Throughout the history of mankind, people and nations have sought to accumulate wealth. Brutal wars have been waged for the purpose of conquering territory and seizing resources. Great stores of precious minerals and gems have been hoarded by kings. Vast amounts of cash have been piled high in vaults or credited to bank accounts. And huge monuments to the wealth of their civilizations have been erected by nations in and around their cities: the pyramids of Egypt, the castles, palaces and villas of Europe, the skylines of London, New York and Chicago, and countless lavish cathedrals, temples, mosques and shrines in nearly every country in the world.
But what is the real wealth of a nation? Of what use to a nation are trinkets of gold and silver? Or even vast material resources? There is one kind of wealth that every nation has close at hand, if only it knows how to tap into it. All other wealth everywhere springs from and is formed by use of this one source. Because everything of value — every single thing that we use or ever can use or possess anywhere in the physical world — is made from ultimately nothing more than the dirt in the ground and the light from the sun plus this one tremendously powerful and extremely abundant source:
A nation’s greatest asset is the unfettered minds and hearts of its people.
The combined creative intelligence of the individual members of a country’s populace, combined with their desire to have things that they value and to make a better life for themselves and for their children, is the most powerful source of wealth that any nation could possibly possess.
The fundamental unit — the atom — of human society is the individual human being. And the driving force of human progress is, basically by definition, the individual human mind with all of its appetites and ambitions combined with its intelligence and creativity. Everything that society has ever accomplished has had its roots and beginning as a thought within the mind of an individual, has been driven by desire, and has flowed forth into accomplishment by the exercised creativity of the human mind.
Individual freedom of thought and constructive activity combined, where necessary, with voluntary free association and collaboration with fellow human beings is of paramount importance in maximizing human progress. Leaders and governments who restrict freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to collaborate, and freedom of their citizens to create and to control their own goods or property, usually, ironically, supposedly “for the good of The People,” are, in reality, not only limiting the few who may excel at the creation of wealth, but are also harming the well-being of the less wealthy of their citizens, often with devastating effect. And, regardless of certain governments’ efforts to impose their own economic and social doctrines and limit people’s ability to explore new thoughts and ideas, these efforts at suppression are always bound, ultimately, to fail. On the other hand, when individual people are allowed to freely associate and create for themselves, generally the entire society benefits.
A Great Experiment
Does anyone even remember the Berlin Wall anymore? And more importantly, how many people who are alive today know who built it and to what purpose and under what circumstances? The answer to these questions regarding the public consciousness of today may be shocking to those of us who lived through the “Cold War” and who remember and understand some of the struggles of that era and the reasons behind those struggles. A recent survey in Russia indicated that almost half of the people in that country don’t know that it was Soviet Russia who built the wall in 1961 in order to stop the flood of people from escaping Soviet oppression in Germany. And anyone who is under the age of 30 today was not even born yet when German citizens finally pulled the wall down in November of 1989. The memory of this great event is fading quickly into the oblivion of apathy among the modern generation in America, Russia, and the world.
The Berlin Wall was an icon of totalitarian oppression. But we can also look upon it as a primary tool in one of the largest social experiments ever performed. Let’s look at this lesson from history:
At the end of World War II, Germany was divided by the victorious allies between an eastern territory governed by Soviet Russia and a western territory which was initially governed in sections by England, France, and the United States. The eastern territory continued under direct Soviet authority while the area of the three western sections was shortly left to govern and develop itself as its people saw fit. Thus, one of the greatest experiments in sociology ever devised was inadvertently created: An entire country of people with a common heritage was divided into two groups to live and develop under two different systems.
The group in the West lived with relative individual freedom. The group in the East lived under a tightly controlled system that was strictly engineered from the top down supposedly “for the good of the people.” It would be hard to imagine building better scientific control into a large-scale social experiment.
In short, West Germany, with its system of relatively greater personal and economic freedom, flourished and became one of the great economic powers of the last half of the twentieth century, while East Germany, languishing under a system of governmental central control, struggled to maintain anything resembling a decent standard of living. During this time, into the 1980’s, people who escaped from Eastern Europe marveled at such things in the West as grocery stores where such an abundance and variety of products were made available to ordinary citizens of the relatively more free societies.
