All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1968

Progress Through Travel

Perhaps not always, but often the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. and if there be such a thing as progress, it must be primarily in terms of the free­dom of the individual to travel and trade and find out what is beyond that fence.

A fence, of course, is a barrier — sometimes natural, as in the case of broad oceans or rivers, impenetrable jungles, lifeless des­erts, steep mountainous terrain, or just empty space — sometimes man-made of mined harbors and passes, guarded walls, locked doors, barbed wire entanglements, iron curtains, restraining laws, or just red tape. And lack of knowl­edge and information, lack of im­agination and initiative and in­genuity, lack of effort, lack of vision and courage and faith —these may be barriers, too, more internal than external.

In a sense, these internal bar­riers are by far the most difficult for man to span, for he may not realize they are barriers or sus­pect there could be something be­yond. How could there be anything beyond the ocean if the earth were flat? Or anything desirable beyond a great wall or an iron curtain if no outside goods or services or ideas were allowed to penetrate? Fear of the unknown can effec­tively halt man’s search for knowl­edge. An ocean or river or fence or wall affords protection and security of a sort he will abandon with great reluctance, if at all. Wild animals, once domesticated, lose the ability to shift for themselves and the curiosity to explore be­yond the fence; and man, long imprisoned, comes to welcome his walls and chains.

The Great Civilizer

The story of civilization, how­ever, is the story of man emerg­ing from his shell, thinking, forc­ing, working, winning his way over or under or around or through the barriers and fences he encounters. The story includes a running history of travel, the odysseys of man, the wanderings of Abraham and Lot, the journeys of Marco Polo, the voyages of the Phoenicians and Vikings and Co­lumbus and Cabot, the Crusades, the Pilgrims, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the development of commercial aviation. So much of the story of human progress is ex­pressed in the improvements in transportation growing out of man’s need to travel — the horse, the wheel, the cart, the boat, the sail, the rail, the piston motor, the wing, the jet.

Man’s need to travel! Necessity takes many forms and mothers many things. The need sometimes is literally for green pastures, a watering hole, raw materials, liv­ing room. Others travel in search of beauty, understanding, great ideas, truth — perhaps a sense of mission and responsibility toward fellow men. Some need to travel back through time, to discover and decipher and understand the wisdom of the ancients, in books and lost records and buried bones and artifacts. And some would go where man has never been before. Where man has been before and staked his claim, not always are travelers welcome. To cross a fence may be to trespass. Many of; he chapters in the book of civilization have been written in the) flood of conquistadors and crusaders and the victims of their invasion. Nor have we seen an end to such mass migrations and wars of conquest. Without condoning the methods of coercion, t may be acknowledged that invaders and defenders sometimes have learned from one another, hopefully found ways to live more abundantly together and in peace. But as long as some men travel conquer, others will try harder to build and hide behind protective barriers. It must be doubted; hat ultimate human progress is to be thus achieved.

The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith, less than two cen­turies ago, pioneered in setting forth in orderly fashion what some others had learned through trial and error about the wealth of nations. There had been travel and trade of sorts through the centuries. Marco Polo might be de­scribed as a traveling salesman. Camel caravans connected far flung communities through trade. The Phoenicians were active trad­ers in Mediterranean waters. The Roman Empire was in part a trad­ing area. There were the mer­chants of Venice and Florence. New trade routes opened in the wake of the Crusades. Columbus was seeking a better route to the spices of India. The mercantilists were traders in a protected mar­ket system. But it remained for Adam Smith to begin the explana­tion of the advantages of speciali­zation and trade that men some­times had practiced without full understanding. The wealth of na­tions, and of individuals, he per­ceived, is not so much something that exists — something hoarded or held in inventory — but an on­going process of exchange among willing buyers and sellers free to travel with their ideas and their wares.

Other scholars studied and elab­orated upon and refined the ra­tionale for private ownership and control and free trade in a mar­ket open to all peaceful competi­tors. Eventually, some began to understand that when exchange is voluntary, both parties gain some­thing from the transaction. Then they could know that it is not necessary to rob or enslave others in order to accumulate personal wealth. On the contrary, the far better way to serve one’s own in­terests is to more efficiently serve the interests of others and reap the rewards they will freely offer.

Freedom in America

Could it have been entirely co­incidence that the year 1776, when Adam Smith’s great book first ap­peared, also marked the beginning of a new idea about wars and gov­ernments? The American Revolu­tion was a war for independence rather than for conquest, and the limited form of government that developed in the young republic was designed primarily to keep the peace among men who other­wise would be free to produce goods and services and to trade and travel as they pleased and could afford.

Primarily free! Yet, nearly another century would pass, and another terrible war, before hu­man slavery would be unlawful in the land. Nor has the warring ceased, as attested by recent riot­ing and looting in American cities by persons politically unchained yet intellectually, morally, emo­tionally unfree. The person who has not learned to travel without trespassing remains essentially a runaway slave, not his own master. Yet, primarily free! Within the United States over the years there have been remarkably few cur­tains, walls, tariffs, embargoes, or other barriers to trade and travel.

Rivers, oceans, mountains, and deserts have been spanned until no person in the nation is more than a few hours from any other. Contacts can be made and con­tracts consummated from any part of the country to any other in minutes, if not seconds.

To Overcome Obstacles and Become One’s Own Man

Overcoming such barriers has helped to set man free; but he needed to be somewhat free in order to overcome restraints and become self-responsible. Free to dream and follow that dream wherever it led. Free to explore every new opportunity and move toward those most attractive. Free to seek and find unused or waste­fully used resources and exploit them to everyone’s better advan­tage. Free to move himself to another job, if more attractive, or to move his place of business to a better location that might be available. Free to travel from an undesirable political jurisdiction to a better one. Free to pursue his educational program with any willing teacher, wherever avail­able, at home or abroad. Free to compete in any market place. Free to visit friends who would wel­come him. Free to partake of any recreational opportunities open to the public and within his means. Free to overcome in any peaceful manner, and to become his own man.

Yes, citizens of the United States primarily have known the blessings of open markets, open shops, open doors, open homes, open books, open minds, and open hearts, within the institutional safeguards of limited government, sanctity of contract, private prop­erty, and no trespassing. The mind of the individual has been free to grow in proportion as he has been free to explore and to travel and to trade. And as the individ­ual has prospered, so has the na­tion. Travel and trade are warp and woof in the delicate fabric of civilization.

If man is to participate effec­tively in the ongoing process of Creation, he needs to be free to compete, not only within a given nation, but throughout the world. National borders that inhibit peaceful trade and travel are bar­riers to progress.

The most certain way to halt or prevent the development of a nation and its citizens is to fence them in.

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.