An article of faith in contemporary American politics is that America is the greatest nation in the world. No politician would dispute it, and pundits on the left and right subscribe. For instance, in a 2002 debate on terrorism, William Bennett claimed "We have done more good for more people than any country in the history of the world." His opponent in the debate, Noam Chomsky, agreed, stating that, "I… live in what I think is the greatest country in the world."1 When thinkers as far apart on the political spectrum as Bennett and Chomsky agree, one might suppose that only fools dare to question. Nevertheless, it might be useful to take seriously the cant that we're #1, and put it to the test. If the U.S. really is the best country in the world, then we ought to be able to prove it. Once we have established that the data shows the U.S. to be the world's best, our proven credentials can only help promote American objectives and foreign policy. If the data show otherwise, then that is a surprise worth pondering.
Subjective and Objective
To figure out which country is the best, we need to develop a list of criteria or standards to examine. Some potential yardsticks are purely subjective and are therefore of no help in coming up with an objective assessment; we must eliminate those right from the start. There are two sorts of subjective criteria that can bear on which country is most preferable for you.
One subjective matter is your personal tastes. If abbey-style beer plays a big role in your life, then that might tip the balance towards Belgium. If you are a phanatical Phillies phan, then Major League Baseball might be a sufficient draw for the United States. Sun worshippers will prefer countries famed for beaches and a warm climate; skiers might opt for Alpine nations, etc. The other subjective issue is one's personal situation. If you are a plutocrat, oligarch, or robber baron, you won't need a country with a strong social safety net and you won't want their high taxes. If you are impoverished or have serious health problems, then a nation with guaranteed health care and a pension plan will be the ticket. Likewise one's talents will be a factor; monolingual anglophones are liable to find the U.S., Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand particularly attractive.
Subjective preferences such as one's tastes and personal situation must be set aside; otherwise the variables will be far too idiosyncratic to reach any conclusions about the best country to live in. Instead, we must examine what the situation is for the statistically average citizen of a country. Furthermore, we need to look at objective criteria in evaluating nations—criteria that nearly all rational persons would agree are desiderata that a good nation should satisfy. Ultimately what we want is a fairly general list of basic goods that is neutral about any specific form of government, economic structure or specific law. Thomas Jefferson once proposed such a list, declaring it to be self-evident that these are inalienable rights: "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [and] that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." In the Jeffersonian spirit, I propose the following as objective criteria for evaluating nations; these are things that nearly all rational persons would want to maximize.
- Happiness of citizens
- Standard of living
We shouldn't expect any nation to be #1 in all of these categories, or, at least, it would be a great surprise. Instead we should look at various means of assessing these different criteria and see which nations consistently appear at the top of the lists. In this way we can triangulate the truth about...