Paul Jacob

The United States of America constitutes the largest economy in the world. We’re number one!

Stephen Pope in a Market Mind post last week at Forbes.com goes further, arguing that “the US is not just the world’s largest economy. It has the largest and most sophisticated military and the leading entrepreneurial mind set driven by access technology, engineering and market research data.”

Both China and India have more actual folks in their armed forces, but Pope’s assessment remains indisputable. Still, a special on CNN tonight and Time magazine’s cover story more broadly question our top dog status.

Are we still number one in the world? Can we stay at the top?

Those queries beget another question: How did we ever get to first place in the first place?

A couple centuries ago, America was a backwater country far behind the European powers. Without benefitting from even a modicum of foreign aid or international development programs, Americans dreamed and built and grew and expanded and dreamed and produced and traded and . . . well, we became the planet’s largest economy with a standard of living that was and still is the envy of the world.

So, what was our secret?

Henry David Thoreau put his finger on it in Civil Disobedience:

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.

By world standards, however, our government has tended to put itself “in our way” a whole lot less than other governments weighed down their citizens. Or subjects.

America’s secret was no secret at all. It was freedom, plain and simple and transformational.

Americans were more able than others to create their dreams, including wealth, because of a political economy whereby citizens wielded greater control over government through both constitutional restraint and democratic checks — a representative democracy, enhanced in 26 states with some measure of statewide initiative or referendum.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.