The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 4, 2008

America 2008

Other than Christmas, Independence Day is my favorite holiday. One doesn’t usually get or give presents on Independence Day, but then again one doesn’t have to shovel and risk frostbite to get to Independence Day celebrations.

What’s not to like about Independence Day, from a secular perspective? Parades. Picnics. Nice weather. Baseball (seven of today’s 15 major league games have daytime starts). And, of course, fireworks so loud you can feel them. (Whatever your weekend plans are, don’t do this.) Constitution Day, Sept. 17, is poorly scheduled because it occurs after the real end of summer (which runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend), and so we don’t celebrate the Constitution as much as we celebrate independence. (For that matter, we don’t celebrate the resolution declaring independence; we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in its finished form.)

Brian Wesbury and Robert Stein, two economists who write the Monday Morning Outlook, sum up nicely what today should be about:

This nation is blessed with abundant natural resources, ports and an agreeable climate. But, the number one attribute of economic success is freedom, which allows people to find and exploit their own God-given talents. This freedom creates a sense of adventurism and entrepreneurship that many other societies strive to emulate. It also breeds optimism, which has been consistently reinforced by more than two centuries of success.

The Declaration of Independence, signed 232 years ago today, is a remarkable document, a document that didn’t just change America and Great Britain, but changed the entire world. The signers, giants of the day (my personal favorite is Ben Franklin, printer, publisher, inventor, fire chief and musician), were all men of relative comfort who nonetheless pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” with no guarantee of success. The Continental Congress was offered a deal to become a dominion similar to Canada, but the Congress refused, because they didn’t believe that their self-evident truths of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” could be realized under a king from across the Atlantic Ocean whose people may have had representation, but didn’t (and still don’t) have rights over government.

In addition to being about individual political rights, the Declaration of Independence is about economic rights, specifically “cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World” and “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” along with substituting royal whim for the rule of law. (Yes, Congress was not the first institution to refuse to follow laws it created.) The Founding Fathers may not have been the first to discover the link between political freedom and economic freedom, but they may have been the most influential.

Contrasting the American Revolution with the French Revolution, which began as the American Revolution successfully ended, is an interesting exercise. As University of Hawaii emeritus professor R.J. Rummel noted, the American Revolution “was an explicit attempt to establish the greatest possible common freedom” as an alternative to “monarchical and aristocratic power.” The American Revolution is an ironic descendant of “the English tradition of common law and rights” as spelled out by John Locke and others, with the addition of the realization that defeating the British Empire would only lead to a government as large as the Empire unless that government was restricted and individual rights were emphasized. Rummel sees the American Revolution based on three principles — “A conception of Freedom as an outcome of contending interests, each guaranteed inalienable Rights … checks and balances, and limited government” — that, more than 200 years later, works today, though not perfectly.

In contrast, the French Revolution, which began on Bastille Day, July 14, 1789, was based on three different principles — the community’s interests take precedence over the individual’s, government must not be subject to checks and balances since “in the hands of the people, government can only serve the people’s ends,” and, in the pursuit of social justice, “As the State's implement of Reason working on behalf of the Community, government should not be limited.”

“Paul Johnson said of the French Revolution that it was the ‘classic demonstration of the capacity of words to kill,’” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. “Robespierre and his merry band of murderers brought on the era of total politicization. No aspect of human life was beyond the touch of politics after the French Revolution. The state was granted a right to destroy institutions and traditions which protected the family and the individual from the violence of the state. Throughout the world, the French Revolution became an inspiration for men and women to rationalize their actions in terms of their purported ends. As Johnson puts it ‘every would-be plunderer or ambitious bandit now called himself a “liberator”; murderers killed for freedom, thieves stole for the people.’”

Goldberg identified these “liberators” as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot — “all admired the French Revolution and found within it precedents for their own contributions to world history (though most of them found the American Revolution utterly useless).” The death toll from acts of that gang of four (in which France was twice a victim) ranges from, depending on how you count, between 47 million and 114 million.

The battle between the forces Rummel identified continues today: “It is happiness and justice as an outcome of a free balance of opposing interests, each guaranteed inalienable Rights, versus justice to be sought by reason using the State. The principles are those of individual rights versus a collective benefit; of checks and balances versus government as an unchecked instrument; of limited government and common law versus reason using government to create new law to further justice.”

It’s pretty obvious which approach has worked best to maximize not just freedom, but prosperity. The Declaration of Independence is not perfect (Thomas Jefferson’s original draft included harsh criticism of King George III’s “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce” of slavery), the Constitution is not perfect (though it does contain ways to improve it by, for instance, implementing Milton Friedman’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights), and this country is not perfect, because all manmade institutions in which people are involved are and will always be imperfect. (It would be nice, for instance, if Wisconsin had one U.S. senator, let alone the two we're supposed to have.)

The United States of America is, however, the best thing going on the planet, “not only the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth now, but in all of history,” as historian Thomas F. Madden said in the Wall Street Journal Thursday — the most complete combination of economic and political freedom, as well as security and stability, the world has ever known. Others would do well to emulate our Declaration of Independence.

Today is, however, a day where people on the left and right who don't like how things are going ask whether the U.S. can survive. (What a great country — liberals and conservatives can think things are going in the wrong direction for completely different reasons.) Other than calendar convenience, this is because, as Madden pointed out, “Prosperity and security are boring. Nobody wants to read about them.” And, to repeat what I said last week, some people have lost their perspective on, or knowledge or memory of, what bad times really are. Some people, I would argue, also have lost their perspective on what's really important.

Happy Independence Day to you, and to the United States of America.

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