America the Incomparable

by Erik Voeten on January 25, 2013 · 6 comments

in Comparative Politics

Berkeley’s Martin Shapiro in the Law and Courts newsletter:

One of the most difficult institutional taboos to evade, however, may be God’s prohibition on any Americanist employing comparative methods or any comparativist using the U.S. as one of the countries to be compared. Only glimmers of a “trans-Atlantic” study of politics have so far emerged. It may be better until after getting a job not to admit that you want to mix meat and milk.

Shapiro is writing about the difficulties scholars of comparative law have making inroads in political science. But the point is valid more generally, including in the policy world. The argument that a policy has worked wonders elsewhere never seems to help sell a policy’s likely effectiveness here. We do not seem to have similar trepidations recommending our policies to other countries.


ceolaf January 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm

What about in education?

Don’t folks Finland cite all the time, these days? Didn’t people cite Singapore all the time, not that long ago? And before that, Japan?

It’s actually a pretty common line of argument in education policy, in the last 25 years.

Of course, it is never done in an exploratory/”what can we learn” sort of way. Of course, it is usually done in support of a policy the advocate has long supported. Of course, it is usually done without really understanding the foreign policy or it’s context. Of course, these comparisons usually come from the right, from the centralist and the standardizers (in opposition to the history of local control of education we’ve long had in this country).

But’s it’s pretty common.

Erik Voeten January 25, 2013 at 6:07 pm

True but is anyone arguing that we should, say, raise the school age to 7 because this is what Finland does and it works well there? The way I see it is that it is mostly a cause for embarrassment but it doesn’t lead to many serious efforts at thinking about whether what other countries do may work here too.

H Tefera January 26, 2013 at 6:13 am

Hi there. Just wondering if you could clarify– which is the “cause for embarrassment?” The Finnish school start age, or the (institutional) failure to look at foreign policies (in proper context) to make meaningful comparisons? Thanks. :)

Erik voeten January 26, 2013 at 7:42 am

The embarrassment is that US children score much worse on standardized test than Finnish children.

LFC January 27, 2013 at 4:47 pm

The U.S. right is somewhat split on education policy, isn’t it? Some favor local control, others (e.g. the Lynne Cheney types) favor more standardization around a curriculum of a certain kind. The pendulum seems to have swung in the standardization direction, though there’s still considerably less in the U.S. than, I think, in most other ‘developed’ countries. There may be a push for ‘national standards’ in the U.S. but there’s no uniform national curriculum, afaik.

Jay Livingston January 26, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Interesting that in education policy it’s the right that’s comparing other countries favorably versus the US. The more typical right-wing attitude is the one expressed by Marco Rubio’s applause-getting line at the GOP convention. He was speaking about the Democrats’ “tired and old big government ideas”

“These are ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world instead of making the rest of the world more like America.”

I would have guessed that the right-wing view on education would be much like their views on health care — the US has nothing to learn from other countries.

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