A holiday that celebrates a nation founded on the right ideals

July 8, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Some fundamentalist Christians take the “Greatest Story Ever Told” and make it so unpalatable that it sends seekers running in the other direction. Likewise, some of my fellow liberty lovers take the greatest political and economic system ever devised and make it sound so parsimonious that it causes people run for some government agency.

Last week, on Independence Day, we celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, but what we really were celebrating was the unique vision upon which our society was founded, even if it isn’t always “sold” to the public in an easily understood and appealing way.

There are two basic visions of society. In the one that dominated human societies throughout most of history, a small group of people impose their will on everyone else by the threat of violence. Submit or be imprisoned, re-educated, killed or expelled. The leaders have unlimited and ultimate authority, although such governments vary by degree of awfulness. Not every authoritarian system is run by Khmer Rouges or Visigoths.

In the other vision, all people — by the nature of their birth — have fundamental rights. The government’s only job is to protect those rights. The State is designed to serve as a referee to assure that people don’t rob, defraud or otherwise harm others; to sort out the inevitable disputes that result given the human condition; and perhaps to provide some services (i.e., infrastructure) not easily provided by the private sector.

Flawed, but still very much worth celebrating

Those who are unduly critical of American society are missing the key point. Of course, the founding fathers were hypocritical and human. Of course, our society falls short of its ideals. Of course, we no longer are really free. Try to defy the government’s edicts and you will feel no safer than Edward Snowden, the asylum-seeking (Venezuela or Russia, anyone?) former defense contractor who had leaked embarrassing documents about NSA spying programs.

But looking at the course of human history, it has been the rarest society that has tried to follow the second course. Why does the United States remain among the most prosperous and harmonious nations on Earth? It’s not because of the IRS, Obamacare, the FBI or any other government agency or program. It’s because of the free-market system, combined with a political system that checks and balances the power of the authorities. This is such a sure-fire creator of wealth and happiness that we do well even running on its fumes.

freedom.signThat’s worth celebrating, even though this system’s successes are not enough for those many people who turn to that thing called government to give them whatever it is they want. But, as the old saying goes, any government big enough to give you whatever you want also is big enough to take away everything you’ve got.

Critics of the free market argue that it’s based on greed, but let’s compare, on a personal level, how markets and the government work. The public school system, for instance, is a government-funded and controlled monopoly. Let’s say your kids are in terrible schools and you want them to be taught somewhere else.

You have three basic choices: Pay a second tuition (you’ve already paid the first one through your taxes) and send them to a private school. Move to another community with a better school district. Spend your time ousting the current school board, overcoming well-funded union opposition and electing new members who might hire better administrators. That could consume your entire life and there’s virtually no chance of success.

Let’s say the schools operated in a market system. The fix is simple. You would shop around for better schools and possibly have the problem solved by the weekend. If you don’t like what General Motors offers in its car product, you don’t devote yourself to changing the company’s board and reviving its product line. You go to the auto mall and buy a Dodge or a Toyota.

Democracy and free markets: making distinctions

Free markets are about voluntary exchange. You and I negotiate over the price of things. If we don’t agree on terms, we part ways as friends or perhaps enemies, but we can’t force the other person to submit to our terms or else we end up in prison.

I’m ruminating about markets and not about “democracy.” Democracy probably is a better way of electing leaders than by hereditary monarchy or military junta, but it refers only to the way that leaders come to power. I would rather live under a king in a system with the rule of law and due process than in a democracy where the majority was keen on the Muslim Brotherhood.

We should resolve to explain the importance of our freedoms to our friends and neighbors in a kind and personal way. Free societies are prosperous, fair and humane. That’s what was worth celebrating last week amid the fireworks and parades.

Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at [email protected].

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