Jeffrey Tucker · May 4, 2012
The 1968 epic Planet of the Apes ends with Taylor the astronaut, played by Charlton Heston, coming upon the Statue of Liberty, except that it is buried in beach sand to the chest and covered in seaweed. Only then does he realize that this strange planet is actually his own planet Earth and that he lives now in the grim future.
It’s a chilling scene for what it symbolizes: liberty buried, neglected, forgotten.
I sometimes feel that way when I read back in time to the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Such passion they had for the thing that is so neglected today! We don’t know liberty as they dreamed of it.
I just finished reading Benjamin Franklin’s “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” published in French and English in Paris, 1784. This was written before the U.S. Constitution while we were still under the Articles of Confederation, which he praises for giving no effective powers to the government.
It’s an inspiring read, unless you compare his description with the reality today. In that way, it is a wake-up call. The same pitch could not be made today. Sure enough, with regard to immigration, the tide has turned the other way. For example, the U.S. finally addressed the immigration issue from the southern border by wrecking the economy and making Mexico appear to be a land of opportunity by contrast.
This Franklin essay, along with writings of Jefferson, Paine, Madison, Tocqueville, Emerson, Twain, Rothbard, Lane and many others, appear in The Idea of America, edited by Bill Bonner and Pierre Lemieux. The central theme is liberty. That’s the idea. That’s the contribution that America gave the world. The essays herein prove it. (This book is free with Club membership.)
This volume is very different from the thousands of other collections that seek to present a picture of the American civic order by reference to classic writings. This is all the stuff you have never read, the material suppressed by those who conflate the nation with the state. In other words, you won’t find this in the gift shop at the Smithsonian or other government-funded institution.
As you read, sometimes you want to repeat that scene at the end of the movie when Heston is pounding the beach with his fist, realizing what happened, and yelling: “We finally really did it! You maniacs! You blew it all up! Oh, damn you!” and so on with other unprintable words.
Yet that’s rather pointless, actually, as we all know. A much better path is to get a shovel and start digging the statue out from the sand, and explaining to anyone who will listen what it means and why it is important. In order to do that, however, you have to have the inspiration. You have to care. You have to know why liberty matters.
One of my favorite essays in this book is by H.L. Mencken. It is a searching and lengthy reflection on what constitutes the heart of the American spirit and soul. His purpose is to refute the common impression that the whole idea of America is materialism, money and consumerism. This view was as common in the 1920s as it is today.
Mencken says that this misses the point entirely. It’s true that America is a commercial society to a degree that history has never seen before. There is a love of invention, gadgetry, progress, and the industrial arts have a status here that has never before been seen. But this is not due to greediness or materialism or some other obsessive vice. Mencken writes that it is all about the desire to live a better life and the belief that nothing should stand in the way of any individual who seeks social advance…
“The character that actually marks off the American is not money-hunger at all; it is what might be called, at the risk of misunderstanding, social aspiration. That is to say, he is forever trying to improve his position, to break down some barrier of caste, to secure the acceptance of his betters. Money, of course, usually helps him in this endeavor, so he values it — but not for its own sake, not as a thing in itself. On the contrary, he is always willing to pay it out lavishly for what he wants.”
The point, says Mencken, is that “there is no American who cannot hope to lift himself another notch — if he is good. And there is no American who doesn’t have to keep on fighting for whatever position he has got. All our cities are full of aristocrats whose grandfathers were day laborers and clerks whose grandfathers were aristocrats.”
There it is! This is what made American different from the Old World. It is the absence of barriers standing in the way of individuals who want to make for themselves a better life. There is no entrenched class or caste, no system of privilege and no barrier. There are no limits either up or down the social ladder. And why? Because this is a country that is made by free people, not a government plan or a stodgy and impenetrable class of privileged gatekeepers.
This is also why I don’t begrudge anyone who spends money to ramp up data plans on their smartphones they can’t really afford. The motivation and drive here comes down to the longing for a better life, the sense that having and doing great things is part of who we are as a people. This is not materialism; it is attempt to live the dream of unlimited social advancement.
In the end, this is the point of liberty. It gives people a better life in every way. Their rights are respected. They are free to make their own choices and form their own associations. And it so happens that this same system enables the building of material prosperity to a degree that had never been imagined.
To a great extent today, we still see the system working beautifully, particularly in the digital marketplace, where the “geeks and nerds” from high school are now running giant companies built by entrepreneurial drive. This is all to the good.
The tragedy is that the range of opportunity is no longer universal. It has been radically restricted. Young people in particular are filled with angst, doubtful that they will ever be able to live a life as good as their parents. There are daily reminders of this grim reality.
What’s missing is a sense of cause and effect: It is the rise of statism that is directly responsible for the harm done to the American spirit. The threat to who and what we are is serious. This is why a book like this is so important. It gets to the core, names the problem and points to the solution.
In many areas of our life, the idea of America is buried, neglected, forgotten. Stumbling on a collection like this provides both a shock and an inspiration to work for a brighter future.
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo and It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, among thousands of articles. firstname.lastname@example.org | Facebook | Twitter