During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.
But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.
The Founding Fathers wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with the freedom to pursue happiness. In the America they designed, we would have economic freedom, just as we would have political and religious freedom. Here, we would not be limited by the circumstance of birth nor directed by the supposedly informed hand of government. We would be free to pursue happiness as we wish. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and has long since surpassed them all.
The linkage between freedom and economic development has a universal applicability. One only has to look at the contrast between East and West Germany, and between North and South Korea for the starkest demonstrations of the meaning of freedom and the absence of freedom.
Israel is also a telling example. Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law. It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. This embrace has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom. In the face of improbable odds, Israel today is a world leader in fields ranging from medicine to information technology.
As the case of Israel makes plain, building a free society is not a simple task. Rather, it is struggle demanding constant courage and sacrifice. Even here in the United States, which from our inception as a nation has been blessed with freedom, we faced monumental challenges in harmonizing our ideals with our institutions. We fought a bloody civil war against slavery and it took a nonviolent civil-rights movement to bring political and social equality to all Americans. In these epic struggles we changed our “culture” and vastly improved it.
I have just returned from a trip abroad. I visited three lands — Israel, Poland, and Great Britain — which are defined by their respective struggles for freedom. I met with some of the greatest heroes of those struggles. I am always glad to return to American soil. On this occasion, I am only strengthened in my conviction that the pursuit of happiness is not an American right alone. Israelis, Palestinians, Poles, Russians, Iranians, Americans, all human beings deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity.