Friday, September 9, 2011

Remembering 9/11: America's Decline Is Greatly Exaggerated

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, many are in a reflective mood.  Many news outlets are running stories in remembrance of that fateful Tuesday morning.  Besides the usual "where were you" memories (at work in upstate New York) of that day, my strongest impression of that time was how, in the aftermath, we heard stories of greatness that rose above that tragedy.  We heard about the brave first responders who went into the building when most people's natural inclination would be to leave.  We heard about the search and rescue workers who spent hours upon hours combing through the wreckage, putting themselves at great personal risk.  We heard about the ordinary Americans aboard Flight 93 who averted a fourth attack on that day.  We heard about the millions upon millions of individuals all over the country who put aside their differences to contribute to the relief effort.  In the wake of the tragedy, the best of American came to the forefront and was put on display for all to see.

Ten years later, the mood is much more pessimistic.  We have seen our young men and women die on the battlefield half a world away.  We all felt the effects of an economic collapse the likes of which hasn't been felt in most of our lifetimes.  Jobs which were once done by Americans are done cheaper by people overseas.  Our leaders seem to be at each others' throats, putting politics ahead of the good of the nation.  Our creditworthiness as a nation has been called into question.  Our national debt continues to mount.  Our standing in the world as superpower is being challenged by a rising China.  All the news about American seems so dark that people are wondering aloud whether or not America has passed its prime and is in decline.

Those people are wrong.  In my mind, there are two things that make America great and will continue to keep America great:  opportunity and freedom.

America has always been a Land of Opportunity.  It is a place where hard work and smarts are generally rewarded.  There are stories like that of Andrew Carnegie, who came to this country at age 13, worked as a teenager in a textile factory, and through his hard work ended up as one of the richest men of his time.  However, the bigger story in my opinion is that, for every Carnegie, there are millions of people who came to this country and found a better life, a more comfortable life, for them and their families.  They came here because in their homes, they would have languished in poverty despite their hard work.  However, here in the U.S., our meritocracy allows people who work hard and work smart to get ahead.  Yes, they may not end up billionaires, but they are able to carve out a comfortable life consummate with their efforts.

American remains that land where you generally are rewarded based upon your skills, savvy, and sweat.  Yes there are exceptions as there always are.  Cynics will point to those exceptions and claim that they are the rule.  However, I can't think of many cases where people who are hard workers don't end up rewarded in some way, shape, or form.  Consider the immigrants from all over the world who still come to America to seek their fortune.  In my field (engineering), I work with a lot of people who chose to come to America.  If you ask them why, one huge reason is that America generally is a place where you have the opportunity to make a good living should you chose to take advantage of it.  It is a place where hard work truly is rewarded.  If America wasn't that place, then why do some want to build a fence to keep illegal immigrants out.  If America were that bad, we wouldn't be creating barriers to entry.

The second characteristic that makes America great is our freedom.  We generally have the ability to express our own opinions, worship our own gods, associated with whomever we want, without the Government trying to stop us.  That freedom of expression fosters a vibrant marketplace of ideas.  We are free to debate ideas vigorously without fear that the thought police will knock on our doors and steal us away in the middle of the night.  As such, all ideas are exposed to the light of day where the best can be adopted and the worst can be debunked under the scrutiny of the masses.  By allowing people to say and believe what they want, ideas are subjected to Darwinism, where the worst ideas are cast aside by vigorous debate and the best are adopted.  Obviously, there is still room to disagree, and that's okay, too.  We as a society accept that there will always be differences, but at least by talking about them, we can reach some understand, if not agreement.  Isn't a better to talk about your differences than go to war over them?  When you aren't allowed to express yourself freely, all of that disagreement boils over in civil unrest.  Because we can express ourselves freely, we can influence the course of our nation.  Every few years, we get an opportunity to revolt (peacefully of course) by voting out our old leaders and voting in new ones.  There are many countries where such dissent can only be expressed through a bombs or rifles.

Freedom and opportunity by themselves don't make a country great in a vacuum.  They are facilitators for what really makes a country great:  its people.  After all, a country is just a collection of people.  Freedom and opportunity do two things.  First, they help to attract the best people.  If you are looking for a place to live, wouldn't you want to move to the place where hard work is rewarded and where you can express yourself how you want?  Second, they reward those with the best ideas and the best work ethic, and that helps to elevate the entire nation.  Take the entrepreneur who builds a company from the ground up.  That company not only benefits its owner, but also those who work for the company, and by extension, the community where the company is located.  Consider Mr. Carnegie whom I mentioned earlier.  The foundation which he started over 100 years ago is still benefiting America through its philantropy.

I would ask everybody (including our politicians who seem to be stoking this feeling of gloom and doom) to stop dwelling on what is wrong about America, but what is right about America.  Of course, we aren't perfect; no country is.  However, with freedom and opportunity, at least we have the mechanisms to address our problems.  Because of that, America is not going to decline any time soon.

1 comment:

  1. I guess, we need to talk about the meaning of that popular slogan about the opportunities. We should reach some concrete thing order now!
    to stress them and to behave according to them.