Seeing the World Plain

America's Prosperity and Liberty Are Rare in This World

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.

Washington, D.C., is filled with professions of good intentions by politicians and bureaucrats as they steadily strip away Americans’ liberty and money. The political class uses even the most serious social problem to cement its control.

Elections, which H. L. Mencken called advance auctions of stolen goods, bring out the worst in politicians. But it’s better to have elections than not, even though the political world usually looks about the same whether the Democrats or Republicans win.

Nevertheless, America, in contrast to its government, remains special. The uniqueness is most evident when traveling abroad.

Not so much when visiting other industrialized nations—what I call “real countries”: Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, and the like. Places that have advanced health care, modern telecommunications, democratic polities, respect for human rights, and abundant consumer goods. The United States remains freer and the opportunities remain better than in most of these states. But any American could live a prosperous and reasonably free life in them.

That’s not the case with much of the globe, however. The bulk of the world’s population lives in poverty and oppression. People spend their entire lives without opportunity or hope. The need for real reform—that is, freedom—is so much greater there.

For instance, journey to the border between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). I’ve gone several times with a group called Christian Freedom International (CFI;, which works on humanitarian and religious liberty issues. In this case, it assists ethnic Karen refugees displaced by the Burmese military.

Roughly 100,000 Karen live in refugee camps near the city of Maesot in western Thailand. Wooden huts cover undulating hills as far as the eye can see. The physical facilities are primitive, but people have organized themselves, especially around several churches (the Karen were converted by Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s). They are fed, housed, and clothed. Yet many people have been there for years; children have been born in the camps. None see any prospect of going back to their ancestral homes anytime soon.

Even worse are conditions in eastern Burma. Up to three million people have been displaced by decades of war. The junta’s forces move in, rape the women, conscript men as porters, kill the villagers’ livestock, destroy the buildings, and sow landmines to prevent people from returning. Two years ago government forces eradicated one small village just over the Moie river inside Burma six weeks after I visited.

Last summer I went to a larger, semi-permanent camp, protected by guerrillas with the Karen National Union (KNU). At least they have formal privies, in contrast to other villages deeper in the hills. And the meeting building and “freedom hospital” supported by CFI have electricity, which is absent elsewhere.

Still, it is impossible to escape not just dirt, but mud during the rainy season. Jungle green encroaches a few yards away. Only the careless would wander into hills covered with landmines and vulnerable to Burmese military attack.

Moreover, there is no hope for peace or prosperity. I met soldiers as young as 13, teenagers whose parents had been murdered by government troops. I met KNU soldiers in their 30s or 40s who have fought and killed for their entire adult lives. I met Burmese defectors who prefer uncertain exile to forced service under government thugs in Rangoon.

Life in Pakistan

Or journey to Pakistan. I went there last year as well. It is a military dictatorship, where General-President Pervez Musharaff has rigged the electoral process to create a democratic facade for his authoritarian rule. As in most of the Third World, state mismanagement of the economy has resulted in mass poverty.

On top of that is state-supported discrimination against minority faiths. Converts from Islam are often murdered. Non-Muslims find themselves prosecuted for blasphemy. No one even bothers to mouth the principle of equal rights under the law.

Worse, far worse, is North Korea. There are executions, mass starvation, and labor camps. And a stifling personality cult. Never, ever, speak ill of the Great Leader and Dear Leader. Commemorate them by photos in every room and buttons on every breast.

It’s been a decade since I traveled to the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but what I most remember is the lack of life on the streets. Masses of people walking, but never a group leaving a restaurant laughing. Never anyone having an animated conversation. Just silent souls streaming by, crushed by a system dedicated to squeezing out the slightest spark of creativity and individuality.

Obviously, many Americans face serious challenges, some of them life-threatening. But most problems here pale in comparison to those burdening the average Burmese Karen, Pakistani, and North Korean. In the United States hardship is real, but an exception. For so many other people elsewhere it is a way of life, for one’s entire life.

Seeing so many people in such straits highlights our responsibility for others, the obligation of those to whom much has been given to help those in great need. Moreover, such situations illustrate how the best way to help others is through private voluntary organizations that show up in isolated lands to feed and train people, create orphanages and schools, and maintain medical facilities. U.N. humanitarian agencies operate in Maesot, but none of them will work against the wishes of Burma’s brutal junta to help save Karen children who have stepped on land mines or been infected with malaria on the other side of the river. CFI will, even in the most primitive and distant village and at significant risk to its own personnel.

In Pakistan Christians routinely are denied access to basic services, such as electricity, available to Muslim neighbors across a street or field. And aid workers complained that the government manipulated foreign assistance for its own ends, rewarding its supporters and denying funds to disfavored groups. Looking to government for help is the path to starvation. Only private aid really turns out to be aid.

Not that this is always a good answer. Private groups can’t do much in North Korea. Some provide food, but their activities are constrained by Pyongyang’s dictates. Still, every little bit of private engagement helps, though often only a little bit.

Although I’ve always disliked jingoistic nationalism, even when applied to the United States, going to places like these causes me to grasp my American passport a little—actually, a lot—tighter. There is much wrong here. We desperately need to free our people, while addressing the sometimes desperate human needs that rightly unsettle our consciences. Even so, America remains a beacon of liberty for the world.

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