One of the most interesting things about Adam Smith's discussion of the wealth of nations in his book of that title is his look at contemporary examples of various countries. He divides the countries, in terms of wealth, into three categories, very, moderately, and not at all. The forefunner of our own country, the 13 colonies, is the example he chooses for the "not at all" category. His own country is the example of "moderate wealth", and, most surprising to me, was his selection of China as the example in the very wealthy category. I was surprised partially because I have always thought of China as being very poor. After all, as a youngster, I was always admonished to eat my vegtables with the information that children in poor countries would be terribly grateful to have such fare--unappetizing though it seem. If the countries of residence of these poor children were mentioned at all, it varied between India and China.
What surprised me most about Smith's discussion, is the fact that he makes it clear that he is perfectly aware of those starving children and still he lists the country as among the very wealthy. What makes his discussion most intriguing for me, is that in the three countries he has chosen as examples, wealth is inversely proportional to opportunity. Thus, in China, which is very wealthy, there is little opportunity and children in the lower classes suffer terrible privation. Children unwanted are simply put to death. In England, orphaned or abandoned children are taken care of, but barely. As I read his discussion, I could see in my minds eye, a picture of Oliver Twist pleading for "more gruel".
But most surprising was his discussion of our own country, or its forfunner, the American colonies. Here, he informs us, children were in such demand, that a widowed lady with a large number of children, but little else, was sought after in the same way that a widow with a fortune would be sought after in the other "wealthier" countries. In other words, our country, poor in other ways, was rich in opportunity.
One of the chief reasons given for this fact in history books is the availability of land. We were rich in opportunity, the reasoning is, because there was lots of available land. The fallacy of that argument is clearly seen in the fact that land was just as available in other parts of the world as it was here. The reality is, of course, that there never was, there is not now, and there probably never will be available land in exactly the sense that many of these historians convey the idea. It is easy for me, for example, to leave my comfortable home, or office; to travel up and down the freeway; to survey the buildings, the homes, and a few miles down the road, the mines, the farms, the orchards, and say to myself," all this land was available". But it was no more available when my great-grandfathers came here than the bottom of the ocean is available today. When they arrived, no one wanted this land. Not even the native Americans used it. Jim Bridger said he would give $1000 dollars--a present day equivalent of much much more, especially to Jim Bridger--for the first bushel of corn raised here.
The story is not much different for the rest of this country. We like to tell the story of the purchase of New York for a hand full of beads as an indication of how very available, very valuable, land was in this country. The reality was that it was available because it was not very valuable, even to the natives.
The reality is that we must look elsewhere to discover why there was in this land so much opportunity.
I suspect that one choice would be that our land had better government than most. My personal feeling is that it could, in a way, be said to have more government than most and that therein lies the key to opportunity.
A person could very well protest that compared with Europe and China, the America of Adam Smith's day could be said to have had very little government. The problem here, I believe, is that too often we confuse government with "the government". This is a confusion that is common in many different areas in our day. Hence, "labor" can mean, as it always has, "work","effort", or "diligence", or it can mean all the trappings, including the members, associated with labor unions. "Education" can mean "learning", discipline, and good manners or it can mean all the things associated with public schools. Fortunately, with the word government there is yet a distinction. When we speak of government as the way a society is ordered we use the single word, "government". When, on the other hand, we speak of the various means that are used to bring about order in society, we frequently use the expression, "the government". The latter refers to police and judges, lawyers and bureaucrats, buildings and machinery, weapons and tools. But government is the thing which all of these things are put in place to achieve. That is the thing, that in my opinion, America had more of than Europe and China. And therein lies the lesson.
