Corporate scandal, insider trading, and lobbyists in smoke-filled rooms — why, it turns out they're all as American as Mom and apple pie.
The United States, according to Freedom Just Around the Corner (HarperCollins, 2004), by historian Walter A. McDougall, was founded less on faith-inspired, city-on-a-hill ideals than on self-interested skullduggery. Yet it's those less-than-savory characteristics that help explain America's greatness.
McDougall describes a young America riddled with financial, political, and moral scandal. His muckraking unearths an ambitious, clever patchwork of not-always-ethical immigrants who began to change the face of history — for better and worse.
The real "genius" of the Constitution, McDougall writes, is that "it embraced human nature in all its sordidness and, in potential at least, transformed private egos into public goods." That is, it took a group of self-interested hustlers — the founding fathers — to come up with a system resilient enough to both tolerate and accommodate others like themselves. (The passage of the Constitution itself says a lot about our forebears. Ratification succeeded thanks only to crucial votes scheduled to take advantage of the absences of key opponents.)
Americans, it seems, are no more corrupt than anyone else. But they "have enjoyed more opportunity to pursue their ambitions, by foul means or fair." Which isn't to justify recent corporate nastiness in the name of patriotism: "The problem with something like Enron," McDougall says, "is that it wasn't creative corruption." Rather, it's corruption where everybody gains — like pork-barrel politics — that helps lubricate the system and get things done. Equal opportunity swindling — that's the true test of sustainable democracy.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.