All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1992

A Future That Should Have Been Ours

Mr. Sparks, a retired businessman in Canton, Ohio, has served for many years as a Trustee of The Foundation for Economic Education.

I have a complaint. It’s about something that has been missing from my life—and from yours. It is about a future that should have been ours, but isn’t.

My complaint is addressed initially to our long-distant ancestors who did not focus clearly upon their rulers and see them for what they were—despots and tyrants who had no divine right to rule anyone. With a few minor exceptions, this kind of government dominated until the American Revolution, by which I mean the philosophical revolution, rather than the shooting war that sprang from it.

If my complaint were in a court of law, the question ultimately would be: What is the measure of my injury? How have I been hurt or deprived of something I would have had? In other words, put a number on it.

All right, let’s try it. It has been just over 200 years since the American Revolution, which produced a government with severely limited powers, thus providing Americans with more freedom than any other people who ever lived. It is unnecessary to detail the explosion of knowledge, new products, advances in health, and other human comforts that followed.

There is a direct correlation between freedom and a better life—running the gamut from physical health and longevity to cultural achievement and luxury. This is no accident. Good government protects its people from those who would take lives, interfere with peaceful transactions, and steal property. When government does this and nothing more, then each person is free to pursue his own ideas, make his own peaceful choices—and human progress results.

Keep in mind this direct correlation—freedom and a better life—while we apply a little imagination. The last 200 years of comparative freedom produced the miraculous upsurge of products and knowledge we know today, all because of the absence of bad government. This means that these advances could have happened anytime before—if bad governments hadn’t been tolerated by our distant ancestors. It is conceivable that people living in the year 1000 A.D., for example, could have reached the same level of life we enjoy today! And thus we may be 1,000 years behind where we should be. If we had not had bad governments centuries ago, perhaps we could have a standard of living equivalent to what people may enjoy 1,000 years from now.

Think about it. You can fill out a list of your own specific complaints. Will you include the lost lives of your loved ones who could have been cured of diseases or injuries had they had access to medical knowledge that will be available 1,000 years from now? What other possibilities are there?

But if human well-being is closely related to freedom, why do we still enjoy a high living standard when our government has been restricting freedom for most of the 20th century? The answer is that freedom from the 1800s and early 1900s built up a momentum—a way of freedom-based life—that bad government cannot destroy at once.

However, the development of new inventions, products, and methods will be increasingly delayed, or may not happen at all. This will be difficult to see, except when we compare ourselves with other countries where freedom may grow. If there are no other places to compare with, then we will fly blind, unaware again ofwhat we are missing. The risk to mankind is a repetition of the ignorance of the Dark Ages with progress postponed and living standards held in suspension—or worse.

A good government protects the people’s freedom and then gets out of the way to let progress work its miracles. Our descendants deserve a heritage of freedom equal to or better than ours. We must not deal them out of their future.

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.