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September 28, 2022 Reading Time: 13 minutes
Reprinted from the Future of Freedom Foundation

Suppose that one evening as the sun was setting and dusk was settling in, a strange mist fell over the United States that resulted in the entire population of the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, falling into a deep and restful sleep. Similarly, as evening settled in across the Russian Federation, the same type of mist enveloped the entire country from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea, with the Russian people falling into an equivalent restful and deep sleep.

When the people of the two countries awoke from their night’s slumber, they found themselves, respectively, living under two radically different political regimes from the ones that they had been under the day before. In Russia, the country was still physically the same. There still were the deep forests, the rich soil of the steppes, the mountains of the Urals, and the stark, frigid terrain of the Siberian north.

But the Russian political system had been transformed into a constitutional, strictly limited government, with every citizen secure in his personal and civil liberties under an impartially enforced rule of law. In their economic affairs, the Russians found themselves living under a laissez-faire, free-market order in which every individual was free to peacefully live his life as he personally chose, with all interpersonal relationships based on honest and voluntary associations inside and outside of the marketplace.

In the United States, the Rocky Mountains still stretched southward from the Canadian border, the central plains still had miles upon miles of corn and wheat fields, the wide Mississippi River continued to flow from Minnesota south into the Gulf of Mexico, and New York and Chicago still had their majestic skylines. On the other hand, however, the country had been transformed into a fully totalitarian political regime.

The American people possessed no individual rights, no constitutional guarantees of their civil liberties, and no legal recourse if abused or imprisoned by those in dictatorial control through a one-party political system. In economic affairs, everything was now owned and controlled by the government, with a central planning agency determining and dictating what, how, and where all production would occur, with that government the single employer of all in the society. Standards and qualities of life for each and every citizen were decided by those in political power. There existed no corners in the society, no interstices in which to hide and live outside of the controlling and commanding power of the state.

Young Americans know little about the past

Over the years, I have sometimes posited this “dream” in some of my classes in which I have taught the principles of economics and the political institutions underlying a free society. I have asked the students, if this were the world into which they woke up one morning in America, in which of these two countries would they prefer to live and to give their support and loyalty?

Most of the students found the question very disconcerting. But, of course, many of them said America. I then followed up with the simple question, why? What makes America the place you would want to live? Is it merely the physical landscape that you are used to? Is it the flag to which you gave a pledge of allegiance at the start of every day in grammar school? Is it your family or friends whom you have known all your life, or the convenience of speaking the language you learned as a child?

I’ve looked around the classroom and usually found that a large majority of those in the class were the children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of earlier generations who chose to leave the “old country,” the native lands in which they had been born. They had left places in many other parts of the world to travel to America and make it their new home and start a new life.

I’ve asked them why they would have done that. It is amazing how many of these students know little or nothing about how, why, when, or even from where an earlier generation of their families had made the journey to America. Some know some things about their family’s histories, but many do not, and equally amazing, some of them don’t care.

Many chose America to escape from tyranny

I explain that, historically speaking, many in those earlier generations of immigrants were escaping from political oppression, or religious persecution, or the destruction and agonies of war and civil wars, or the lack of economic opportunities due to the controls and corruptions of the political systems under which they had been living in their countries of origin. And that the current waves of immigrants coming to America today, legally or illegally, are usually motivated by the same factors that influenced their own ancestors.

What these waves and generations of immigrants arriving in America wanted and were searching for was freedom in some or all of its facets that they were denied in the places from which they had come. Making a choice to emigrate, to leave the country of one’s birth, is never an easy matter for most of those who do so. You leave behind your family and friends, the customs and traditions under which you have grown up, the familiar surroundings that psychologically feel like “home.” You lose, usually, the comfortableness of speaking the language you learned from childhood and, instead, have to master a new language with which you may have no starting knowledge. The migrant often finds himself or herself in a social environment in which he or she knows no one or only a small number compared to “back home.” At first, it can be lonely and scary.

And, yet, tens of millions have made that choice and undertaken that journey from the “old country” to America. Since many of my students, as I said, seem to know little or nothing about the reasons and circumstances behind their own earlier family members coming to the United States, I remind them of what often guided their decision.

An imperfect America offered freedom and opportunity

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Italian classical-liberal historian Guglielmo Ferrero (1871–1942) visited America. In several of his writings over the years before the First World War, he wrote about the social and economic uniqueness of the United States and its appeal for so many who made the journey to make America their new home. For instance, in his work on Militarism (1899), he contrasted European life and circumstance with that in the United States. Ferrero did not presume that America was some perfect and pure utopia of liberty and opportunity. For example, he said:

How can one give an unreserved opinion on a nation that possesses the most perfect penitentiary institutions in the world for the shelter and education of criminals, and which at the same time tolerates the arbitrary punishment of crime by infuriated mobs? A nation which protects the rights of inventive genius so rigorously and wisely by the law of patents, a society which has thus reached a most perfect comprehension of this last and subtlest ideal of property, but which countenances also the public organization of those associations of malefactors which are allowed to impose the most monstrous levies on the populations of entire cities by means of intrigue and fraud [government-bestowed municipal monopolies]…. A nation whose Government retains so much of the wolf nature inherent in the worst European Governments, which allows the most colossal squandering of public moneys … such as that most ingenious of all, protectionism?” (p. 15)

