I grew up in Poland, when it was a part of the Soviet Bloc. In my late teens I frequented a discussion group that our priest organized for youngsters. I recall that on a few occasions the priest looked at me with disbelief, saying that my views and my way of arguing were so American. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he might have, as he had just returned from a two-year trip to Chicago. While at college, during a public meeting with a local politician, I asked a challenging question. This triggered a flood of tough questions from others. I got in trouble for igniting political turmoil. Someone pretending to be my friend took me aside and advised me that I had behaved as if we were in America. “This is Poland, not America,” he said. There were more incidents of this kind, and I remember them so vividly, as I was puzzled. At that time, I spoke no English, and my knowledge about the United States of America was superficial.
It was a few years later, when reading a Polish translation of “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville, I figured it why I was called an American despite the fact that I had never left Poland and spoke no English. I realized that America is not a country like any other, but a concept of a society where men are free from government coercion.
Growing up, I read a lot about Polish history. Most Westerners do not know that for almost 500 years (circa 1300 to 1795), medieval Poland (since 1569, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) was a democracy of nobles with a very weak central government, with kings elected similarly as presidents in the United States now, with unprecedented religious tolerance, and with civil liberties enjoyed by a much larger part of the population than in most major European countries at that time. From this background I arrived with a very American concept that a man should be free from government coercion; I did not like that coercion when growing up in Poland and it was obvious for me that I should act on my impulses.
In this context, when reading “Democracy in America,” I shared with Alexis de Tocqueville the fascination with the United States that he experienced during his visit there in 1831. I liked his observation that having a very few regulations in America is much better than having detailed rules as was the case in most European countries. He acknowledged that a smart rule can eliminate a lot of loss and can expedite progress, but always at the cost of losing unknown benefits from the creativity of individuals who are deprived, by regulations, of the ability to act on their own. We might never know what is better. It is much worse when a rule proves wrong, as for long time the whole affected society is doomed by it. But the worst part of it is that when establishing a new rule, most often we cannot envision all the unintended consequences. After all, no democracy establishes rules with bad intentions; however, I bet that almost everyone can name at least one law that results in more damage than benefits. In America, as seen by de Tocqueville, what was not banned was allowed, and very few things were banned. This created a permanent buzzing within the American society as human creativity has no limit. From this noisy hustle, often perceived by Europeans as chaos, the wealth and power of the U.S. emerged.
I nodded as well when de Tocqueville observed that in the centrally regulated society, people, in order to achieve their life goals, need to petition the administration for permissions and money. Hence, their energy goes into competing with others for these limited resources. In America, as seen by de Tocqueville, the administration had no money to distribute and no permissions to give; hence, Americans were joining each other, multiplying their wealth with no limits.
When 30 years ago I arrived in the United States, I was flabbergasted how easy life was here. So few documents required, so many things I could do without permission, and police were giving me written warnings for minor traffic infractions. So much has changed since then and quite often I find myself dealing with the same kind of bureaucratic nonsense that I remember so well from Poland 30 years ago.
I met many Americans sharing my understanding of America as the union of the free people. In this approach the American exceptionalism is not in what the previous generations achieved by building the economic and military superpower, but in how they did it. It is in the liberties that Americans enjoyed pursuing their ideas, hardly restricted by the government. In this line of thinking the greatness of the nation arrives from the individual achievements of its free people, not from what the government does on behalf of American citizens.
Americans sharing this vision of the United States as the union of people freed from government coercion feel obligated to nourish this concept, as they see it as the best for the prosperity of the nation, as it has been in the past. They feel powerless facing a noticeable shift, when meaningfully many Americans claim that their abilities to achieve their life goals require some form of government action. The government is asked to issue myriad regulations and finance countless noble causes. It could be as petty as taxi drivers wanting the government to protect them from the competition of Uber. It could be as noble-sounding as demands for legislating a higher minimum wage so everyone working full time has a livable wage. It could be as essential as putting government in charge of our health care. It could be as high-profile as giving government the power to decide which foreigner can be allowed to come and work here, for whom and for how long. Americans advocating for this approach do not mind relinquishing some of their liberties in exchange for government-provided guarantees of better employment, better living conditions, better health care, better education and many other things. Or, just for the promise of the government doing so. In this line of thinking the greatness of the nation arrives from what the government does for and on behalf of its subjects.
In the America that fascinated de Tocqueville, if there was a problem or an opportunity, when a group of Americans recognized that something should be done, they organized themselves around the issue and pursued their objectives with very little or no government involvement. In the America that we have now, when Americans recognize that we should do something about a problem or an opportunity, most often it means petitioning the government to issue a new law, to allocate resources to do it, and to assign an apparatus of coercion forcing opponents of the new law to obey it. In America, as seen by de Tocqueville, Americans enjoyed their lives by doing freely what they deemed important to them. This concept of America is gradually being replaced by the idea of Americans empowering government to do what is important to them, so they can enjoy life by watching TV or having a barbeque.
It does not work. The more government is asked to do, the more lobbyists can buy; no wonder, then, the political class is criticized the most in the pre-election speeches. Americans do not trust the wealthiest among themselves, the proverbial 1%. Curbing the power of the rich is behind many government actions mandated by the so-called average Americans. Empowering politicians to protect the masses from the presumed illicit intentions of the wealthy could work only if politicians were made from different clay than the rest of us.
Disgusted with the inefficiency of the political class some look to outsiders. The high popularity ranking of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and, recently, Carly Fiorina reflect this trend. Others rightfully predict that, once elected, outsiders soon will become a part the political class. Frustrated, they look for more drastic options. The recent opinion poll by YouGov found out that to 29% of Americans can imagine supporting the U.S. military taking over the powers of the federal government. That number goes up to 43% “if elected leaders of the federal government began to violate the Constitution.” As this phrase is a canon behind every military coup, we can safely assume that close to half of Americans see the solution of our problems not by returning to America as it had been seen by Alexis de Tocqueville, but by going in quite the opposite direction.
If we agree that the coming election might be the one shaping the nation’s future, maybe instead of the candidates being questioned, regular Americans should be. Maybe every American should be asked: What is the United States to you? Is it the country that fascinated de Tocqueville, where people act on their own volition, do not expect the government to help and want it to stay away as well? Or, is it the country that it is becoming now, where people do not mind relinquishing many of their liberties in exchange for the promise of the government taking care of their most important matters and providing dignified living conditions for everyone? But most of all, do you know the difference?
A version of this text was published by Huffington Post