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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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The Obligations of American Exceptionalism

Posted: 08/31/2012 8:08 am

I support outsourcing and offshoring. I applaud globalization and free trade. And I do so because of my moral convictions and religious beliefs, and my deep commitment to American exceptionalism.

As the election season heats up, I am troubled by the moral confusion of those who discuss these policies. The Democrats, sensing advantage, generally attack them, while the Republicans respond by twisting in the wind, showing little if any conviction.

There is some consolation, to be sure, in the fact that both parties probably don't believe a word of what they are saying. Judging by the record, Obama and Romney are both champions of outsourcing. Like the senior economists of their parties, they have opposed protectionism and discouraged trade barriers; they know that American companies will often need to build factories and hire workers abroad.

In difficult economic times, of course, the American people want to take care of their own, and they see resistance to outsourcing as a means of doing that. This is understandable, even if the economics are wrong. (We know that if global markets do not stay open, we will end up hurting not only others but ourselves as well.)

Still, there are fundamental values at stake here, and there is danger in compromising those values. Therefore, we need to be clear about what our values are and how they relate to America's special destiny.

The starting point is a commitment to liberty and individual responsibility, guaranteed in the Constitution and drawn from America's great religious traditions. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out in reference to the Exodus from Egypt, at the heart of the Hebrew Bible is the God who seeks the free worship of free human beings. America's republican form of government was laboriously constructed by the founding fathers in order to bring that freedom into being, along with those things -- private property, a productive economy and the rule of law -- that such freedom requires.

And freedom is at the very heart of American exceptionalism. President Obama and Governor Romney have both proclaimed that America is different, and they are right: An objective case can be made that the United States offers a combination of liberty, pluralism, free market vitality, and human rights protections that are unique in the historical experience of humankind.

This means that when our leaders talk of American exceptionalism, they do so not out of flag-waving chauvinism but in the sincere belief that America is founded on certain values that have universal application. Yes, America is different, but it does not want to remain so; it wants others to adopt our values and embrace our freedoms. And that means that we cannot ask nations around the world to rely on free markets, promote capitalism, respect the rule of law, and create free societies, and then say to them: "We will not buy your products or hire your workers." That means that we can't practice our values only when it is convenient for us to do so.

And there is another vital religious principle here: We are all created equal in the sight of God. Americans are entitled to worry about themselves, but they are morally obligated as well to empathize with and engage in the affairs of others and to recognize the interdependent nature of our world. And this is especially true in times of economic distress: If we think only of ourselves when others are suffering, we are a provincial nation. But if we hold true to American values and also care about others, we are a great nation.

Of course, there are caveats. We cannot be a moral nation if we ignore immorality, at home or abroad. If, for example, other countries make use of slave labor, we must raise our voices and refuse to be complicit. And we cannot be an example to others unless we do what the Constitution mandates and "promote the general welfare" among our own people; and surely this means, as the Bible repeatedly asserts, that we will take special care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, assuring that no American is without medical care and the basic necessities of a dignified existence.

And this too: However exceptional we may be as a nation, we need to retain a large measure of humility about how much we can impact what happens elsewhere.

Still, in my experience, no matter how noble the intentions of those who oppose outsourcing and offshoring, they are forgetting certain things: that America has a special mission in the world; that if freedom is our most precious heritage, then we cannot withdraw its benefits from those who choose to follow our lead; and that America, confident of its mission, does not ignore the welfare of those who look to us as example and inspiration.

This is not the time to close our borders and withdraw into ourselves. This is not the time to limit our trade and restrain our commerce. This is the time to see American values, accessible to all but rooted in our deepest religious convictions, as a gift to other nations and peoples -- a gift that, we hope, they will consider and emulate.

 
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