It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?
There is, it must be admitted, an element of serendipity involved: the (primarily) British immigrants who created the United States of America had the good fortune to arrive in a land of abundant natural resources and little in the way of organized military opposition from other nation-states. As Indian tribes were defeated, the road to the West was opened and America could stretch from sea to shining sea.
But geography is not destiny. Russia, after all, experienced a similar expansion, in its case to the Wild Wild East, taking control of Central Asia and Siberia. Today Russia has more land and arguably greater natural resources than the U.S., yet it is a nation in inexorable decline, its anemic economy propped up by oil prices, its population in long-term decline.
What made the difference in America’s case? Quite simply, good government. The relatively minimalist government created by the Founders unleashed the animal energies of newly arrived immigrants and set them free to build a mighty economic behemoth in ways that no central planner could possibly have envisioned much less brought into being. The reason other large countries have not enjoyed similar good fortune comes down to governance.
This was a point that was brought home to me during a week of travel in India prior to my arrival in Nepal. India is blessed with a large land area and a massive population of 1.2 billion. Its people are in no way intrinsically inferior to those of the United States–in fact Indian immigrants are some of the most successful people in America.
And during a journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, most of it overland, I was constantly impressed by how hard Indians work for meager wages. Whether it was newspaper vendors getting up at the crack of dawn in Mumbai or a friendly taxi driver shuttling me all day in his beaten-up Ambassador sedan, the industriousness and intelligence of Indians was never in dispute. So why is it that India’s GDP per capita is $1,500 and America’s is $53,000?
Indians are free to blame the legacy of British colonial rule, yet the United States too was a progeny of the British Empire. Granted, Americans were able to rebel much earlier but that is in large part because of the American colonists’ greater unity as opposed to the divisions of India when the British arrived. Indeed British imperialists created the very concept of “India” which had never existed before, and left it with many valuable legacies from railroads to a civil service and a functioning democracy. You can still see the British legacy in cities such as Mumbai in crumbling buildings built in the early 20th century.
In any case India has been free of British rule for nearly 67 years—long enough for other once-impoverished nations such as South Korea to catapult into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest democracies. It is no secret why India has lagged behind: It has been the victim of terrible governance. For decades it adhered to fashionable socialist nostrums. More recently a succession of governments has tried to implement free-market reforms, only to be stymied by the inexorable bureaucracy.
Not long ago, the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy came out with a survey of bureaucracies in Asia. India ranked as by far the worst of the bunch. Worse than Vietnam. Worse than China. Worse than Indonesia. To say nothing of the top performers, Singapore and Hong Kong—both, coincidentally, also former British colonies. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “The report, which was based on over 2,000 surveys of employed residents and expatriates across Asia, blamed India’s poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and ‘fickle’ regulations for making business a ‘frustrating and expensive’ affair.”
I got a small taste for myself of what Indians have to endure when I applied for a visa at the Indian consulate in New York. The visa officer promised to have everything ready in four or five business days but those days came and went with no way to find out where matters stood—and my flight time drawing near. Only by talking to someone who knew someone was I able to get the visa in time. This is, I imagine, a universal experience in India where the bureaucracy functions so poorly that many people find themselves resorting to favoritism or corruption to get what they are legally entitled to get.
Goodness knows, American government bureaucracy is far from ideal. I get pretty frustrated when I deal with the Post Office. I can only imagine what people are going through trying to enroll in ObamaCare. But for all of the U.S. government’s myriad faults, it is considerably more responsive and accountable and less corrupt and inefficient than most other governments around the world.
So ultimately the story of America’s success comes down to the very thing we celebrate on July 4 but should more properly celebrate on September 17 (September 17, 1787, was the date the Constitution was signed): the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a government which has made it possible for the people of the United States to prosper. Other countries around the world are starting to figure out our formula and in some case to better it, but no other nation has been as well ruled for so long. That is why the United States is still perched, however precariously, as the No. 1 power in the world.