Ah, Japan! No unemployment, low crime, economic prosperity; stable, gentle, respectful of its traditions; a nation largely free of our grinding internal frictions and dislocations. Ah, while we're at it, Australia, clean, peace-loving, and spirited; and ah, the great European welfare states, like West Germany (pre-Kohl) and Sweden. Why can't we be more like these social democracies?

Well, one important reason is that they are all nationalistic in a way we aren't, shouldn't be, and can't be anyway: nationalistic based on race.

In Japan, not only are there extremely strict immigration laws, there is a feeling that the country's prosperity and its racial purity go hand in hand. In a fascinating article in The New York Review of Books recently, Murray Sayle pointed out that the Japanese won't let any non-Japanese (that definition is based on race, not citizenship) teach in their schools, and recalled that when Japan let in its first 100 Vietnamese boat people, one leading publication called them "the sword of an alien culture pointed at Japan."

In Australia, it's almost impossible for non-whites to immigrate and become citizens, and the slogan "Asians Out" is scrawled on walls everywhere. In West Germany, the slogan is Turken raus -- "out with the Turks." Even in fanatically earnest and genteel Sweden, where it's a crime to spank your child and where foreign "guest workers" are treated better than in any other European country, visitors hear sneering references to "the black heads."

I don't mean here to tar social democratic countries by calling them racist, but I do think there's a connection. It is that the easiest way to achieve the kind of national sense of community that's crucially important to a country's prosperity, its social welfare, the quality of its educational system and its overall feeling of worth is by calling forth a spirit of racial and cultural solidarity. Urban Japanese consumers, according to Sayle, are willing to pay a non-market price for rice because they want to help Japanese rice farmers, purely on the grounds that they're Japanese.

It's hard to imagine that happening here. We are too diverse racially and culturally to be able to make use of the easy route to a true feeling of community. Good for us! But we can't live without the feeling of community entirely -- our hundreds of mini-communities based on regional and economic interest would put the nation as a whole through the process known as being bitten to death by ducks. They've already started.

So we need to find another route. One possibility is an incredibly strong political consensus, such as must have existed around democracy in the 1770s -- but it has been a rare commodity here ever since. Another is a powerful uniting myth or cause, like Manifest Destiny and the frontier, or the fight against Hitler. Today we don't seem to have one, though.

Are there any candidates? The best one would be (or, in rough form, already is) something along the lines of Horatio Alger-ism: the notion that one's station in life is determined solely by hard work, talent and luck, and not at all by circumstances of birth. This, rather than nationalism, would be what binds us together. Its fairness would provoke our fierce allegiance to the whole country, and the near-universal experience of seeing bad fortune come to one's near and dear would take the harsh Darwinist edge off us.

Perhaps you're chuckling as you read this, because it seems a million miles away from America today. Most people today see the race as rigged, and to be the foundation of a sense of community, it has to be perceived as fair.

But let's assume for a minute that it could be made fair and could be perceived as fair by everyone -- rich and poor, blacks and whites, men and women. What kind of society would we have?

It would be a society significantly different from the great social democracies, because it would be much more chaotic. Businesses would rise and fall. The successful would be a motley crew. The actings-out of millions of individual attempts at upward mobility would keep vital the side of America that Americans returning here from years abroad always find aesthetically revolting: the shopping strips and mobile homes and big cars. We would not have the sense of serene social order and rootedness that characterizes provincial life in much of Europe and Japan. If all this sounds familiar, well, yes, that's what we're like already; but with a fairer system, there would be a gloss of nobility to it.

Also, the chaos and coarseness of America doesn't necessarily imply meanness. If it's the byproduct of a process that genuinely brings together an incredibly diverse nation, then there's no reason why it isn't consistent with a government that does many of the nice things the social democracies do. The difference would be that, because this is an individualistic nation, we'd do them by treating individual problems, not through a broad system of economic and social planning. The worst possible way to compete with Japan is to try to make our society like Japan's. It just wouldn't stick.