Born American, but in the wrong place

People with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important. — P.J. O’Rourke

One of my favorite true stories is about a family who escaped Communist Hungary and immigrated to the United States. They had suffered first under the Nazis and then under the Communists. The father had seen his own father sent to a Communist gulag for the great crime of owning a small American flag.

The beginning of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 gave the family some hope that tyranny would finally be overthrown. But when the Soviets crushed the revolution just two weeks later, the father determined it was finally time to leave. The parents first decided to ask their children if they agreed. The son, Peter, responded, “With my father I am willing to go to hell.” Later he recounted, “My father informed me that our destination was not ‘hell’ – we were already there – but someplace rather its opposite: America.”

“Why are we going to America?” Peter asked. His father answered, “Because, son, we were born Americans, but in the wrong place.” That phrase, “born Americans, but in the wrong place” has always stuck in my mind.

America is not just a place; it is an idea. As Harry Truman said, “Being an American is more than a matter of where you or your parents came from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal.” Truman was echoing the words of Lincoln who believed that the statement in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” is the principle “that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

For most of 200 years – indeed for most of 400 years – people all over the world have known that America was the land of freedom, born on the idea that all men were created equal, and that all have a natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

When the Schramm family escaped to Austria they were given temporary asylum while various embassies interviewed them for permanent asylum. The man from the German embassy extolled the virtues of their welfare state. The Schramms would have an apartment, a car, and a guaranteed monthly income. William Schramm declined the German’s offer. He wanted the blessings of liberty in America.

The Schramms did make it to America – on Christmas Eve, 1956. After processing in New Jersey, they settled in California, where both parents immediately went to work doing manual labor. In two years, they had saved enough to open a small restaurant. The entire family worked at the restaurant, they thrived, and a few years later moved to a larger restaurant.

Like many Americans, the Schramm family started with nothing, worked hard, took advantage of the opportunities that freedom gave them, and they prospered. Son Peter loved to read; he studied, and eventually became a Professor of History, ironically teaching native-born Americans about America. He explains:

“I tell them that they are among the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them not only that their country is the most powerful and the most prosperous nation on earth, but also that it is the freest and the most just. Then I tell them how and why this is so. I teach the principles from which these blessings of liberty flow.”

Dr. Schramm’s words were written in 2007. Are we still the most prosperous nation? Millions of people have given up looking for a job. The labor force participation rate is the lowest since 1979. Poverty is the worst since the mid-1960s. Median family income is down for four straight years; the rich are richer and the poor are poorer. GDP growth is a paltry 1.7%. This is the worst recovery in 70 years.

Not coincidentally, the United States’ rank in the Index of Economic Freedom has dropped every year since 2006. We have fallen from “Free” to “Mostly Free”. Less freedom produces less prosperity, lower life expectancy, less happiness, and fewer human rights.

Income mobility has also worsened. Throughout our history, there are countless stories of Americans moving from rags to riches. Ordinary people had the freedom to do extraordinary things. People like Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and Steve Jobs started from humble beginnings and created entire industries .

Today, millions of kids are trapped in schools that are so corrupt and ineffective that half the children drop out before they graduate and half those who do graduate are functionally illiterate. They will never get a decent job or a shot at the American dream. Millions of other kids and adults are trapped in an entitlement system that keeps them on the edge of poverty. If they try to improve themselves, to learn skills, work longer, they lose benefits and end up worse off.

In the coming months we will talk about how good policies will lead to greater prosperity and greater opportunities for all. And we’ll talk about how bad policies are destroying jobs, keeping people poor, and killing any hope that they might do better.

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