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What are we Actually Celebrating on the Fourth of July?

Updated on July 3, 2017

Land of the Rich and Home of the Basically Content

Since I have never lived in any other country, it is difficult for me to evaluate how good or bad it is to live in the United States in the year 2017. From what I can gather, I am very fortunate to be a middle-class American in the 21st century. When I say this, however, I am not primarily grateful for the freedoms that we Americans will (supposedly) be celebrating tomorrow on the Fourth of July. This lack of gratitude, of course, may come from ignorance. Since I have not lived in countries that have fewer freedoms, I am not in a position to appreciate what I have. Still, I know enough about the state of the world to say that the greatest benefits of living in the United States have far more to do with economics than with individual rights. In other words, this is a great place to live because we Americans are, on average, richer than the citizens of most other countries.

The simple fact is that individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law in general are able to take hold far more successfully in rich countries than in poor ones. Wealthy societies can afford the luxury of democracy. If the majority of people are doing fairly well economically, they are less likely to exercise their personal freedom and voting power in ways that disrupt the social order. But in poor countries, the only way to keep order and to maintain a system of rampant wealth inequality is for the powers that be to use brute force.

Many Americans, of course, would question the degree to which we truly have individual rights and democratically elected leaders who look out for the public interest. Poor people, ethnic minorities, gay people, women, and the disabled still seem to have limited rights. A nation that claims to be the global role model for democracy also leads the world in building weapons and incarcerating people, and many of our leaders seem to be influenced more by lobbyists and big financial donors than by the general voting public. And at the moment, we are led by a president who talks far more about law and order and the dangers of “fake news” than about individual rights.

But so long as most of us can get our hands on a smart phone and a flat screen, and the more prosperous neighborhoods are basically safe, I suspect that most Americans will continue to tolerate the limitations of our democracy. Given the low turnout rates at elections, it is clear that many Americans have either given up on the electoral system or are too busy working, shopping, and entertaining themselves to care. There are probably more Americans taking advantage of Fourth of July sales or getting their barbeques and fireworks together than pondering the principles on which the nation was supposedly founded. But if you look on the bright side, this apathy and contentment is a sign of our success. So long as American capitalism – which is truly our greatest contribution to the world – keeps humming along well enough, than most of us won’t cause any trouble. And tomorrow, as we watch stuff get blown up or put on our own (possibly illegal) fireworks display, we can raise our beers to the heavens and be thankful that we live in the greatest country on earth.

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