Before the building of the wall three and a half million people had fled from East Germany to the West in the fifteen years between the end of World War II and 1961 when the Soviets decided that they had to stem the flow. Why? Because of the Soviet Communist regime’s limitations on personal freedoms. The so-called “People’s Revolution” in Eastern Europe resulted in the implementation of a system of State control over most goods and services and depended very heavily upon the limitation of the people’s right to create and control things of their own. This tight control over the economy, in turn, depended greatly upon a heavy oppression of the people’s ability to think for themselves and to freely express their thoughts. Harsh punishments were put in place for anyone who criticized the system.
The numbers of people escaping from Soviet Eastern Bloc countries was so great that a new term, “brain drain,” was coined for the phenomenon because it was especially the intelligent and highly motivated people who pulled up their roots, left their long-established homeland, and went in search of better opportunities and more freedom of expression elsewhere.
And the same thing can be seen wherever and whenever there has been a severe limitation put on individual freedoms: Cuba, North Korea, China, Soviet Russia. After the Vietnamese Communists (with Soviet assistance) won the war between the north and south in Vietnam, hoards of people escaped that country on boats. Many came to America with nothing but the clothes they were wearing in search of the personal and economic freedom that has been this country’s trademark since its founding.
Freedom: a Source of Prosperity
Other countries have a national pride based on the accomplishments and/or traditions of people of their particular local ethnic heritage. The United States of America, as a nation, has no such thing. It cannot. Our strength does not derive from a particular ethnic heritage. America’s strength and real source of pride comes from the combined creative ability of people who have come here from literally all over the world to collectively create and live within a system of government and traditions that promotes the free expression of their own individual creativity.
The success, economic and otherwise, of the United States, and the vision that we call the American Dream, is a testament, not to the heritage of a particular race or specific set of people, but to the principle of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of association that we have built into the ideals and even the written laws of our society.
And so it is true with people all over the world: Where countries have transitioned from systems of central control to more individual freedom of expression, the economic success of the country has soared. For example, after World War II, Japan was required by the United States in the conditions of surrender to transition away from an Imperial government to one in which the people were given more freedom of expression and participation in the government. (Specifically, the Potsdam Declaration required “strengthening of democratic tendencies” along with “freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought” for the Japanese people.) The result has been an economic boom for Japan ever since then as the people of that nation learned quickly to enter the world market and excel with their own creativity.
Society’s power over itself
But it is not only government tyranny that can provide fetters and chains for the minds and hearts of a society. People often prove all too willing to encumber themselves in all sorts of unnecessary and irrational ways.
Bigotry, prejudice, and undue bias in our judgments of people and conditions and in our actions toward them place severe limitations upon not only those with whom we interact but upon ourselves. The very definition of prejudice means that it is an irrational act, as it is a ‘pre’-judging of a person or situation before we have sufficient reason to build an informed judgement. When we act with undue bias toward others, we also degrade and limit our own perspectives on life, and therefore our expression of our own human potential. And thus, in the combined effect, society as a whole suffers.
Just as detrimental in their effect upon ourselves and our society are apathy, sloth, and a sense of unappreciative entitlement to the abundance that our modern world has been able to build. Many historians tell us that such complacency was a large contributing factor to the downfall of Rome. Its people became too accustomed to their well-ordered and prosperous society and so became lazy and lax in their appreciation for what they had accomplished. Without diligence a republic becomes corrupt, and after corruption comes collapse.
You are that power
So we owe an obligation to the world around us to appreciate, to promote, and even to protect the creative potential within individual human beings in our society, to provide an environment in which we can all use our individual creative ability to reach higher tomorrow than we are today. But most of all we each need to look within ourselves. Because that is the beginning of it all: the empathy and compassion, the intelligence understanding, the courage and strength — in short, the combined creative capacity of each individual human being, are the real wealth of any society. Within your own self is the well-spring of the fountain of Life for that intricate structure of people, ideas, feelings, and things that we call our modern human civilization.