America Was a Great Idea

Anarchists and libertarians are lofty people, bent on principle, stubbornly uncompromising even in the face of a real world that does not conform to such idealism. Or so we are told.

Ideas have done far more for advancing civilization, and setting it back, than these people give them credit for.

America was itself a great idea. Thirteen colonies, sold on the lofty ideal of self-determination, defeated the British empire and drove it out of their neighborhoods. They fought it off in the only conflict approaching a just war in American history. It was all an idea, see, that people had rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and not to be ruled by some inbred royalist reprobate named George three thousand miles away.

Hmmm. It's about three thousands miles from where I live to Washington , D.C. But I digress.

Unfortunately, the colonists didn't apply their great ideas very consistently. Although some among them in the revolutionary spirit of the time came to realize the evils of slavery, for example, these people were often shrugged off as too lofty, stubborn and idealistic. They edited the Declaration of Independence to erase the part that blamed slavery on the British (perhaps so as not to offend the Beltway).

Still, America was a great idea, was it not? For the time? Yes, the white land-owning colonists committed grave evils against American Indians, black Americans, and, by depriving them of equal rights under the law, women. But there was, in 1776, a sharp moment of clarity. No longer would a king be considered to have the divine right to rule the world.

Whatever happened to that idea? The United States seems to have abandoned it some time between the Spanish-American War and now, when it appears to be readying itself to conquer yet another Middle Eastern country.

Great Britain was a different idea. The British sure contributed great principles to Western Civilization. They gave us the Magna Carta, Common Law, and the Glorious Revolution. All of these were, for the most part, libertarian revolutions of one sort or another. On the other hand, the British had the most powerful, expansive and murderous empire in the world for much of its history. Look at the way the British state treated the indigenous peoples and colonial subjects of India , East Asia , Australia , and America . All the way into the 20th Century, the British systematically slaughtered innocent people throughout the world.

That is quite an interesting idea, that British empire . Relatively robust economic freedom, civil liberties and procedural rights for those at home, lots of rhetoric about civilizing and bringing freedom to the barbarians, and mass slaughter coupled with expansive imperial mercantilism.

Since when did America copy the British idea? Both the idea of America and that of Great Britain were problematic and had unlibertarian elements, but the first was based fundamentally in secession and decentralization, the second in centralism and empire. The first leads gradually to libertarian revolution from the bottom up. The second leads to world wars.

Anyway, it is clear how important ideas are. No state can stand up to powerful ideas, believed with conviction, by the masses. The American Revolution relied on the sword, but also the mightier pen. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. relied solely on the failure of state planning and the refusal of people to play along with the lie any longer.

America gave the world much hope, and was a source on inspiration that incited anti-imperialistic revolutions throughout the globe. Now the United States crushes such revolutions and calls it self-defense.

America was the origin of many wonderful notions, not the least of which culminated in abolition of slavery across the earth. Now the United States is the origin of so much of the world's grief.

America was a place of ideals, a country built on ideas and the first of such kind, a nation where people didn't get taxed into poverty, jailed for worshipping their God or doing business their own way, or hassled for their papers every time they saw a government official. Now the United States is the type of place people used to flee to come to America .

If the real America ever comes back, we need to get our ideas straightened out here. We need to be more principled and uncompromising in our dedication to liberty than the Founding Fathers, who had a great idea for what it was worth but attempted to mix it with slavery, taxation and national armies, thus poisoning the chance that America would develop along the lines of the libertarian side of their ideology, thus guaranteeing that it would devolve into a centralist imperial power.

America was a great idea, while it lasted, but it was also a flawed idea from the beginning. We need a better idea ' one rooted more purely and consistently in liberty, private property and peace ' if ever we will see America reverse its current trends and become as good as, and indeed better than, it once was.

Ideas are important. If an idea is right and proper, grounded in tolerance, freedom and peace, it will work when applied to the world. Principled ideas are the kind that causes change, and correct ones are the type that makes things better. Liberty must be our idea. One day it will catch on again in America and elsewhere as never before, but for it to happen we must be more than stubborn. We must be unrelenting.

Your rating: None
Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at His website is