All Commentary
Friday, October 1, 1982

The American Idea

Ralph Bradford, noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant, is now retired in Ocala, Florida.

The really significant American Revolution was not the military revolt that led to political independence from England, but the philosophical about-face which freed the developing American economy from the deadly shackles of bureaucratic control, and by liberating the creative energies of the people, made possible the miracle of American production.

That was the real American Idea—the idea of the Free Market. To some people that phrase had, and still has, only a commercial connotation; but in reality it had, and still has, a much broader significance. It refers not only to the free trading of goods in the market place, but to the un trammeled exchange of ideas, and to the fullest possible development of the human mind and spirit. It refers to such added aspects of liberty as freedom of speech and of the press. It means also freedom to write, and to create a literature. That was the true essence and spirit of the American Revolution.

Such concepts, it must be noted, were not new in the world. Here and there they had blossomed, and men had grown in spirit, and had prospered materially. We know this because, wherever and whenever this occurred, men were free in the large sense to follow the creative urge that resides deep in the human heart. They made pictures, they carved images, and, sooner or later, they wrote!

On the skins of animals, on papyrus, on rock walls, on stone steles, on clay tablets—they wrote! Using pictures, or crude cursive script, or ideograms, or hieroglyphics, or cuneiform indentations—they wrote! What the chief said, what the king decreed, what the priests pronounced, what the artisan created, whether the harvest was good or bad, what the laws were—they wrote! They set it down. And thus in signs and symbols we have history far beyond any literature or language of the present century, or in the historic age of man.

Flashes of Freedom

Yes, freedom, which is a timeless torch, glowed brightly here and there through the centuries—obscured and destroyed now and then in one black era after another, to reappear and relive elsewhere as the fortunes of man, the developing animal, rose and fell with the ages.

But it had never been so carefully expressed, or as extensively implemented, as it was in America. It had even gained a foothold in parts of Europe for a time; but it was snuffed out there in the dark medieval centuries, and as a consequence the scale of human production, comfort and well-being had sunk to the level of general impoverishment and privation.

By the same token, the literary output of those times is practically non-existent. Only the troubadours survived the general intellectual impoverishment; and their songs, while sometimes poetically beautiful, are concerned mainly with the ephemeral splendors of court life, and with the evanescent beauties and languors of romantic love, usually of an illicit and clandestine character.

Getting back to America, it should be noted that the recent departures from the original American Idea—namely, the so-called “modern” notions about the need for governmental management and supervision of all our economic processes, are not modern at all.

Incidentally, they are not “liberal,” either, though they are so termed by their supporters. The classical liberal concept was that of a government of sharply limited powers. The true liberal, from Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson, was afraid of big government. Jefferson, indeed, was afraid of any government. “The best governed,” he once declared, “are the least governed.” And as for Wilson, he wrote: “The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”

And as to the “managed economy”—the idea of substituting the decisions of bureaucrats for the operation of the free market—all this is not new, or modern, or original, but very old. Examples are not hard to find, both in the literature of the

Romans and in that about the Romans. In the latter category, Gibbons’ Decline and Fall is perhaps the most voluminous—and ponderous. Much easier to handle and digest is a book called The History of the World in 300 Pages, translated from the French of Rene Sedilot. In one section he describes the situation in ancient Rome. It sums up thus:

Under the Emperor Alexander Severus laws were decreed to control all businesses that were operated on accumulated capital, and loans were made by the government to people in certain categories for use in buying land. Under Domitian, in order to prevent over-production of wine the State ordered a portion of the grape vines to be uprooted. Under Vespasian, on the theory of spreading employment, a ban was laid on mechanization. Under Diocletian, in an effort to keep down the cost of living, both wages and prices were fixed by a state official.

Needless to say, all this created a vast and expensive bureaucracy. It also resulted in debt, inflation, and monetary devaluation. The denarius had its silver content progressively reduced. The weight of gold coins was scaled down by 50 per cent. Rome’s balance of payments (due partly to her extensive foreign operations) showed a mounting deficit; and her gold and silver reserves melted away.

Need I go on? It all sounds very “modern,” doesn’t it? Yet it happened many years ago! And of course it had all occurred in similar fashion long before that—as in the state socialism of Egypt, with its “ever normal granary” operation; or as in the pre-Babylonian culture of the Sumerians, around 3000 B.C. It was also repeated later, with many repressive variations, in the guild systems of Europe’s Middle Ages.

