If you get stumped for conversation on Thursday, try asking if one could live in any place and at any time in history, where and when would it be? Folks come up with all kinds of answers for a variety of reasons–fashion, the investment climate, the prospect of meeting famous people (Yo! Aristotle!) or the opportunity to participate in historical events. Wars are popular for some reason. Invariably people want to go back to a time and place to have a particular impact, changing the course of history in some way, stopping a crime, preventing a catastrophe, or buying Microsoft at its IPO price of $21.00 (adjusted for splits, that’s less than ten cents per share today). You can decide amongst yourselves whether you go back with full information, and if so whether history will let you have your way or find some ingenious method to thwart you, like in most Twilight Zone episodes.
My sincere answer to that question is that I would most like to live here, right now. I don’t think there is any better time to be alive, and no better civilization to live in. In many respects that goes for the rest of the world too. There are few if any places that have not gotten better for people over the centuries. There are occasional local downturns of course, wars, famines, disease, natural disasters, and the like, but in the broad sweep of things over the centuries, the climb has been dizzying.
We have a lot to be thankful for. Our living standards–not just income, but the totality of way of life–are the highest in history. Even our daily humdrum existence would be a life of unimaginable luxury for almost everyone who lived previously. Those who live at what we define as the poverty line live better than almost anyone could have up to just a short time ago on the historical scale.
We enjoy an economy with rational rules and a reasonable amount of regulation, enough to deter cheating yet still allow anyone with gumption to take a chance to make a fortune, or lose one. There is a remarkable amount of class mobility in this country; every year 25 percent to 40 percent of Americans move into a new income quintile, either moving up or down, and in equal proportion.
Our government, while still too large, is mostly transparent and largely free of corruption–sure, not like incorruptible Iceland, but right in there between Germany and France. Our political system balances the power of government with the consent of the governed in a way that is also a rarity in history, and even given our nation’s youth, we have the oldest written constitution of any major country. Our elections are free and fair. Of course we periodically face the tussles that attend democracy, and there is also the ongoing theater of the absurd that we call Washington, but such is the way of things. It can be amusing if you do not take it too seriously.
Our society is extremely tolerant. People in the United States have freedom of worship and of conscience. We may go to church, shul, mosque, or brunch if we are so inclined. The country is blessedly free of the kinds of religiously motivated conflicts that have wracked other societies throughout human history.
We also enjoy the blessing of continually improving technology. We can go more places, see more things; more people are traveling more often and faster, for less. A 19th-century stagecoach from Missouri to California took three weeks, assuming all went well. Now it is possible to get from wherever you are now to almost anywhere else in the world in a few days tops. In the 1960s, before deregulation, a round-trip airline ticket from Washington to Cleveland cost four times what it would today. Of course back then you didn’t have to take your shoes off before boarding, and if you wanted to smoke you weren’t accused of crimes against humanity.
We take the advances in electronics, music, and entertainment for granted. Every year we are treated to new inventions, new effects, and lower costs. The press of media has become so ubiquitous it is simply background noise. But imagine a world without photographs. On December 4, 1839, Philip Hone, former mayor of New York City, saw his first daguerreotypes, views of Paris and scenes of still life, and he called the process one of the wonders of modern times. “How greatly ashamed of their ignorance the by-gone generations of mankind ought to be!” he wrote in his diary. What would he think today? Likewise with communication. In the last 20 years, the cost of land-line long-distance telephone call has dropped by two thirds. The advent of flat-rate cell-phone service has pushed that lower; Internet calling will make it virtually cost-free to the consumer. And the connectivity represented by the world wide web is most important technological development of our lifetimes unless someone invents a matter transporter, figures out how to travel faster than light, or comes up with a time machine, which would make the abovementioned conversation starter something more than academic.
Would that we were at peace. But our warriors are safer than ever before, with the best protection, armament, and support ever. Yes, even the Guardsmen. We are the most powerful nation in human history by far, and no longer face a peer competitor bent on global domination armed with a superior nuclear arsenal that could destroy the Earth several times over. Compared to the Soviet Union the Islamic radicals barely register on the threat meter.
One important difference between the Right and the Left is the view of the future. Conservatives tend to approach things with a sense of optimism and faith in human potential. The Left is all about pessimism–they continually forecast downfall, catastrophe of some kind–environmental havoc, pandemic, technology run amuck, or some other imminent meltdown. Their solutions to these imagined problems always seem to involve collecting power over the many into the hands of the few, assuming they populate the latter category. However, their predicted dystopias have never materialized, certainly not on the scale envisaged. The most terrible periods in human history that we have had to live through in the last 100 years have come when free people ignored or did not take seriously the publicly stated objectives of extremists who were willing to use violence to realize their utopian visions. How soon before we begin to make that mistake again?
On Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks for all the things we enjoy. No, rather we give thanks for their source, the freedom that made it all possible. The same thing the Pilgrims gave thanks for, not the feast, but the freedom to grow it, and to thank God in the manner of their choosing. The same freedom President Lincoln reaffirmed in his wartime Thanksgiving proclamations. The freedom of the individual to think, create, and profit–to love, marry, and raise children–to dream and strive and live.
By what measure are these not the best of times? The here and now is where I would most want to live, there is no better place. And to live tomorrow, pressing on into the unknown with faith and confidence and certainty that the world we leave behind will be a better world, all the more so for us having lived in it.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.