Progress is not foreordained. The key is freedom, – freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication. The renowned scientist, scholar, and founding father of Moscow State University, Mikhail Lomonosov, knew that. “It is common knowledge `that the achievements of science are considerable and rapid, particularly once the yoke of slavery is cast off and replaced by the freedom of philosophy.”
One of the first contacts between America and Russia took place when American explorers, members of Cook’s last voyage on an expedition searching for an Arctic passage came upon Russians on the island of Unalaska. The Russians took them in and together with the native inhabitants, held a prayer service on the ice.
The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, in a garage behind their home.
Some people look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste but others see a future, a chance at success. Some fail, many times, especially the success ones. but, if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; it’s what they learned from failing. Like an athlete in competition or a scholar in pursuit of the truth, experience is truly the greatest teacher.
That’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. There’s an old story about a town, it could be anywhere, with a bureaucrat who is known to be a good-for-nothing, but he somehow had always hung on to power. So one day, in a town meeting, an old woman got up and said to him: “There is a folk legend here where I come from that when a baby is born, an angel comes down from heaven and kisses it on one part of its body. If the angel kisses him on his hand, he becomes a handyman. If he kisses him on his forehead, he becomes bright and clever. And I’ve been trying to figure out where the angel kissed you so that you should sit there for so long and do nothing.”
Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every 4 years we choose a new President. During one election there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates, all trying to get a job. About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers, – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government , report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next President. But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections.
Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs, in many places, synagogues and mosques, and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that no government can justly deny; the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women — common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused.
Go to any university campus, and there you’ll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you’ll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them; the people’s right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police. Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law.
But freedom is more even than this. Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream, to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters. Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer.
America is a nation made up of hundreds of nationalities. Our ties to the Russian people are more than ones of good feeling; they’re ties of kinship. In America, you’ll find Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, peoples from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They come from every part of this vast continent, from every continent, to live in harmony, seeking a place where each cultural heritage is respected, each is valued for its diverse strengths and beauties and the richness it brings to our lives. . .
Freedom, it has been said, makes people selfish and materialistic, but Americans are one of the most religious peoples on Earth. Because they know that liberty, just as life itself, is not earned but a gift from God, they seek to share that gift with the world. “Reason and experience,” said George Washington in his Farewell Address, “both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. And it is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, un-intrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.
But I hope you know I go on about these things not simply to extol the virtues of my own country but to speak to the true greatness of the heart and soul of your land. . . Let me cite one of the most eloquent contemporary passages on human freedom. It comes, not from the literature of America, but from this country, from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Boris Pasternak, in the novel “Dr. Zhivago.” He writes: “I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threat, any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death, then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But this is just the point; what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel, but an inward music, the irresistible power of unarmed truth.”
Change does not mean rejection of the past. Like a tree growing strong through the seasons, rooted in the Earth and drawing life from the Sun, so, too, positive change must be rooted in traditional values — in the land, in culture, in family and community — and it must take its life from the eternal things, from the source of all life, which is faith. Such change will lead to new understandings, new opportunities, to a broader future in which the tradition is not supplanted but finds its full flowering. That is the future beckoning to your generation.
At the same time, we should remember that reform that is not institutionalized will always be insecure. Such freedom will always be looking over its shoulder. A bird on a tether, no matter how long the rope, can always be pulled back. . .
I think what is significant and different about our system is that every country has a constitution, and most constitutions or practically all of the constitutions in the world are documents in which the government tells the people what the people can do. Our Constitution is different, and the difference is in three words; it almost escapes everyone. The three words are, “We the people.” Our Constitution is a document in which we the people tell the Government what its powers are. And it can have no powers other than those listed in that document. But very carefully, at the same time, the people give the government the power with regard to those things which they think would be destructive to society, to the family, to the individual and so forth — infringements on their rights. And thus, the government can enforce the laws. But that has all been dictated by the people.
Excerpts from a speech at Moscow State University Lecture Hall, May 31, 1988, given by President Ronald Reagan