That Sumerian culture, by the way, has been substantially reconstructed by enterprising archeologists. They not only unearthed the capital city of Lagash, but found and deciphered the records of the Sumerian people. And it is in those records that we find some of the first expressions of what I consider to be the essence of what became the American Idea.

Free from Oppression, Free to Achieve

I said at the outset that that Idea was freedom, but we need to be explicit as to what we mean by that term. We associate freedom with the abstractions of political liberty—very properly so. However, that is not the entire meaning and content of freedom. To be free is not just to escape oppression. The true free man is free from something, of course—from tyranny, from abuse, from over-taxation; but he is also free for something—free for the purpose of self-development, of fulfillment, of self expression, He is free to think, to question, to doubt, to believe, to speak, to write.

But the word “freedom” was not written down by some scribe for the inspiration and guidance of our colonial ancestors. It didn’t have to be! They knew it, as it were, by instinct. It was born with them by reason of what they and their ancestors had suffered in its denial.

I have no wish to over-idealize those colonial days. Some of them were very dark days, indeed. There was privation, and hardship, and danger; there were cruelties and treacheries—for our ancestors were not all great and noble. Some came here to enjoy religious liberty, only to deny it to others who desired to live among them. But if I am realistic about the seamy side, I am also not disposed to discount the importance of those days in making possible the miraculous decades that followed.

Self-Responsible Individuals

The secret was that in the development of most of North America men were on their own. This was not true farther south. The Spaniards and Portuguese were nearly all sent out by the state, and that meant a curtailment of freedom at the very outset. When Columbus set out on his voyage, Queen Isabella furnished the ships and paid the crews. Columbus was to get a cut and receive certain honors; but he didn’t defray the cost. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth didn’t outfit Sir Walter Raleigh when he headed for what was to become Virginia. He had to “find” his outfit.

The same thing was true with respect to the other colonies in the North. They were “chartered” by the King or Queen, of course, but the state didn’t finance the enterprise. That was done privately. Companies were formed. Shares were sold. Those who put their money into such en terprises were known as “adventurers”—not because they were personally going off to settle the wilderness, but because as investors they had “adventured” their money. If the trip paid off, if the Colony was successful, well and good. They would get their money back with interest and maybe with a profit. But they had no guarantee. The thing was not underwritten by the State. If it failed they took the loss.

And it was similarly so with the colonists themselves. Nobody guaranteed them against failure. They were face to face with wilderness reality. It was sink or swim. It was root hog or die. It was a rough, tough school; and of course it would be utterly repugnant to a certain type of politician and intellectual today—people who want the State to be a kind of universal Sugar Daddy. But it taught a great lesson. It was the essential conditioning for what followed—namely, the formalization and institutionalization of the American Idea in a structure of government. This was the mechanism for realizing the American Heritage.

In part, to be sure, that heritage consisted of a vast new continent, enormously rich in natural resources. But the same thing could be said of other lands—of South America, of Africa, of India. What made the difference? Freedom! Not just freedom from colonialism, not just political liberty, but freedom for growth, for development; freedom for the individual life to develop its capacities. How? Through freedom from too much government!

The Founders Hesitated to Put Their Trust in Government

Now to a generation that has grown up under an almost ceaseless propaganda for more and more government, it comes as a profound shock when I assert that the Architects of the American State had a deep distrust of government itself. But so it was; and the quotations I have cited above from Jefferson and Wilson were fairly representative of the attitude of most of the Founders.

It was in their bones, from the talk of fathers and grandfathers, who told vividly of State usurpations in the older countries. The Founders themselves had lived their lives under the relatively petty but persistent and cumulative tyrannies of the British Crown. They were determined that the new State they were creating should be limited in its powers, responsible to the people, and never allowed to dominate and control the lives of its citizens.

So what happened? It is no form of jingoism but a simple statement of historic fact to say that in less than 200 years the people of this country achieved a greater efficiency in production, and a more abundant distribution of the necessities, comforts and luxuries of life than had been attained anywhere, at any time, in all the centuries of history taken together.

The explanation of this paradox includes a number of factors; but the over-riding element is the simple fact that we have been free to make a better use of our energies and resources than most other peoples. And that freedom came from the circumstance that in all the period of our great growth and expansion as a nation, our government, by the deliberate design of its founders, gave us the protection of law—and left us free to achieve.

That was the American Idea in principle and that was the American Idea in practice.

Shall we keep it that way—or shall we trade it for the imagined comforts and benefits of the welfare state?

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.