The Roots of Our Success

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Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Almost any way you look at it, we have been a remarkably a successful country. I don’t want to join those chest-beaters who elevate the United States to near-holy status; we’re far from perfect, and we’re only doing so-so when you compare us to other industrialized countries on basic social measures such as infant mortality or income inequality. But it seems fair to say that in the broad ways you’d measure a society-economically, militarily, the extent of our cultural influence, the freedoms we offer our residents, the opportunities we present for individual success-the U.S. is flourishing. 

Ask anyone why this is, and you’ll get a long list of causes. There’s the dynamism of our private sector and the fundamental size and strength of our economy; there’s the sheer breadth and variety of this country and of its natural resources; there’s the creativity, vitality and independence of the American people; there are the liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Yet there’s another important contributor to our success that I’ll warrant would not come up often in conversation, at least not in this day and age: our government. 

This is not to suggest that people think the President and Congress are simply bystanders in securing the country’s fortunes. It’s just that after years of anti-government rhetoric, deepening partisanship, widening special-interest influence and saturation press coverage of political scandals, our government and our system of representative democracy tend not to rank high on Americans’ lists of the country’s fundamental strengths. This is too bad, because they belong near the top. 

In essence, our form of government is Americans’ answer to the extraordinarily difficult question of how best to organize a society. Countries, city-states and empires have wrestled with this issue over the course of history, and some have tried what amounted to disastrous experiments. Our system has succeeded in large measure because over the long term it has both promoted the dynamic forces within our society and provided a means of keeping them in balance. From its beginning, our nation’s government has been involved in defining the rights and liberties individuals could exercise, laying the groundwork for developing the country’s resources, setting up the structure within which businesses could operate freely and fairly, and providing the security-military, judicial, and social-necessary for people to pursue their ambitions. 

Just how well it goes about all this, of course, changes over time, simply because the society it reflects changes over time. At heart, our government is made up of ordinary people elected by their fellow citizens; sometimes they are alert to the needs around them and adept at addressing them, and sometimes they are not-though over time, our elected representatives do tend to respond when some aspect of society falls out of balance, as voters look for candidates who will give voice to their concerns in Washington. 

So, for instance, after a decade in which legislators were inclined to give free rein to the dynamism of the free market, the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals have brought widespread attention to government’s role in ensuring that corporate behavior is trustworthy. Legislators in Congress may disagree on the best means of doing so, but they do not disagree on the need. As a New York Times book reviewer noted recently, “Without effective government oversight to assure good corporate market behavior, we can expect two, three, many Enrons. And everyone will suffer as trust declines and investment shrinks.” The challenge our government faces, in other words, is to set rules of the road that maximize both prosperity and trust; if it leans too far one way, the other suffers. 

In a sense, much of our history has consisted of government’s search for the right balance between competing forces. As policy-makers today wrestle over how much individual liberties should be protected in the face of the war on terrorism, they are simply adding the latest chapter to a discourse we have carried on since the end of the 18th century. Debates over how to balance environmental concerns with the exploitation of our natural resources, how to balance the rights of gun owners with urban- and suburban-dwellers’ fears of crime, how to balance demand for public services with taxpayers’ interest in keeping as much of their earnings as possible-all of these reflect the importance we attach to government as regulator, economic pump-primer, service-provider and guarantor of basic rights and freedoms. 

There is one other contributor to our success as a nation reflected in these debates: the fact that we rely on our government, through our elected representatives, to sort out these difficult issues. It did not have to be that way. Our country would be vastly different if the Framers had placed power in the hands of a single ruler, or given much less voice to the American people. As it is, though, the greatest secret to our success may not be that we get the balance among competing forces right all the time. Rather, it’s that we have, in Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary, a forum for deliberation in which every American can feel a stake. In a vast, diverse country, this ability to resolve our differences is what allows us to live together so peacefully, productively, and successfully. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)