America: A Free Economy, a Prosperous Nation

A couple of years ago, the late economist and eternal optimist Julian Simon co-authored a book, It’s Getting Better All the Time, with Steve Moore, now of the Club for Growth.

The book consists of about 100 charts, graphs and trends that showed how life in America had improved dramatically over the past century by pretty much any criteria you can conceive of to measure.

We are healthier, richer, we live longer, we work fewer hours but are more productive, we’re more educated, more comfortable, we breathe cleaner air, drink cleaner water, we have better access to information, we move more quickly about the world, and we are more tolerant than we’ve ever been in history.

We have abundant leisure time and keep well entertained. Our athletes are stronger, faster, and more powerful than man has ever seen. Women have more freedom today in America than they’ve ever had in any society in human history.

In fact, life today in America in most every way represents the zenith of human achievement. Even our "poor" are more affluent, well-fed and have access to more creature comforts and amenities than most of the rest of the world’s "middle class." The poor in America today in many ways live better than royalty did just a century ago. In fact, by most standards, poor Americans today live better than average Americans did just 50 years ago.

Moore and Simon point out, for example, that in 1997, 99 percent of American households below the poverty level had electricity. In 1950, just 94 percent of all U.S. households had electricity. In 1997, 99 percent of poor Americans had flush toilets; in 1950, just 76 percent of all Americans did.

The numbers are similar as you move down the list of amenities. Today, the poorest of Americans are more likely to own televisions, refrigerators, automobiles, air conditioning, dishwashers and washing machines than average Americans were in 1950.

And the success continues. The latest issue of Forbes ASAP reports that applications for patents and patents granted have exploded in the last half-century, and have spiked even within that explosion in the last decade. Americans are still innovating and inventing and producing at a pace unrivaled in the history of science.

These numbers beg an important question. Why? Why has America achieved so much in the last century? Why have our life spans nearly doubled since 1900? Why do people risk their lives to come here? Why is our economy the envy of the world? In a word: liberty.

America’s economy consistently ranks as one of the freest on the planet. Just last month, the Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute of Canada released their annual "Economic Freedom of the World" report. No surprise. The United States’ economy ranked third, behind only the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore. The correlation between free economies and standard of living is unmistakable. Free people live better, longer, happier lives.

In another graph in their book, Moore and Simon compare economic freedom, per capita income and life expectancy. It’s striking. More government inevitably yields more poverty, which inevitably yields shorter lives. Citizens of the world’s least free economies average $1,669 U.S. per person in real income, and live on average to age 55. Citizens of the world’s freest economies average $18,108 U.S. per person, and live on average to the age of 76.

A few years ago, ABC’s John Stossel did an hour-long special called "Is America #1?" Stossel noted that it isn’t just political freedom that yields prosperity. Economic freedom is just as, if not more, important. As an example, he looked at India, a democracy for sure, but consistently a festering example of the depths of human poverty.

Why? As an example, Stossel attempted to open a small business selling ABC gear in Hong Kong, India and New York City. In New York, he endured weeks of filling out applications for licenses, permits and tax numbers. But only weeks. In India, he was told it would take years (and it has for the few U.S. businesses who’ve opened there). In Hong Kong, Stossel was up and operating in a day. Such is why Hong Kong, with virtually no natural resources, has lept from poverty to prosperity in just a couple of decades.

Stossel also interviewed business executives who came to America and founded empires, largely because regulations in their home countries proved too burdensome. And we aren’t talking about communist countries or African dictatorships. We’re talking about France. And Sweden. And Germany.

Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, told Stossel, "I wanted to build better computers, and there was no way to build a better computer in Germany."

So he came to the U.S., to Simi Valley. He’s now worth billions, and he gives thousands of paychecks to Americans that, were it not for creeping German socialism, could easily have gone to Germans.

So when you hear doomsayers talk about America’s pollution, crime, racism, corporate greed and cultural imperialism, ask yourself — or better yet, ask them — when and where in history has man had it better? The answers, respectively, are never and nowhere. Our embrace of free markets and entrepeneurialism, our respect for property rights, and our embrace of law and human rights have given civilized man his best opportunity to thrive and prosper and innovate. And has he ever.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va., and is the publisher of the web log, The