In spite of all this, in America, the immigrant, the new arrival in this new land, usually had chances for work and wealth-making not open to him or her wherever they may have come from. Though Ferrero noted that “brutal and degrading works devolve upon negros, Chinese, and Italian immigrants” (p. 18), nonetheless, when looking over American society as a whole, Ferrero continued:

In the United States … the extreme freedom and ease of the individual, not handicapped as we are [in Europe] in changing occupations, habits, social caste, received ideals, and social axioms by a social tradition, become almost sacred; the innumerable opportunities in the midst of such constant material and intellectual change for the association of individual talents and energies; the prodigious rapidity with which these combinations can be formed and dissolved; the frequent return of opportunities brought about by the rapidity of revolving wheel of fortune; the instability of all things — of good but no less bad; the purely temporary nature of all conditions; the almost complete want of any definite solutions; — of necessity imply that there is no defeat without reconquest, nor decay without rebirth.

These conditions prevailing in America, render it easy for any ordinary intelligent and energetic man to obtain for his work remuneration which errs rather on the side of being beyond than beneath his deserts … Thanks to the almost complete lack of Intellectual protectionism — thanks, in consequence, to the lack of government curriculum of unprofitable and obligatory studies, America is exempt from an intellectual proletariat and the declasses, the chronic disease of the middle classes in Europe. Let him who can do a thing well step forward and do it, no one will question where he learnt it; such is the degree required of an American engineer, barrister, clerk or employee. And as the opportunities to do well are innumerable, everyone can develop the talents with which Nature has endowed him, changing his occupation according to circumstances and opportunity…. An American is always ready to see the particular stream at which he has been drinking dried up, and be prepared to pack up his belongings and set off in search of another.” (pp. 17, 19)

Liberty and dignity in a freer America

Finally, in Ferrero’s view, the basis for these never-ending opportunities and chances for prosperity for most in the late-nineteenth-century United States arose from the moral foundations that guided the thinking and acting of the vast majority of Americans, including a belief in individual rights and responsibilities and the accompanying principle of respect for the equal rights of others and yourself. Once more, as Guglielmo Ferrero expressed it:

The greatness of a nation depends on a high standard of moral solidarity, and this is high only where each respects in others the rights he himself claims, and admits for himself the same duties which he would impose upon others under similar circumstances; it arises from the recognition of the fact that if men differ from one another in talent, culture, and wealth, they are nevertheless morally equal, and that no one of them is morally bound to serve his fellow without receiving just and equivalent remuneration. Where this sentiment of the moral equality of men is most deeply felt, everyone resents the injustice done to others, and in thought and action aims at social justice.

But the conditions most favorable to the development of this sentiment are those under which no one depends for his livelihood on the capricious benevolence of others, but like the Americans and the Englishmen, only on his own capacities to serve in some way his fellows, receiving their services in exchange, and these not measured arbitrarily by some power outside himself, but governed by his own judgement. This liberty develops in him the sense of moral dignity, which is the backbone of the human character and of the sentiment of moral equality…. In short, what has made American society appear to Europeans in the light of an enchanted world, is … the freedom of the individual from those oppressive historical, political, moral, and intellectual tyrannies which the State accumulates and imposes on all our anciently civilized countries.” (pp. 24–25)

Space does not permit Ferrero to continue to directly speak for himself, but in summary, and in the context of the then-recent Spanish-American War of 1898, he juxtaposes this description of America with the domestic policies of the Spain of that time: a society of hierarchical power and privilege in which civil liberties were not recognized and honest labor of free men was neither fully permitted nor socially respected, since status and social positions were based on the plunders and corruptions of the past kept in their static place by a government dedicated to limiting or even preventing any liberal market freedoms as were widely present in America. Innovation and change, whether societal or economic, were frowned upon and resisted as threats to the government-secured monopolies, subsidies, privileges, and protections assured for a few at the expense of the rest.

Wanting freedom and risking your life to have it

This now gets us back to the students in my classes, to whom I have asked those questions. Clearly, I explain to them, many of their ancestors were looking for a land of freedom and opportunity to which to come and give their energies and loyalties. The country in which accident of birth had first placed them did not permanently dictate where they had to make their home The Italian, or Irishman, or German, or Swede, or Pole may still have had personal roots and memories and cultural nostalgias that gave psychological connectedness to the places from which they had come. But for most of them, they chose to become “Americans” because what America stood for and offered was a better place to call their home than the homes from which they had departed.

So, again, if you were to wake up one morning, I say to them, and America was now a totalitarian state and Russia was a completely free country of personal liberty and economic freedom, where would you want to live? What makes a place worth living in, defending, and fighting for? Is it an accident of birth and the familiar things around you as you grow up, or is it the ideas and ideals that a country stands for and at least seriously attempts to practice?

