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The best and worst of the U.S. and how Australia compares - Part 1

By Andrew Leigh and Justin Wolfers - posted Friday, 16 January 2004

From World War II, when Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to John Curtin’s call for help, to this year, when the largest street demonstrations in Australia’s history protested our involvement in Iraq, the United States has been alternately the source of admiration and admonition. And in the next decade, our countries seem destined to grow ever more closely together, with a Free Trade Agreement in the offing, and President Bush's visit of late last year.

In the cultural sphere, Australians are proud when American movies showcase our country and feature our local talent but many are uneasy about the fact that two-thirds of the movies that grace our screens are made in Hollywood. In fact, we watch so much U.S. fare that American and Australian filmgoers have the same favourite actor (Mel Gibson) and actress (Julia Roberts). In foreign affairs, we are similarly apprehensive – more Australian people believe that American foreign policy has a negative effect than a positive effect, though only by a modest margin.

Our aim in this essay is to explore the best and worst of America. Too often uni-dimensional discussions of U.S. ignorance fail to acknowledge her strong national culture, abundant educational opportunities, vibrant non-profit sector, and the absence of long-term unemployment. Yet equally America-philes often seem reluctant to consider at length the costs of this culture. America is a country of enormous inequality, growing political disengagement, inequitable healthcare, expanding waistlines, and is stunningly inward-looking for a world power.


We are confident that readers who aren’t irritated when we discuss American’s weaknesses will be annoyed when we move to her strengths. But the lessons that Australia can learn from the U.S. are too fine-grained to be summarized by a simple pro- or anti-American slogan. At its best, Australia should look across the Pacific for leadership in specific domains. But too often we instead adopt America’s failures and shun her successes.

National Values

Topping our list of the best features of the United States is the strong set of national values that undergird its polity. Born from an eight-year war of independence, and exuding the confidence of a free nation, America’s founding text opens boldly:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

One hundred and thirteen years later, the Australian constitution came into effect. It timidly began:

“Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established.”

Since the 1958 publication of Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend, a restless debate over national identity testifies to our desire to forge a common set of values. In part, this reflects the inadequacy of our present national symbols. While the American national anthem refers to “broad stripes and bright stars” and the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, its Australian counterpart notes with geographical precision that our island-nation is “girt by sea”. And while Americans celebrate Presidents’ Day and Martin Luther King Day, Australians still take the Queen’s Birthday holiday (a holiday that is not celebrated in Britain, and does not coincide with the date of Her Majesty’s birth).


U.S. Presidents frequently refer to the values of freedom, opportunity, and responsibility, and to the ideals espoused by Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. Meanwhile our Prime Minister has all but abandoned rhetoric, and exhorts us to become more “relaxed and comfortable”. The first time you watch an American presidential speech in full, the talk of values seems forced, but its effect is to ensure that national debates take place in a commonly agreed framework. Is this vision or hubris? If the same President who was willing to ignore the UN Security Council is able to pull off a democratic transformation in Iraq, and broker peace between Israel and Palestine, we may have to conclude that it is both.

The main effect of America’s national values is a powerful binding force, of the sort that we Australians enjoy while watching cricket, but rarely observe in our political discourse. Moreover, by emphasizing her strengths, America fosters a culture that emphasizes achievement and innovation.


Americans are among the most optimistic people on the planet. Only about one in twenty believe that things will be worse in five years’ time. More than half of those under 30 expect to become a millionaire during their lifetime. From this sense of boundless optimism flows a strong spirit of innovation. The U.S. has garnered 270 Nobel Prizes (about one per million people), while Australia has just six (less than one per three million people). And each year, America files one patent per 3000 people, while Australia files only one per 9000 people.

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This is part one of an article first published in AQ. Part two discusses some of the problems of life in the States.

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About the Authors

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

Dr Justin Wolfers is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Business and Public Policy Department of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Leigh
All articles by Justin Wolfers
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