On this Fourth of July of our discontent — with spiraling fuel prices, a sluggish economy, a weak dollar, mounting foreign and domestic debt, continuing costs in Iraq, a falling stock market, and a mortgage crisis — we should remember two truths about America. First, the United States remains the most free and affluent country in the history of civilization. Second, almost all our problems are lapses of complacency, remain relatively easily correctable, and pale in comparison to past crises.
By almost any barometer, the United States remains the most fortunate country in the world. We continue to be the primary destination of immigrants, who risk their lives to have a chance at what we take for granted. Few in contrast are flocking to China, Russia, or India. The catalyst for immigration is primarily a phenomenon of word of mouth, of comparative talking among friends and families about the reality of modern-day living, not of scholarly perusal of social or economic statistics.
When one compares any yardstick of material wealth — the number of cars, the square footage of living space, the number of consumer appurtenances — Americans are the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. Why so? Others have more iron ore, as much farmland, greater populations, and far more oil reserves. But uniquely in America there remains a system of merit, under which we prosper or fail to a greater extent on the basis of talent, not tribal affiliations, petty bribes, or institutionalized insider help. More importantly still, we are impressed by those who advance rather than envious of their success. The lobster-barrel mentality is a human trait, but in the United States uniquely there is a culture of emulation rather than of resentment, which explains why neither Marxism nor aristocratic pretension ever became fully entrenched in America.
Our system of government remains the most stable and free. Consider the constitutional crises in Europe where national plebiscites continue to reject the European constitution that grows increasingly anti-democratic in order to force its vision of heaven-on-earth on its citizenry. There is no need to mention the politics of China, India, and Russia whose increasing affluence ensures a rendezvous with unionism, class concerns, suburban blues, minority rights, environmentalism — all long known and dealt with by the United States. Elsewhere the remedy for tribal and sectarian chaos in Africa or the Middle East is usually authoritarianism.
The current challenge of America is not starvation or loss of political rights — we have been far poorer and more unfree in our past, but the complacence that comes with continued success, to such a degree that we think of our bounty as a birthright rather than a rare gift that must be hourly maintained through commitment to the values that made us initially successful: high productivity, risk-taking, transparency, small government, personal freedom, concern for the public welfare, and a certain tragic rather than therapeutic view of the human experience.
In that regard, most of our present pathologies are self-created. In fits of utopianism we felt we could be perfect environmentalists, no longer develop our ample oil, coal, and nuclear resources, maintain our envied lifestyle, mouth platitudes about “alternative energies,” and yet be immune from classical laws of supply and demand. In truth, with a little national will, within a decade we could both be using new sources of energy and producing our entire (and decreasing) appetite for oil without importation at all of foreign supplies. When our petroleum runs out, we will find other sources of energy; when a Saudi Arabia’s or Venezuela’s fail, so goes their entire national wealth as well.
Our budgetary laxity is a bipartisan stand-off in which free-spending pork-barrel Republicans mouth platitudes about reductions in spending while Democrats continue to vote for increased government programs, assured that either military cuts or tax increases will pay the tab. We still await some gifted statesman who will convince us that we can increase revenues and cut spending without loss of essential governmental services or oppressive taxes
Iraq is expensive, but draws on a fraction of a $12 trillion economy; for all the acrimony over the war, Iraq is stabilizing, al-Qaeda has been discredited, and the notion of constitutional government in the heart of the ancient caliphate is not longer caricatured as a neocon pipedream — an accomplishment beyond the military of any other country.
Slumping house prices are a concern, but we forget that nearly 95 percent of homeowners meet their monthly mortgage payments, that housing prices are merely returning to their 2002 levels — to the relief of first-time potential buyers — that many of the problems were caused by housing speculators who wished to flip properties for instant profits, by overzealous lenders who warped the rules, and by misplaced liberalism that sought to put everyone in his own home, despite the historical fact that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the population either should not, or does not wish to, own their homes.
Given the strength of our system and culture and our inherited values and wealth, as long as we don’t tamper with our Constitution, a uniquely American entrepreneurial culture, and the melting-pot notion of shared values rather than balkanized tribes, races, and religions, we can easily rectify our present mistakes without much reduction in our soaring standard of living. In America alone — for all our periodic hysterical self-recrimination — there is still comparatively little danger of coups, nationalization of foreign assets, crippling national strikes, sectarian violence, terrorism, suppression of free speech, or rampant government and judicial corruption that elsewhere lead to endemic violence and economic stagnation.
On this troubled Fourth we still should remember this is not 1776 when New York was in British hands and Americans in retreat across the state. It is not 1814 when the British burned Washington and the entire system of national credit collapsed — or July 4, 1864 when Americans awoke to news that 8,000 Americans had just been killed at Gettysburg.
We are not in 1932 when unemployment was still over 20 percent of the work force, and industrial production was less than half of what it had been just three years earlier, or July, 1942, when tens of thousands of American were dying in convoys and B-17s, and on islands of the Pacific in an existential war against Germany, Japan, and Italy.
Thank God it is not mid-summer 1950, when Seoul was overrun and arriving American troops were overwhelmed by Communist forces as they rushed in to save a crumbling South Korea. We are not in 1968 when the country was torn apart by the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. And we are not even in the waning days of 1979, a year in which the American embassy was seized in Tehran and hostages taken, the Soviets were invading Afghanistan, thousands were still being murdered in Cambodia, Communism was on the march in Central America, and our president was blaming our near 6-percent unemployment, 8-percent inflation, 15-percent interest rates, and weakening international profile on our own collective “malaise.”
We live in the most prosperous and most free years of a wonderful republic, and can easily rectify our present crises that are largely of our own making and a result of the stupefying effects of our unprecedented wealth and leisure. Instead of endless recriminations and self-pity — of anger that our past was merely good rather than perfect as we now demand — we need to give thanks this Fourth of July to our ancestors who created our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and suffered miseries beyond our comprehension as they bequeathed to us most of the present wealth, leisure, and freedom we take for granted.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.