conduct of a clearly ill-conceived and apparently ill-motivated war in Iraq. Additionally, US support for dictators like Mobutu of Zaire, Pinochet of Chile, Suharto of Indonesia; and its unquestioning support of Israel to the ire of Arab states indict America's reputation.
In spite of the above-mentioned failures, America has achieved much both domestically and internationally and these outweigh America's failures. America's agricultural sector, its pharmaceutical industry, its commercial airplane industry, and its system of university education beat any in the world.
American positives around the world are also numerous: the US supported post-war Japan and Germany to rebuild; American peace corps volunteers engage in charity work all around the world; the US is the main sponsor of the activities of the United Nations and underwrites the global financial system; America has granted many people the opportunity to receive quality education in its very capable universities
For some, that America was complicit in overthrowing Nkrumah alone is enough evil which must warrant our indignation. They seem to forget America also educated Nkrumah and financed his most important legacy, the Volta River Project. If the United States is seen as a country of imperfect mortal beings just like any other country, then its accomplishments stand up as extremely admirable, in spite of the considerable failures. That many countries have looked to the United States over the years for inspiration, assistance and tutelage is a vindication of America's success and the unique American political system that this success is built on. The reason why Japan, South Korea and China all sent thousands of their bright young people to study in America and return to contribute to their countries' development is just one powerful proof that we can all learn a lot from the American model.
For us in Ghana, the US can teach us many lessons:
A lot of us with ethnocentric tendencies will have a lot to learn from America's experience regarding immigrants and racial minorities;
America's much decentralized system of 50 states and thousands of self-governing towns and cities can offer us many pointers on how we can better manage Ghana's decentralization ambitions;
Our struggle over the attorney general and justice minister roles can be resolved if we'd diligently assess the fifty examples that the various US states offer;
The mechanics of monetary policy and the independence of the central bank in Ghana can be improved if we will study the long and interesting history of the US Federal Reserve;
Perhaps most importantly, America's political culture of optimism and constant self-scrutiny which leads to a perpetually innovating society is one that Ghana will be the better for emulating.
Samuel Jude Acquaah