The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College’s 161st Commencement, held in the College’s Biermann Athletic Center on May 11, 2013.
Simply put, the American free market system is the greatest engine for prosperity and opportunity that the world has ever seen. Freedom works. No other nation on Earth has allowed so many millions to come with nothing and achieve so much. In the centuries before the American Revolution, the average human lived on between one and three dollars a day, no matter whether one lived in Europe, Asia, Africa, or North or South America. But from that point on—from the beginning of the American experiment—for the first time in human history, per capita income in a few countries began to grow rapidly, and nowhere more so than in the United States.
Over the last two centuries, U.S. growth rates have far outpaced growth rates throughout the world, producing per capita incomes about six times greater than the world average and 50 percent higher than those in Europe. Put another way, the United States holds 4.5 percent of the world’s population, and produces a staggering 22 percent of the world’s output—a fraction that has remained stable for two decades, despite growing competition from around the world.
This predominance isn’t new. The late British economist Angus Maddison observed that American per capita income was already the highest in the world in the 1830s. This is a result of America’s economic freedom, which enables entrepreneurs and small businesses to flourish.
Today the U.S. dollar is the international reserve currency. English is the world’s standard language for commerce. The strength of our economy allows us to maintain the mightiest military in the world. And U.S. culture—film, TV, the Internet—is preeminent in the world (although for many of our TV shows and movies, perhaps we owe the world an apology). A disproportionate number of the world’s great inventions in medicine, pharmaceuticals, electronics, the Internet, and other technology come from America, improving, expanding, and saving lives. America was where the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, and the iPhone were invented. Americans were the first to walk on the moon.
But most importantly, freedom produces opportunity. And I would encourage each of you to embrace what I call opportunity conservatism, which means that we should look at and judge every proposed domestic policy with a laser focus on how it impacts the least among us—how it helps the most vulnerable Americans climb the economic ladder.
The political left in our country seeks to reach down the hand of government and move people up the economic ladder. This attempt is almost always driven by noble intentions. And yet it never, ever works. Conservatives, in contrast, understand from experience that the only way to help people climb the economic ladder is to provide them the opportunity to pull themselves up one rung at a time.
As President Reagan said, “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they’re sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”
Historically, our nation has enjoyed remarkable economic mobility. About 60 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile in 1999 were in a higher quintile ten years later. During the same decade, almost 40 percent of the richest households fell to a lower quintile. This is a nation where you can rise or fall. It is a nation where you can climb the economic ladder based not on who you are born to, or what class you are born into, but based on your talents, your passion, your perseverance, and the content of your character.
Economic freedom and the prosperity it generates reduce poverty like nothing else. Studies consistently confirm that countries with higher levels of economic freedom have poverty levels as much as 75 percent lower than countries that are less free.
Thanks to America’s free market system, the average poor American has more living space than the typical non?poor person in Sweden, France, or the United Kingdom. In 1970, the year I was born, only 36 percent of the U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning. Today, 80 percent of poor households in America have air conditioning; and 96 percent of poor parents say that their children were never hungry at any time in the preceding year because they could not afford food.
Now, of course, there is still need in America and throughout the world, and all of us should act to help our fellow man. But more and more government is not the way to do this. To insist otherwise is to ignore the fact that all major European nations have higher levels of public spending than the United States, and that all of them are poorer.
Nor are human beings happiest when they’re taken care of by the state. Indeed, areas under the yoke of dependency on government are among the least joyous parts of our society. The story of Julia that we saw depicted in last year’s election—the story of cradle-to-grave dependency on government—is not an attractive utopia. Men and women flourish, instead, when afforded the equal opportunity to work and create and accomplish.
I remember some time ago when former Texas Senator Phil Gramm was participating in a Senate hearing on socialized medicine, and the witness there explained that government would best take care of people. Senator Gramm gently demurred and said, “I care more about my family than anyone else does.” And this wide-eyed witness said, “Oh no, Senator. I care as much about your children.” Senator Gramm smiled and said, “Really? What are their names?”