Sharing the Greatness of America
The moment I cleared customs at Russia’s Pulkovo airport, I became a rich man. Thanks to something I had secretly brought with me, I was wealthy beyond measure.
It’s great being rich. For the past two months, I’ve been living in the lap of luxury. My apartment is palatial: I have as much living space as any four Russians, with labor-saving devices they can only dream about. I eat fabulous meals for a pittance, and I hire the locals for things I could do myself just so I can spread some wealth around. For me, at least while I’m here, money is plentiful but time is scarce. For the Russians I hire, it’s just the opposite They have a lot less money than I do, and their daily experience standing in lines and dealing with bureaucracies tells them their time is worth nothing.
I didn’t get rich by bringing in anything illegal. Nor do I have any national security information that foreign governments will pay for. I am rich because my country has the world’s longest history of private property, wealth creation, democratic constitutional government, and the rule of law. I am rich because I am an American.
Bringing that legacy with you into a place like Russia drives home, in a way nothing else can, how incredibly, fabulously, mind-bogglingly wealthy America is. We may forget this from time to time, but the rest of the world does not.
Not too long ago, I had dinner at the home of a colleague. Most of the questions around the table were what my family’s daily life was like. I brought a picture book of Colorado as a gift; my friend’s 14-year-old son couldn’t put it down. After dinner, we looked at pictures of my home in Colorado Springs on my family’s web site. They asked me how many rooms my house had. When I had to stop and think, they laughed and said the answer wasn’t important. In a country where people live in one, two, or three-room apartments, it was obvious that, unintentionally, I had made a deeper point.
America’s wealth and power put us at the center of the world stage, in a way most Americans don’t always fully understand. Just as the success of individuals can provoke the envy and resentment of other people, so can the success of countries provoke the envy and resentment of other nations. Our wealth and success should be a source of national pride, and a model for other countries to aspire to. Instead, many countries locked in the iron grip of poverty and despotism see America’s promise as a mockery of their daily existence, the promise of a better life they can never have.
Fortunately, not all countries see things that way. The success of others can provoke envy, or it can inspire imitation and resolve to self-improvement. Just last week, the Russian Federation approved legislation permitting private individuals to buy and sell land, legislation that President Putin will soon sign into law. This is a tremendously important step, one that helps to create property rights in a country that had none.
Russia’s struggle to crawl out from damage of two brutal World Wars and the terrible legacy of socialism will not be finished overnight, but it has begun. In my own adopted city of St. Petersburg, signs of a renaissance are everywhere. Certainly the city’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2003 will be something to see.
If a country with Russia’s political and economic history can embrace property rights, capitalism, constitutionalism, and the rule of law, then any country can, even those that for now seem irrevocably hostile to America. Articulating that vision to the world’s Muslim poor will be our great national challenge when the war in Afghanistan is over. Long after al-Queada has been ripped up and cast to the winds, long after Osama Bin Laden has been removed from the picture, the cruel poverty of Afghanistan and other Third World countries will remain fertile soil for sowing fanatacism and hatred against America.
It absolutely vital that these countries establish the institutions that permit the creation of real wealth for their citizens, institutions that are America’s gift to the world. Unfortunately, most of these nations see private property, capitalism, church-state separation, and constitutionally limited government as instruments of the enemy, and therefore to be opposed at all costs. It will be hard to convince them otherwise.
Hard, but as Russia’s experience tells us, not impossible.