The Improbable Experiment of 1776

I was asked recently why, as a cultural economist, an entrepreneur, and humanitarian, I would be so interested in researching and writing on the brief history of the free enterprise system in America. My answer was pretty close to the surface. Over the past nearly forty years I have been privileged to travel around the world a lot of times. I have returned numerous times to many of the over 150 countries where I have worked.

As I observed and studied the cultures and economies, I became curious as to why some of those countries were wealthy, and why some were devastated by poverty. I began to perceive a pattern. The poverty had placed many of the residents in positions of sickness and helplessness. Poverty always develops dependence. It seemed logical that a country cannot build a strong economy on sick people, so helping the people get well should be a great starting point for a healthy economy in the future. That was when we began shipping donated medical goods into those countries. In the past nearly thirty years Project C.U.R.E. has carefully donated over one billion dollars’ worth of medical goods into more than 130 countries. The results have been spectacular.

I have observed, however, that even with the improvement in the health care delivery systems of those countries it is almost impossible for them to alter the reasons why they had gotten bogged down in the poverty in the beginning. It is extremely difficult to change the traditions, institutions, family structures, and the individual thinking of a citizenry when it comes to the basic economic components of land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurs.

I then began to do a little comparative research on the differences between the ways their countries’ economies worked and the basis of our U.S. economic system. After a lot of years of observation and research, I must admit that I still don’t have the mystery totally solved or the success formula perfected. But I have come to some conclusions of which I am rock-solid confident. If we were just dealing with a sterile set of graphs, charts, and matrices, we could pretty easily come up with what ought to be. But when we are dealing with human nature, traditions, ancient institutions, greed, the desires to control and manipulate one another, things get muddied quite quickly.

I learned early on that the economic and cultural difference between countries does not pivot on the tattered and benign phrase democracy. We have somehow allowed that word to be mercilessly mugged and relegated to the list of descriptors to cover nearly anything. As an example, “we will stay here in your country and support you until you are able to establish a democracy as evidenced by your first one-over-fifty-percent vote.” That is not the old criterion of a democracy.

My eight trips into North Korea (DPRK) resulted in friendships that allowed for robust discussions regarding economics and the free market. The North Korean government officials would inquire as to ways to get their people incentivized to work harder and produce more. They would joke with me and remind me that they were far more democratic than the United States: “We have more elections in our country than you do, and even our name declares that we are a democracy . . . DPRK is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” I have discovered that many countries include the wordDemocratic in their name, but remain far from agreeing to anything that would resemble a Magna Carta or Bill of Rights, where the leadership agreed to be limited by the powers of a constitution of the people, by the people, and for the people!

Most of the developing countries in which I have worked were state-run, centralized, and with economies controlled by redistribution politics. Ambitious leaders will form followings or factions. Throughout the pages of history insecure people have cried out for a king or a dictator to protect them and take care of them from cradle to grave. That power is then given over to a leader and his government. From that point on, the leader and appointed government have legitimate power to compel obedience. Sometimes we forget the fact that every law and regulation enacted ultimately has a gun behind it to enforce it. Punishment becomes the final incentivizing method to bring work habits up to envisioned expectations.

Also, throughout history we can observe that the power held by a leader and his appointed government has so much potential force and authority for advancing that leader’s own interests and ambitions that he will do practically anything to achieve and retain that power. It dawned on me while working in Cambodia and trying to learn about the history of Pol Pot that people living their own private lives have a propensity to be industrious, gentle, and civil. But people bent on factions and politics have a propensity to be equally industrious, but agitated, uncivil and dangerous. History is the recordation of all those individual events and personalities and stories of leaders and governments throughout the ages.

So, what happened in the case of North America and, specifically, that which became the United States of America? What made its economic and cultural history start out differently? What happened? I think I have faithfully done my due diligence in research, and admit that I have found no other setting in history that would have spawned such an economic and cultural experiment. The experiment was improbable and has no guarantee of perpetuity. There is no insurance policy protecting against the same historic demise brought on by dealing with tainted human nature, traditions, ancient institutions, greed, the desires to control and manipulate one another, and the feeling of being entitled to live comfortably off the efforts and labors of others.

But historical research also bears out that the improbable experiment was able to produce and achieve the most outstanding environment for enabling human achievement, creativity and productivity that the world has yet provided.

That is my answer to those who inquire why it is I would be so interested in researching and writing on the brief history of the free enterprise system in America. I was born before the U.S. began to fight in World War II. All of my life has been positively influenced by the improbable experiment of 1776. As I traveled to so many other countries, I became more conscious of the importance of freedom of economic and cultural choice. As I now research and write, I discover and more fully understand what a grand and anomalous experiment it was. I don’t want it to slip either by default or skullduggery into the cracks of time and be forgotten, swept over by tainted human nature, traditions, ancient institutions, greed, the desires to control and manipulate one another, or the feeling of being entitled to live comfortably off the efforts and labors of others.

Next Week: Uncommon Denominators of 1776

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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