In 1787 as the Constitutional Convention was concluding, Benjamin Franklin was asked that famous question, "What had the delegates created?" Franklin's equally famous response was, "A republic, if you can keep it." Taking my cue from Franklin, I would like to herald the advent of this New Year and the new millennium (according to the Gregorian calendar) by reasserting my hopes and belief and echoing Franklin's words that America and possibly the world are entering a new Golden Age, "if we can keep it."
Last May I wrote about a trip my wife and I had taken to the Mediterranean and Aegean seas following the footsteps of St. Paul. Reflecting on the conflicts and rivalries that plagued St. Paul's time as they plague our own, I quoted Hegel, who said that "the only thing one learns from history is that no one learns from history."
I went on to express the belief that we have the chance at last to learn from the mistakes of the past and build a new Golden Age of Democracy, freedom and peace provided that we practice the Golden Rule.
The bitter election battle of 2000 may set the stage for a new era of national achievement, invention and prosperity. But as Franklin foresaw, there's always an "if." In this case the "if" is whether we truly can learn from the mistakes of the past and join together as one people toward common goals: equal opportunity and economic prosperity for all, the continual advance of freedom at home and abroad, and true compassion toward those least able to help themselves.
This is what President-elect George W. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney appear to believe they can help achieve for our nation. Nevertheless, while strong, wise and compassionate leaders are essential, they can only succeed if the people as a whole share a common commitment to the cause of freedom, equality and democracy for the world.
My optimism that the new administration will succeed in bringing us together stems, in part, from the economic and technological revolution through which we are living, truly a wonder in itself with little precedent in history. Yet as the last year also shows, innovation, entrepreneurship and economic advancement should not be taken for granted, and the ability of policymakers to throw a wrench into the proceedings with monetary policy mistakes, excessive tax rates and regulatory overkill should never be underestimated. That's why I temper my optimism with Franklin's warning.
My friend Rich Karlgaard echoes these same sentiments in his Forbes magazine columns. Recently he observed that if we can get through the current choppy waters of economic slowdown without major policy blunders, "the next five years will be golden: stunning innovation, soaring rates of venture capital formation and yet more wild-eyed start-ups that change the world."
But for Karlgaard, too, Franklin's admonition looms large: "The caveat is always policy. Bad decisions on trade, taxes and monetary policy turned a 1929 stock market hiccup into the 1930s-long Great Depression. Higher tax rates on capital gains would flatten the uptrend in risk capital and bonk this boom, too."
Today we have it within our grasp to avoid the mistakes that would repeat the experience of the 20th century in which an earlier promise of a golden age of freedom withered away under the crush of war, ideology, and racial and ethnic conflict. "Life is a gift," Karlgaard reminds us, and "freedom is rare. Civilizations must be built a brick and a law at a time - and be defended by blood."
That may sound harsh, but true optimism lies in a realistic assessment of what is at stake and a realization that with God's providence and mankind's best efforts, we can truly be masters of our own destiny and good stewards of our earthly realm. To believe otherwise is both naive and profoundly cynical, not sentiments to which I am prone.
The Christmas and Hanukkah season yielding to the New Year is always an extraordinary mix of reflection and projection, reaching into the past and future all at once. But while history cautions us to guard our inheritance of freedom, the promise of a fresh start itself inspires optimism. As I wrote last May, "I contend that freedom and free enterprise under the rule of law are beginning to take hold in the hearts and minds of people all over the globe. ... If we get it right, this century truly can and ought to be a century not of America alone, but one in which those values and ideals bequeathed to us by our founders give meaning to life and also will bring progress, prosperity, freedom and democracy to the world."
Let us indeed get it right, and a blessed and Happy New Year to all my readers.