On to liberty. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that more than 2 million people were incarcerated in 2011; that includes federal, state and local prisoners, as well as those awaiting trial. To put that total into perspective, the International Centre for Prison Studies ranks the United States ranks first in the world in the number of prisoners per 100,000 residents. That’s well ahead of Canada (which ranks 136th) and even Russia. The U.S. incarceration rate for African American men, which is about six times higher than that of white men, according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, points to yet more unfinished business.
As for the pursuit of happiness, Americans are free to do just that — provided that they aren’t rotting in jail. But are they likely to find it? Most Americans work longer hours and have fewer paid vacations and benefits — including health care — than their counterparts in most advanced countries. Consider also that in the CIA World Factbook, the United States ranks 51st in life expectancy at birth. Working oneself into an early grave does not do much for one’s happiness quotient. This year the United States tied for 14th in “life satisfaction” on an annual quality-of-life study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That puts the United States behind Canada (eighth) and Australia (12th). A report co-authored last year by the economist Jeffrey Sachs ranked the United States 10th in the world for happiness — again behind Canada and Australia. The Sachs study found that the United States has made “striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry. Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low.”
Which brings us to the related matter of the revolution’s long-term impact on politics. While the Canadian, Australian and British governments have shown they can get things done, including passing tough austerity budgets in recent years, the norm in Washington has become paralyzing partisanship and gridlock.
In these senses, the American Revolution was a flop. Perhaps it’s time for Americans to accept that their revolution was a failure and renounce it. (For their part, many Russians have.)
Alternatively, rather than being wedded to every practice or institution that arose from the revolution, however counterproductive or dysfunctional today, perhaps Americans can rekindle some of the boldness of the nation’s Founders to create a “more perfect” and happier union.
Last Fourth of July, while I visited sweltering-but-beautiful Washington, I came across an inscription in the Jefferson Memorial in which the third president warned against allowing institutions to calcify: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . . [W]ith the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
Those modern patriots who make a show of reading the U.S. Constitution aloud, as though it was carved in stone, might do well to reread Jefferson’s advice.