I believe anyone looking around America today would recognize much of what Adam Smith says belonged to the "very wealthy" countries of his day, particularly China. The key here, and I think that this is critical, is that people who are not seen as having a guaranteed future are not particularly welcome. There is not the opportunity that we find Adam Smith describing. Immigrants are welcome only if they have a job skill we absolutely know we need. State and local governments throw out the welcome mat and offer bonuses and tax incentives to large, well-established, wealthy corporations; these same government entities use tax money for promotions and advertisements to attract wealthy residents and tourists; but most of them use every means at their disposal to discourage poor people or small struggling companies from coming into their jurisdictions. Worst of all, the infanticide which Smith said characterized the lack of opportunity in China, is very much with us in America. The homelessness we see in the England of Dickens, is also very much a part of the contemporary American scene. In short, the kind of wealth of opportunity that Adam Smith saw as characteristic of the American colonies is (or maybe already has) largely disappearing. I believe that the reason can be found in the lack of government.
In individuals we refer to government as self-government, or self control or self-discipline. This important quality in an individual creates opportunity. Lack of it quickly destroys opportunity. We have all heard of people who with very few personal resources in the ways of inherited wealth or good looks or remarkable intelligence or even good health or education are still able by dint of very careful governing of what few resources they did have to make remarkable contributions. On the other hand, we all know of individuals who have been blessed with abundant resources--have inherited large fortunes, or been very talented, or have been very attractive, and consequently, have seemed to have vast opportunites and yet have dissipated those opportunites by poor self-government.
One of the key differences in those who create opportunity for themselves by good discipline and those we speak of as being "dissipated" is the profound insight into the degree to which we are all personally responsible for so much that affects our lives. The dissipated seem to be full of excuses such as "someone else (sometimes even non-material beings such as extra-terrestrials or the devil are invoked for this purpose) made me do it" or "that's just the way I am", or "my family has always been that way".
Likewise, in states and nations, the chief ingredient for opportunity, it seems to me, is government. If there is government, then people can study the law and know that it will be enforced and direct their activities accordingly. On the other hand, if there is a weak government or no government, laws mean little and people are confused about what they can and cannot do. A great deal of energy and time are wasted in enterprises and undertakings that turn out to be not protected by law because there is none. This makes citizens of a nation reticent in making undertakings--they become passive.
A corollary to this is the fact that government is always very difficult. Self-government is, for the overwhelming majority of mankind, the most difficult task they can undertake. "He that ruleth himself is better than he that taketh a city" King Solomon is reported to have said--"or he that taketh a country", he might have added as the story of his own life, the life of his father, and the life of his father's predecessor all prove. The humility of King Saul, the courage of King David, and the wisdom of Solomon are proverbial, yet all three of these men failed in the critical task of self-government.
Likewise, the task of governing a group, a city, a state, or a nation is the most difficult task facing that group. The question of government is always the most critical.
But, you may say, if anything, the American colonies could be said to have hardly any government. They were, after all, as Adam Smith pointed out, poor--almost desperately poor. They simply could not afford much government. Europe, and apparently, China, on the other hand, were comparitively very wealthy. They could, and did, afford a great deal of governemnt.
The problem here, I believe, is the tendancy to confuse the thing with the agent, i. e., to confuse the government with the agent of the government. We are confusing the law and its enforcement with the various people, buildings, tools, and other means used to create and administer the law. In a word, we are confusing government with "the government".
The American colonies had very little of "the government", but it had a great deal of government. In his famous speech in parliament, trying to reconcile the Bristish government with its rebellious colonies, Edmund Burke tells us that amongst our forefathers, their chief passion was freedom, but it was a passion for freedom not grounded on any abstract formulation, but on the solid footing of law. He quotes General Gage as saying that all the people in the colonies are lawyers. Burke notes that in the American colonies there are as many copies of Blackstone--the standard law text of the day--as in Britain, although, the latter had many times the population and many many times more wealth. Compare that situation with our own day when ignorance of the law is almost as widespread as indifference toward it.
Their respect for law was such that if a law threatened to abridge a cherished right or freedom, they acted vigorously--even violently, at times--to have it changed. Even when they felt themselves forced into the ultimate illegal act--rebellion against "the government"--they sought justification in reference to a higher law. And it was that respect for law and government that kept the American revolution from becoming a riot followed by a tyranny, as happened in so many other countries.