The America We Lost
by Mario A. Pei
When I first came to America in 1908, I learned a new meaning of the word "liberty" -- freedom from government.
I did not learn a new meaning for "democracy." The European country from which I came, Italy, was at that time as "democratic" as America. It was a constitutional monarchy, with a parliament, free and frequent elections, lots of political parties, and plenty of freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly.
But my native country was government-ridden. A vast bureaucracy held it in its countless tentacles. Regardless of the party or coalition of parties that might be in power at the moment, the government was everywhere. Wherever one looked, one saw signs of the ever-present government--in the uniforms of numberless royal, rural, and municipal policemen, soldiers, officers, gold-braided functionaries of all sorts. You could not take a step without government intervention.
Many industries and businesses were government-owned and government-run--railroads, telegraphs, salt, and tobacco among them. No agreement, however trivial, was legal unless written on government-stamped paper. If you stepped out of the city into the country and came back with a ham, a loaf of bread, or a bottle of wine, you had to stop at the internal revenue barriers and pay duty to the government, and so did the farmers who brought in the city's food supply every morning. No business could be started or run without the official sanction of a hundred bureaucrats.
Young people did not dream of going into business for themselves; they dreamed of a modest but safe government job where they would have tenure, security, and a pitiful pension at the end of their plodding careers. There was grinding taxation to support many government functions and the innumerable public servants. Everybody hated the government--not just the party in power, but the government itself. They had even coined a phrase, "It's pouring--thief of a government!" as though even the evils of nature were the government's fault. Yet, I repeat, the country was democratically run, with all the trapping of a many-party system and all the freedoms of which we in America boast today.
Freedom from Government
America in those days made you open your lungs wide and inhale great gulps of freedom-laden air, for here was one additional freedom -- freedom from government.
The government was conspicuous by its very absence. There were no men in uniform, save occasional cops and firemen, no visible bureaucrats, no stifling restrictions, no government monopolies. It was wonderful to get used to the American system. To learn that a contract was valid if written on the side of a house; that you could move not only from city to the country but from state to state and never be asked what your business was or whether you had anything to declare; that you could open and conduct your own business, provided was a legitimate one, without government interference; that you could go from one end of the year to the other and never have contact with the national government, save for the cheery postman who delivered your mail with a speed and efficiency unknown today; that there were no national taxes, save hidden excises and import duties that you did not even know you paid.
In that horse-and-buggy America, if you made an honest dollar, you could pocket it or spend it without having to figure what portion of it you owed the government or what possible deductions you could allege against that government's claims. You did not have to keep books and records of every bit of income and expenditure or run the risk of being called a liar and a cheat by someone in authority.
Above all, the national ideal was not the obscure security of a government job, but the boundless opportunity that all Americans seemed to consider their birthright. Those same Americans loved their government then. It was there to help, protect, and defend them, not to restrict, befuddle, and harass them. At the same time, they did not look to the government for a livelihood or for special privileges and handouts. They were independent men in the full sense of the word.
Foreign-born citizens have been watching with alarm the gradual Europeanization of America over the past twenty years. They have seen the growth of the familiar European-style government octopus, along with the vanishing of the American spirit of freedom and opportunity and its replacement by a breathless search for "security" that is doomed to defeat in advance in a world where nothing, not even life itself, is secure.
Far more than the native-born, they are in a position to make comparisons. They see that America is fast becoming a nineteenth-century-model European country. They are asked to believe that this is progress. But they know from bitter experience that it just isn't so.
This essay appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on July 31, 1952.
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