"The US is the greatest nation in history." You always hear this sort of statement on the campaign trail, but for obvious reasons, no one ever really bothers to question its truth. Until today, when Yglesias decided he'd take Mitt Romney's claims of American superiority seriously, and tested the premise from a variety of angles. His verdict? It seems to be a flat no: potential winners are Norway, China, the Mongol Empire, or the British Empire. But he just can't come up with a metric under which the US takes the blue ribbon.
I'm no ultra-patriot, but in his own words: "Really?"
Look, I get what Matt's going for here. "There are lots of countries, today and throughout history, which have done lots of things really well!" He's right.. but he's missing the forest for the trees. Because, be that as it may, America still dominates any number of indicators of national "bestness." For instance, most obviously, take virtually any indicator which relies on absolute size. Economic size, military strength, cultural influence: the US overwhelms all other potential claimants.
You might think that's cheating -- it's true, as Matt points out, that there have been, at times, nations with relatively more economic weight, relatively greater military might, or amazing cultural longevity. And you might say "Well, if the Mongol Empire had been around when the world population was 7 billion and electricity had been invented, it would more impressive than the US." But it isn't around, and that's the whole point! These nations couldn't exist in the modern day, not at the scale of the United States. It was possible for the Mongol Empire to conquer enormous swaths of the world because the world was sparsely inhabited. The British Empire built up incredible cultural and economic dominance because most of the world hadn't even developed industrially. And let's face it: most people living under the British or the Mongols were not exactly reaping the benefits of the vast might of their respective empires. By contrast, Americans live pretty high on the horse, historically speaking. While American living standards might pale next to Norwegian living standards, they're vastly higher than the living standards of about 99.8% of the people that have ever lived (that statistic is science, people). So all and all, I'd say we're making out pretty well in the "national greatness" department. Add in America's relatively high degree of political stability -- we made it hundreds of years without schisming or self-destructing, and seem to have at least a few more decades left in us -- and the total ubiquity of American culture around the globe, and I don't think this is even a close call. You don't have to like it, but it's hard to argue there's ever been a nation greater than the good ol' US of A.
Hopefully, I'll never have to say this again, but... Mitt Romney: 1, Matthew Yglesias: 0.