A Lethargic Dragon

Americans have always looked abroad for inspiration. Alexander Hamilton drew on the experience of Britain and France to shape the economic institutions of the early republic. In the early 19th century, Henry Clay championed tariffs, a national bank, and internal improvements in an effort to match Britain’s economic might. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Germany emerged as an industrial colossus, and American intellectuals had a new model. During the 1950s, at least some Americans, mainly but not exclusively on the political left, saw the breakneck modernization of the Soviet Union as a clear indication that the old-fashioned market economy was on its last legs.

There have been a variety of fads and fashions in the years since. Once it became clear that the Soviet model was not quite as impressive as it had once seemed, liberals and progressives started looking to northern Europe, and in particular to Sweden, for lessons on how to run an economy. Conservatives have swooned at various times over Switzerland and Chile and Singapore, among other capitalist success stories. And then, of course, there was the 1980s-era obsession with Japan, which in the view of some observers was destined to surpass a declining America.

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