10/27/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2013

Dear United States: Is This What Democracy Is Like?

This is not America's finest hour. Daily revelations of the excesses of the National Security Agency (NSA) suggest that American spying -- on its own citizens and friendly nations -- is out of control. Obamacare, the effort to ensure that all Americans have affordable health care, is so controversial that opposition to it shut down the federal government and led half the states to do everything they can to subvert it. Angry debates about gay marriage, gun control, and abortion permeate many states. What must the world think of us?

Why do so many Americans protest against so many things, giving other countries the impression that most of what we do is shout at each other? Why is gridlock seemingly our only form of national government? Why do we have endless debate and so little progress on such major concerns as immigration reform, the budget, and the debt? No one abroad could be blamed for thinking that the United States is, in many respects, an embarrassment to its citizens. No one abroad could be blamed for being disenchanted with democracy, if this is what it looks like.

It may be helpful, however, for them to view the American scene from another perspective. Take Obamacare as one example. Universal, affordable, government-assisted health care was a project first proposed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It took another seven decades of angry debate to enact it. Multiple states have challenged the Affordable Care Act in the courts, but most of it survived that challenge. Republicans rail against it, and legislatures and/or governors in many states are still undermining it. Americans who want health care under that law are, finally, faced with multiple options -- on a web site that barely functions. Sloppy? Inefficient? Confusing? Yes. Yet, perhaps this is in part the price of freedom. If the United States was a top-down, rigidly hierarchical, centrally governed society, it would be relatively simple to implement, and enforce national health care. Yet, those who observe us from afar should recall that societies, like the former Soviet Union, that are top-down, rigid, hierarchical, and centrally governed are also more corrupt. They often fail to meet basic citizen needs. They also don't last very long.

As other examples of how America looks to the world, consider the mess surrounding Edward Snowden and his revelations about the NSA, based on classified documents that he took. Why don't Russia and China, for example, get embarrassed by such reports? Why does almost every American failure immediately appear on the Web (which was, by the way, created by Americans), when it may takes years of reporting and the willingness to sacrifice one's liberty and life to expose abuses in some other countries? Why do the American and world press have such a field day, almost every day, mocking the inefficiency, inconsistency, and seeming insanity of the way Americans govern themselves? Maybe this, too, is the price of the freedom and openness that characterize American society.

None of this is to excuse incivility in our culture or inefficiency and abuses of power in government. Freedom does not demand these. It does, it seems, permit, foster and often tolerate them for a while. But that same freedom eventually produces a corrective. As Winston Churchill once put it, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else."

Nor does this excuse our inability to address major and pressing issues. We can and should do better. What it does do, however, is suggest that on the flip side of many American weaknesses is an American strength -- freedom. If there were less of it, America would appear more 'together.' Our mistakes would certainly be far less visible. But they might also be less correctable.

The very freedom we cherish -- and the world seems to want -- comes at a price. Sometimes that price is very high, and we should look to repair the problems or restrain ourselves more than we do. But, as bad as things seem, 28 of 38 nations polled by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project still have a favorable view of the United States. When asked their opinion of the United States, so do 81 percent of Americans. The world, and Americans too, may not like the behavior they often see, but they would probably like the alternative even less.