Stephens – Why America Still Comes Out on Top

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has an inspiring op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he wonders what a future historians will say to their students in 2050. Stephens writes that naturally the historian would mention the inventions of fracking, social media, and mobile technology, all of which were notably made in America while Americans themselves lamented how terrible they thought the world was.

Perhaps because I grew up as an American living abroad, I’ve always been struck by the disconnect between American achievement and self-perception. To this day I find it slightly amazing that, in the U.S., I can drink water straight from a tap, that a policeman has never asked me for a “contribution,” that my luggage has never been stolen, that nobody gets kidnapped for ransom, that Mao-esque political purges are conducted only in the editorials of the New York Times .

Try saying the same thing about everyday life in Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa—the so-called Brics countries once anointed by a Goldman Sachs guru as the economies of the future. 

On the topic of fracking, Stephens opines that the American Energy Revolution was not due to geographic luck or smart bureaucrats, but rather the unique freedoms afforded to American citizens:

The revolution happened in the U.S. not because of any great advantage in geology…[n]or, finally, did it happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. For the most part, they were obsessing about the possibilities of cellulosic ethanol and other technological nonstarters.

Instead, fracking happened in the U.S. because Americans, almost uniquely in the world, have property rights to the minerals under their yards. And because the federal government wasn’t really paying attention. And because federalism allows states to do their own thing. And because against-the-grain entrepreneurs like George Mitchell and Harold Hamm couldn’t be made to bow to the consensus of experts. And because our deep capital markets were willing to bet against those experts. …

Here, then, is the larger lesson our future historian will draw for her students: Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer, other than to administer, dictate and repress.

A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility, not hardness, is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.

This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead—even, or especially, when our presidents are feckless and our policies foolish.

Read Stephens full column at the Wall Street Journal.