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Growing up in America, we are constantly told that we live in the greatest nation in the world. This message is pumped into our brains from such a young age that many never even bother to question it. Not only do they not question IF it is true, but whether it even CAN be true. What measure is there of true “greatness”? Freedom? Standard of living?

There may well be no true way to actually determine the “best” country in the world, especially without living in any other than the one where you’re born. There are of course obvious cases, where 99% of people will agree that country A is better than country B. The United States is a better country than North Korea. Duh. No one is questioning that.

When we look at it from a different angle things tend to change. People move around the world all the time. Millions of people come to America each year from all over the world. Does that mean America is best? Not necessarily. It also depends on why people are moving to America, and ultimately how well they do. There are so many factors that come into play, many of which come down to the individual, rather than the nation in which they reside.

Let’s Talk About the States

To make this argument a little less controversial (because how dare I question America’s greatness, right?) let’s compare states rather than nations.

As people who follow my activities will know, I’m in the process of moving from Wisconsin to Arizona. I’m actually just a few weeks away from the move. Just because I’m leaving Wisconsin, however, does not mean that Arizona is a “better” state. Both have their pros and cons, of which many are greatly subjective. Let’s consider a few of the differences.

Wisconsin is so cold and snowy that for roughly half the year it is unpleasant to be outside without a heavy coat on. In the spring, it rains a lot, in the summer it gets hot and humid, and in the fall it rains again. In Arizona it is warm most of the year. When I leave Wisconsin it will be close to or below freezing. Once I’m in Arizona it will be 80 degrees, sunny, and dry.

Which is better? That depends. Some people like the cold. I actually DO like the cold, and I like it MORE than I like the 120 degree days I’ll face in Arizona this summer. I love the desert, the mountains, the brown ground of Arizona. But I also love the seasons, the green trees, the amazing forests, the changing of the colors with the seasons. There is no way to say one is “better” than the other.

Arizona will have lower state income taxes than Wisconsin, but it also has higher sales tax. I’ll spend less on heating my house, but more on cooling it. Housing is cheaper, but property taxes are higher. Arizona has more illegal immigrants, but that means that I’ll have more options when it comes to amazing Mexican food. There are pros and cons to everything.

What kind of career and life do you want to have? For instance, if you LOVE coal mining (for some odd reason), then West Virginia and Kentucky are going to be more preferable than Idaho or Oregon. If you’re very into technology, California and Washington are probably better options than Alabama or Mississippi. However, just because one state or another is preferable, doesn’t mean it is “better” than a different option.

Each state has different taxes and different regulations. Some have better schools than others. Some states are tough on Planned Parenthood, while others let children get abortions without their parents’ knowledge. Some states have a larger religious community, others are very secular. Concealed carry in Texas is very different than concealed carry in New York. Marijuana is dealt with differently in Colorado than it is in Arkansas. There are so many things to take into account.

As I make my move to the southwest, I’m actively encouraging friends to follow me down there. Some think it might be a fun idea, but others are very resistant. They have jobs and families here in Wisconsin. Arizona, even if you could call it “better”, isn’t really “better” if you don’t have anyone you love with you. For many people, the best state is the one where their family lives, for no other reason than that, and who can say that that isn’t a valid reason?

Back to the subject at hand

Now let’s expand this idea to nations. Considering how far the world has come in the last century, there is a smaller gap between many countries than there was in the past. For instance, South Korea in the 1960s was a pretty crappy country to live in, but today, it isn’t bad at all. They’re standard of living is comparable to ours. They work normal hours, live in normal houses, eat normal food. They have a form of government similar to ours, taxes similar to ours, and freedoms similar to ours. The gap has been closed, and now it is a lot harder to say that one nation is definitely better than another.

A lot of the problem comes about when we compare apples and oranges. For instance, check out the pictures below. Which of the four pictures seems the best to you? One is a metropolitan American city, another is a posh European mansion, next is an industrial eastern European town, and another is a part of Europe that hasn’t been rebuilt since WWII. Which looks best? Which is the “best” country to live in?

Trick question! All four of these images are of various parts of Detroit Michigan. When most people think of Detroit, they think of picture #4. They don’t think of picture #2. This is the same when comparing countries.

Let’s try again. In this next picture, there are four different countries. Which is “best”? If you recognize one or another, try to disregard it.

Which country looks the most prosperous? They all have huge skyscrapers, which no doubt cost millions (if not billions) of dollars to build. All of these cities have huge populations, with plenty of rich people, plenty of businesses, plenty of investors. Based on the pictures alone, it would be hard to say which is “best”. Picture #1 is Dubai, #2 is New York City, #3 is Macau, #4 is Tokyo.

Other Measures of Greatness

There are a vast array of ways to compare nations. There are a variety of indexes that try to compare freedom, standard of living, and so on. If we use these measures, America is never at the top though. The United Nations organizes nations in the “Human Development Index”, based on education, literacy, standard of living, hours worked, cost of living, etc. Based on their statistics, here are the top 25 countries.

But what does that mean? We don’t really know for sure. We know that some countries are more pleasant to live in, but who is to say that Norway is “better” than Australia, or even that Norway is better than Iceland, Canada, or the United States? Giant bureaucracies collect data on all sorts of things and then they try to rank countries, but if we’re honest, can’t we just say that the whole thing is all a bit silly?

I think we certainly can, and if we go ahead and disregard the Human Development Index, we can disregard the Human Freedom Index, the Economic Freedom Index, and all of the rest. Some people in Norway will have a worse life than people living in France. It doesn’t mean that Norway is “worse” than France. The same mode of thinking should be applied to our own view of America.

Greatness is About the Individual, Not the Nation

A nation alone does not determine what kind of life a person is going to have. As I stated before, there are obvious cases where this may not be true, but when it comes to developed countries, it is much more difficult to say which nation is “best”. I think we should take various indexes with a grain of salt. Recognize what information they give us, but let’s not take them as an absolute.

If we recognize that these ranking systems are somewhat subjective, we must also recognize that our own personal ranking systems are also subjective. We’re Americans, and because we love America we automatically believe America is the best. It might be the best in one person’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean anything really. Just as Arizona isn’t better than Wisconsin by any quantifiable measure, America isn’t better than Japan or Norway by any quantifiable measure.

Some countries are better than others, but there isn’t any real way to determine what country is best. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as is greatness.

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