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.

Less oppressive government is (or was?) our competitive advantage in the world economic competition.

Staying the best in freedom and democracy, just like in textiles and synchronized swimming, requires constant innovation and improvement to make what is good even better. It means staying focused on that essential element that makes one the best in producing any product or service.

In America, for more than two centuries, our mission has been all about protecting the rights of life, liberty and at least the pursuit of happiness.

Today, I’m inspired by the democratic demands being sounded throughout the corrupt, autocratic Arab world. And yet, I’ve been kind of jealous, too. Greater freedom and democracy may be coming to these countries, while we in America are struggling to maintain our own.

Where are the political leaders advocating meaningful reforms that provide ever-improved control by the voters?

You can count them on one hand. Most politicians work to undercut any democratic check on their power. After yet another election in which energized voters demanded serious change, state legislators in many of the 24 states with voter initiative have returned to session with perennial bills to void the initiative power of voters.

The very same voters they pledge to represent.

Citizens in Charge and Citizens in Charge Foundation polled Americans in all 50 states last year. By at least a two to one margin and as high as a seven to one margin, voters in each state favor initiative and referendum, where issues can be petitioned onto the ballot for a vote. That doesn’t stop powerful politicians and the sometimes chummy forces of big labor and big business from working to block establishing the initiative and referendum process in the states that lack it and scheming to snuff it out where it does exist.

In Colorado, the initiative petition process has been declared “dead” because of a 2009 law that enables lawsuits against the proponents of citizen petitions, personally. Major parts of this law have already been blocked by a federal court on constitutional grounds, but the remaining portions still threaten citizens with bankruptcy as a consequence of their political action. Now legislators are pushing new statutes and a constitutional amendment designed to drive deeper nails into the proverbial coffin.

Interestingly, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a union-backed group that advocates the “progressive” use of the initiative and lobbies state legislatures to handcuff the process, awards “dead” Colorado their highest grade in the nation.

In Washington State, legislators are considering a law to regulate and manacle those paid to circulate initiative petitions. But the only case of petition fraud in memory was an SEIU official who has admitted forging signatures on last year’s unsuccessful initiative to establish a state income tax. Not only is documented petition fraud incredibly rare in Washington state and across the country, but the legislation, enthusiastically if not apologetically endorsed by SEIU, regulates paid petitioners working for petition companies — unions like SEIU are exempt!

Currently, Nevada citizens must gather signatures in each of the state’s three congressional districts to qualify a statewide ballot issue. Legislation has been introduced to increase it from these three petition drives to 42 separate drives by requiring issues to qualify in all 42 state legislative districts.

Oklahoma voters passed a constitutional amendment last November to make it s little easier to place initiatives on the statewide ballot. A few months later, Oklahoma’s state senate passed a constitutional amendment attempting to make it harder.

The battle for freedom and democracy is not taking place just in a far off land in fast flickers on your television screen; it rages in a city hall and state capitol near you. And if we citizens ever stop fighting to protect and to enlarge our freedom and our control over our democratic republic, we will cease to be No. 1 in the world.

At least, in terms of what matters.


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.