It's a popular slogan, Trump's "Make America Great Again." It says that America was great, but is less great now, and that Trump is needed to restore the greatness. All in four words. Pretty smart. So I got to wonder: in what sense, and when, was America great?
If worldwide military and political power is the criterion, America has never been greater than it is now. As the 20th Century began it was one among several "great powers", including Britain, France and Germany. By mid-Century, two superpowers were left; the USA and the USSR. By its end, America stood alone; as predicted by von Mises, the lack of freely moving prices had caused the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to collapse. So what's the problem?
If economic success is the criterion, again America looks pretty healthy. It's a wobbly measure, but if countries are listed by GDP per capita, the USA ranks near the top; and the few that beat us are small countries in special situations, like Qatar, Bermuda and Monaco. What's not "great" about that?
Nonetheless, Trump has a point. There's a malaise in US society; people aren't as proud of their country as they used to be. The rest of the world may fear America, but no longer admires it. Once, a statue could be erected (largely at French expense) inviting the world to emulate American freedom; today, the world sees America as a bully and a spy. Half a century ago the US was seen as the savior of civilization, from the horrors of Nazism and its death camps, and as the source of European recovery; but no longer. A century ago, the US was seen as the cradle of innovation and enterprise; the light bulb, the airplane and mass production all had their origins here; not any longer. "Jobs are being exported" is the bleat, and while innovation is still booming, by one measure it's less than half what it was then.
This country was unique back in 1789, and arguably "great" on that account; a government was set up with deliberate limits on its power. That was unprecedented; in theory, people were superior to government. As I showed here that was a cunning pretense, but it was still unique. And the result was over a century of relative liberty, with many of the fruits of free enterprise resulting.
That century (the 19th, give or take a few years) was to my mind the nearest America has become to greatness. Huge numbers of immigrants brought their skills and helped grow the population from 5.4 million to 76 million (that is, by a factor of 14!); at the same time the portion of the population not engaged in growing food (one measure of prosperity) grew by seven times, from 6% to 40% while the real GDP per capita quadrupled, and at the same time, life expectancy rose from 40 years to 60. This is phenomenal; other countries prospered too, but not as much as in America. Relative freedom from government interference worked.
That, however, is only part of the story. The same century also saw the disastrous War to Prevent Secession, followed by an ominous growth in government funding and control of major industries; it saw the genocide of indigenous Americans, and the brutal suppression of blacks in the South even after the forced abolition of slavery. Those were all government acts - but governments were elected by the very same people as were making the country so prosperous. It's quite a paradox; but it does cast doubt on how "great" America was.
In any case, it's not clear that the greatness of 19th Century America is the kind to which Trump hopes to lead us back. The massive immigration of people and their skills which helped produce its prosperity would, under The Donald, come to a screeching halt; he says he'll get a wall built. The relatively small government of the era, by which it could not much impede that progress, he shows no sign of re-establishing; in real terms all government spends five times more now than then, yet the Trump tax plan will, he boasts, be "revenue neutral."
Here's how America will become really great, and it won't be "again", because it's never happened before, or not in the last ten milennia; government will vanish altogether, leaving everyone free to pursue happiness and wealth as we wish. The huge prosperity gains of the 19th Century, thanks to limited laissez faire, will but palely foreshadow the massive improvements of the 21st, when the shackles of government have been thrown off fully. Human potential will at long last be unleashed, in a wholly unprecedented tidal wave of progress.
How will government come to vanish? - when nobody will work for it. And how will everyone come to refuse to work for it? - when everyone understands its nature. And how will that universal understanding be acquired? - when everyone has studied the subject in a freedom school like TOLFA. And how will everyone come to take such a course? - when you, dear reader, take it yourself and bring one of your friends to do the same, each year.
That's how, and the process is as unstoppable as that of an avalanche.