Although there are few movies that I bother to see more than once, around this time of year my wife, Lisa, and I have seen, on many occasions, the Frank Capra movie: It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, has a run on the bank he owns due to a large sum of money that had been stolen from his uncle. He is in a state of despair and angrily leaves his wife (Donna Reed) and his children at home as he storms out of his house.
At the brink of ending his life, his guardian angel, Clarence, appears. George cries out that his life is worthless wishing he had never lived. Clarence grants his wish of never having been born. George then discovers what the town he grew up in, Bedford Falls, would have looked like without the good deeds he had done throughout his life. This is the essence of this film: The influences of one good soul instrumental to the well-being of the town and its people.
Counterfactual #1: Now let me apply this counterfactual to the existence or non-existence to America. I sometimes believe many of my fellow Americans believe the world would have been better if our country didn’t exist or existed in a different way. Let’s take the latter: Would the world have been better if the Spaniards and not the English settled in North America. I doubt it.
The Spanish civilization, at the top of the world in the 15th and start of the 16th century, never fully comprehended the banking system, introduced by the Medici Family, that spread to Northern Europe. The Spanish conquistadors fell in love with the metal, gold, they had plundered in what is today Latin America, not credit. Niall Ferguson, in his book the Ascent of Money, describes this by writing: “Now money represented the sum total of specific liabilities (deposits and reserves) incurred by banks. Credit was the total of banks’ assets (loans).” This allowed money to circulate on a much broader scale than previously.
Moreover, the corruption of the leaders in Latin America not only have helped destroy many natural resources, but has also led to rampant poverty. Americans are not crossing the border in hope of a better life, but rather foreigners from Latin America and many other parts of the world cross our borders in hope of a better life.
Counterfactual #2: If there had never been English colonists and explorers coming to America, how would the world look? I will not deny that the founders of this country treated neither Native Americans nor Blacks from Africa well. On the latter point, however, America’s forefathers did not create slavery. Since the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been an ugly part of humanity. What the founders did create was the concept of freedom and liberty where the people had the power to decide their fate rather than follow an autocratic leader. This system of governing was described by the visiting French Foreign Minister, Alex de Tocqueville, to America in 1835 and 1840. He saw in America a system of governing where individuals were able to act freely while respecting others’ rights in contrast to the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic rule.
George Washington, the first president of the United States, had no desire to retain his powers as head of the government, but he rather happily passed them on to John Adams. On the contrary, Washington eagerly returned to his life on his farm where he spent the rest of his days. The idea of authority being passed on through nepotism, that is one’s children or descendants, was never a part of America’s origins. Given the underlying foundation of a democracy (from the Greek word demos where the people elect their rulers), the accoutrements of power such as wealth and land, would reside not only in the hands of those elected to govern, but also in the people themselves. It was this feature of America that has attracted so many from different lands whose form of government did not permit upward mobility.
Counterfactual #3: I can’t imagine the world faring better in both World Wars without the participation of America. Moreover, the Marshall Plan, after WWII, allowed Europe, and, especially, Germany to rebuild in a much more peaceful milieu than ever previously. America has provided the much-needed cohesion that Europe and the rest of the world has needed.
As I mentioned, I do not wish to say that America has been perfect. The template of American governance has helped us maintain our country for almost 250 years. Let us hope that this grand experiment that had its birth in 1776 does not sink from the internal tensions that we presently encounter. It would be a great loss to the world if America drowned itself in the heated passions of its extremists. Let us not forget that although America has experienced brutal partisan battles in the past (e.g., Hamilton’s time), we have created new political parties and changed enough to maintain our democracy. I believe we can learn from the past, and still move forward, perhaps even as a stronger nation, in the future.