Why it was founded, and the principles it’s built upon.
If they stopped getting that wrong, they’d stop getting something else wrong, too—why the US is not, and refuses to become, more like Europe or Canada.
(That one’s the biggie.)
Let’s begin with a quick definition, so we can philosophically set the table for this answer.
Deontology: the study of the nature of duty and obligation.
To go with Wikipedia’s rather long-winded definition:
In moral philosophy, deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek: δέον, “obligation, duty” + λόγος, “study”) is the normative ethical theory that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action. It is sometimes described as duty-, obligation-, or rule-based ethics. Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted to consequentialism, virtue ethics, and pragmatic ethics. In this terminology, action is more important than the consequences.
See, the people who declared independence from Great Britain, and went on to found the United States of America and frame the Constitution, had—thanks to almost a century of Enlightenment thought on the subject—a very clear idea of what the duties of a government were and should be.
And they perceived that King George III and his Parliament, by liberal standards, had abjectly failed in their duties to the American colonies.
Thomas Jefferson goes into great detail about the numerous ways in which King George had abrogated his moral obligations as a monarch and violated the natural rights and liberties of his American subjects in the Declaration of Independence.
This focus on deontology is what really set the United States apart from the rest of the world—and continues to set it apart, culturally and politically and spiritually, to this very day. Most other countries are far more utilitarian in their approach and outlook. It’s not the principle of the thing, it’s the outcome. Rights and liberties mean nothing if people are going hungry or homeless or uneducated or unmedicated. In the European view especially, government is a means of achieving—or at least approaching—social perfection. Therefore, rights must take a backseat to the collective good…however the people and their elected representatives choose to define that nebulous term.
The US distanced itself from this consequentialist mindset by stating boldly in its founding documents that human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and no individual, group, or even government may deprive them of these rights under any circumstances. Individual rights do and must take precedence over any subjectively defined “common good”—and the purpose of government is to defend these rights and naught else. Therefore, government is and ought to be severely limited in its scope and abilities, being ethically and legally empowered only to do that which is necessary to protect its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property. That way, no matter what form a society built upon these principles takes, at least it’ll be truly free.
(Again, it’s the principle of the thing.)
That’s why the US was founded: to be the world’s first truly free country, where individuals are neither subordinated to the welfare of the collective nor subject to the whims of a despot. And the US was founded on the deontological principle that the first and only duty of a government is to guarantee individuals’ inalienable rights.
The Founders had seen what damage unlimited, unchecked government could do. Earlier I alluded to one of the first sections of the Declaration of Independence—a lengthy list of very specific complaints about the actions and behavior of the English sovereign, King George III. To be precise, all the stuff the king unilaterally did which violated the natural rights of the American colonists. So the FFs constructed a government that was (at least at the outset) limited in scope and hampered in its ability to interfere with the lives of its citizens, hemmed in by checks and balances that ensured that no single individual or group could seize total control. This, to the Founders—and to millions of Americans today—was far more important than ensuring that the government had whatever arbitrary powers it needed to address whatever social ills were perceived to be plaguing the country.
…which is why (as I’ve written millions of times before on this platform, and will likely write millions of times more before I’m through) Americans generally fight tooth and nail against things like universal basic income, national healthcare, planned economies, and other things a European considers not only natural but vital to a nation’s happiness and prosperity. Americans have an entirely different conception of happiness, freedom, and good governance than Europeans do. Even if most Americans are unfamiliar with their history and the philosophical basis of their country’s founding, they still share a fundamental belief in individual liberty which pervades every aspect of their culture. Our mindset is individualistic, and our opinion of the role of government is rooted in deontology—in principle, not in social utility. Individual liberty, not collective good, is our ethical lodestar. We do not perceive, as other nations do, government to be an expression of the citizens’ collective will; it is (and should ever remain) a mere night watchman. It doesn’t matter how many people in our society are addicted to drugs, or are dying of preventable diseases, or can’t read or write. It’s not the government’s job to fix any of that. Its only job is to defend our rights—and not for any specific purpose, but purely as a matter of principle.
It’s as simple as that.
This is what people consistently get wrong about America.
Most people grasp the basics of American individualism, but they fail to understand our classically liberal view of governance, the deontological precepts which influenced it, and our (almost) complete rejection of consequentialist ethics.
Most foreigners (even our friendly neighbors to the north) are baffled when they examine the USA through the rose-colored glasses of their respective cultures’ collectivism and utilitarianism. They consistently fail to understand American history, its founding philosophy, and the ethical principles upon which it was based—and which continue to inform the worldview of millions of Americans in the present day.
The US would make a lot more sense to them if they did.
Dying has never frightened me. But there are few things I fear.