The American Declaration

Commentary at www.jeromehuyler.com

HOW GREAT IS AMERICA?

Part 2: 

How Freedom Made 

America Great 

               The measure of a nation's greatness lies in its capacity to steadily improve the conditions  of daily life for its inhabitants - or more accurately, to let them do that for themselves. 

 

Put simply, "a nation is as great as it is free,"

 

What's the connection? How does freedom foster greatness? The answer lies in attending to the contribution each individual facet of freedom has made to the quality of daily life, especially in America.    

Free Thought and Expression. Nothing is more fundamental to human improvement than an allowance for  free thought and expression.  It liberates the human mind from bondage to authority and, most importantly, allows for free-ranging inquiry into every imaginable field of study.  That's the key to social improvement, and America carried that principle to the highest height. But it didn't begin with America.

               As far back as the 17th century, the Englishman Sir Francis Bacon introduced a  revolutionary vision.  "Knowledge is power," he declared.  He didn't mean the power to  conquer and subjugate neighboring tribes or states, but the power to conquer disease and eradicate the life-defeating hardships that have plagued humankind since the dawn of time.   

               Bacon dared to imagine that greater understanding of the natural laws that govern the world could be employed for the practical benefit and use of mankind. But, as he also knew, "nature to be commanded, must be obeyed."   If the laws of nature were to be obeyed they would first have to be discovered, i.e., methodically studied.  Knowing how the natural world works, would allow men to deal with the many impediments it unavoidably places in their paths (extremes of heat and cold, human illness, malnutrition and starvation, etc.)

               A call for the "rational and systematic study of the facts of reality" was sounded.  From Bacon's day forward, that is what the natural sciences undertook.  Succeeding decades saw vital advances in physics, chemistry, biology, mechanics, optics, and all the health sciences.  Before the 17th century came to a close, Isaac Newton identified the universal law of gravitation.  A single formula could determine the speed and extent to which any two bodies in the universe would interact (be it an apple falling from a tree or a far-off planet revolving around a distant star). 

               It may have began as high-minded curiosity, but it swiftly turned into something else.  Time and again, basic scientific discoveries would culminate in wondrous technological innovations.  Inventive geniuses converted the known forces of gravity, magnetism, electricity, propulsion, the mixing of chemical compounds, and so much more into marvelous new inventions, gadgets, and processes. 

               Before long miraculous medical cures and surgical procedures, tools, appliances, weapons for self-defense, etc. were being sent to markets near and far and put up for sale. To this day, no nation has out-produced America. 

               What made it possible?  Another natural force, free market competition.  Ever-more efficient manufacturing processes steadily improved  the quality of products, while  reducing the costs of producing and marketing them.  The extravagant luxuries of one generation became affordable "necessities" in the next as life-saving, labor-saving inventions and gadgets brought ever expanding comfort and convenience to daily life.

               America was responsible for one other marvelous invention: a Middle Class.  First, trains, then automobiles allowed breadwinners to work in dirty, teeming cities while living in spacious, bucolic suburbs.  What blossomed from that was a land of lawns and another American original:  leisure time.  All the while, discoveries in the biological sciences and the application of those discoveries to medicine defeated disease and extended the human life span.  Knowledge, rational, systematic inquiry was itself transformed into a genuine powerhouse of good tidings. 

               All this was contingent on another revolutionary home-made development. Down to the 18th century, most of humanity was locked into what has been called a "great chain of being."   This was the inescapable noose of hierarchically-ordered ranks and stations that governed social life.  Those sitting on the  higher rungs enjoyed legal and economic privileges reserved for them, alone.  Where was the justice in that?

               Francis Bacon had another dream.  He imagined "a civilization open to the talents."  Men would advance not on the basis of family origins, but on the basis of merit, the contribution they could individually make to the well-being of their neighbors or society as such. 

 

               A politics of privilege would be vanquished and human equality, the dream of Alexander the Great, Cicero, Polybius, Plutarch and other noble ancients, finally turned into a living, breathing reality, a "heaven" on earth.  How great was that?  Bacon's vision was one where all would be free to climb their way up the ladder of success.  Individuals could advance on the basis of the talent, ambition, and hard work each was willing to exert. 

Economic Liberty.    This formed the moral underpinning of what Adam Smith would call laissez faire capitalism.  It was a vision of free trade conducted in  competitive markets.  An ever-expanding division of labor would multiply opportunities for productive, lifelong work and rewarding careers.  Competition would propel a steady improvement in the quality of goods produced along with a steady reduction of production costs.  As consumer prices fell and families spent less on life's necessities, increasing disposable income allowed them to purchase life's many "luxuries."  That only opened up additional avenues of opportunity.

                The happy confluence of conditions that made life so much more livable were, themselves, made possible by another particular and still controversial facet of freedom - the freedom to gain, keep, use, trade or otherwise dispose of one's freely-acquired possessions.  Private property was the indispensable principle propelling social and economic progress.  At long last, people could keep and enjoy the just fruits of labor.  That encouraged investment, inventiveness, and entrepreneurial initiative. Ultimately, that meant ever-expanding opportunities in an ever-more diverse range of industries and occupations.  How great was all that? 

               An expansive corporate/social welfare state, and the taxes needed to finance it, are certainly dampening the productive and competitive impulses.  The situation demands far more public interest than it is currently receiving.  Nothing so imperils economic freedom these days than the rabid pleas for Socialism one constantly hears.

Political Liberty The lessons of history taught the founders that the thirst for power was the ever-present enemy of liberty.  Fearing that mere parchment barriers (even Constitutional ones) would not be strong enough to stamp power's baleful influence, they decided that power would have to be separated and made a check on power. They created three branches of government and imbued each with the means of thwarting the others' malicious designs.  Dozens of additional mechanisms were wired into the fundamental frame of government for that very purpose.  After all these decades and on the whole, the constitutional liberties the founders left to posterity still command respect. 

Religious Liberty.  As against the recurring wars of religion and the oceans of blood spilled on the contested battlefields of piety, the unimaginable slaughter of millions by Stalin, Hitler and Mao last century amounts to a local skirmish. 

               In America, religious toleration governed human affairs from the start.  America put out the furious flames of faith that had consumed the world's civilizations from time immemorial.  Men like Roger Williams and William Penn came to these shores and planted a bright flag of religious toleration.  The multiplicity of churches made tolerance toward "dissent" a practical necessity.  Here, each would be free to worship howsoever he or she chose.  The rising  Progressive challenge to religious liberty, notwithstanding, it is so to this day. 

               None of this is meant to diminish the country's cultural flaws, the forms of discrimination that continued to plague social life throughout her history.  But keeping full context means judging the American experience against prevailing conditions in any other place or period.  When it comes to upholding freedom, none compare.  It was with all this in mind that Ayn Rand left behind some sage advice.  To those who agreed with her and those who didn't, she said:  "Don't Let It Go."