A few of the students sometimes respond that they would want to stay to fight and try to make America a free country once again. I often have responded that that is, of course, a meritorious position, to want to restore freedom to your homeland if it has been lost or, perhaps, never experienced. But suppose some of your fellow Americans decided that for their own wellbeing and that of their families it was desirable, even necessary, to make a new life in a now-free Russia compared to a totalitarian America.

I have asked, would you view them as traitors to their homeland, or as individuals deciding their own futures and that of their loved ones rather than be prisoners with no liberty in a totalitarian state? I have reminded them that in the actual totalitarian states of the twentieth century, their governments did all in their power to prevent their citizens from leaving their respective countries. Since it all happened before they were born, I tell them about how the Soviet government constructed the Berlin Wall to deter attempts to escape from the communist regime in East Germany. In spite of this, many hundreds of people between 1961 and 1989 devised ways to make their way out of that socialist paradise, and many of them not merely risked but lost their lives in the attempt to make it to a freer West Berlin.

But isn’t America still free today?

Other students have sometimes replied that they understand the point I’m trying to make, but that, luckily, it is a moot point since America still remains a free country, far better than many, many other places around the world. If America is so bad, how come so many people still want to come to the United States by legal and illegal means? I usually have responded that, yes, in comparison to many other places around the globe, America still offers greater freedom and opportunity.

But I suggest that that is not the only basis of comparison: for example, America versus places like North Korea or Afghanistan today. An equally relevant benchmark of comparison is America today versus the America of the late nineteenth century, the period that Italian Guglielmo Ferrero described earlier in this article. I emphasize that Ferrero did not claim that the United States was some kind of heaven on earth. I highlight the fairly large number of instances of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the practice of liberty and lack of protected equal rights before the law that Ferrero enumerated for his European readers, as well as how governmental corruption and interest group politics were scars on the American landscape.

But what he saw in the United States of that time was a country in which the individual, either born in America or newly arrived, was almost unrestricted in peacefully and honestly pursuing virtually any profession or occupation without government approval or license. He was able to freely and voluntarily associate and negotiate the terms of trade on the basis of which he might be hired or at which he might sell the product or service he had brought to market. Regulations over the methods of production and trade were scarcely known in the America of that time.

The American government spent and squandered what Ferrero considered too much of the citizen’s money, with politicians buying votes and interest groups acquiring favors and privileges, including a variety of trade protections against foreign competitors and domestic subsidies and contracts from the political authorities. But when Ferrero visited the United States, all levels of government siphoned off  barely 7 percent of all the wealth produced by those earning a living in the private sector. There was no federal income tax and no presumption that government had a lien on all that was earned by the citizens, with those income earners being permitted to keep the residual not claimed by those in political power.

It was not considered the government’s business where you lived, how you earned a living, when and for what purpose you traveled, either inside the United States, or between America and the rest of the world. The students are astonished when I tell them that for most of the years before the First World War, almost anyone could travel to the United States without a passport or a visa. Freedom of movement was considered a natural accompaniment to freedom of association and freedom of trade. (The embarrassing and immoral blemish on the American principle of free entry and residence were the anti-immigration laws passed in the last decades of the nineteenth century against Chinese and Japanese due to racial prejudice.)

The narrower range of liberty in modern America

I compare that earlier America with the United States of today. Yes, there are many things better in the United States now than back then. Racial and religious prejudices are far less than in the 1890s. The Southern segregation laws are a thing of the past, and social acceptance of interracial relationships is practically universal in modern America. Women have the vote and greater marketplace opportunities and freedoms of choice. And due to the extent that market openness and competition have persisted, all Americans of today have standards and qualities of life that were almost unimaginable in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Yet, in spite of all this, government interferes, regulates, controls, prohibits, and compels far more corners of our everyday lives than anyone could have imagined during the time of Guglielmo Ferrero’s visit to the United States. Government siphons off a percentage of people’s earned income and wealth that would have been considered confiscatory and oppressive by the ordinary and average American of the 1890s. The government operated back then with a modest and limited budget, with an almost nonexistent national debt. Today, government gorges on trillions of dollars of tax money every year, and still has to borrow a trillion dollars a year on top of all that, which has created a huge national debt.

Back when Ferrero wrote about his impressions of America, the Spanish-American War was a recent event, with the United States having acquired its first war-based overseas imperial territories in the form of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, a protectorate over Cuba, and the annexation of the Philippine Islands in East Asia. But this fledgling American empire seemed almost trivial compared to, say, the global-encompassing British and French empires of that time.

Today, the America taxpayer covers the cost of a worldwide network of foreign bases and alliances that at any time can drag the United States into overseas wars. The Americans of the 1890s would have never imagined the United States in a 20-year war in Afghanistan or Iraq, with the accompanying abridgments of freedom and loss of wealth and lives that such foreign adventures have entailed.

I ask my students, at the end of such discussions, how free is America, really, today? What is the direction toward which we seem to be continuing to head? And if this road were at some time to lead to a far more comprehensive government control-and-command society in the United States, and if there was some place at that time that was closer to the freer society that America was in the late nineteenth century, where would you want to live, and to which society would you want to give your loyalty and support?

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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