If you enjoyed Rick Henderson’s recent presentation on Thomas Sowell’s classic tract, A Conflict Of Visions, you might appreciate Steven Greenhut‘s post-Independence Day column for Reason.

There are two basic visions of society. In the one that dominated human societies throughout most of history, a small group of people impose their will on everyone else by the threat of violence. Submit or be imprisoned, re-educated, killed or expelled. The leaders have unlimited and ultimate authority, although such governments vary by degree of awfulness. Not every authoritarian system is run by Khmer Rouges or Visigoths.

In the other vision, all people – by the nature of their birth – have fundamental rights. The government’s only job is to protect those rights. The State is designed to serve as a referee to assure that people don’t rob, defraud or otherwise harm others; to sort out the inevitable disputes that result given the human condition; and perhaps to provide some services (i.e., infrastructure) not easily provided by the private sector.

Those who are unduly critical of American society are missing the key point. Of course, the founding fathers were hypocritical and human. Of course, our society falls short of its ideals. Of course, we no longer are really free. Try to defy the government’s edicts and you will feel no safer than Edward Snowden, the asylum-seeking (Venezuela or Russia anyone?) former defense contractor who had leaked embarrassing documents about NSA spying programs.

But looking at the course of human history, it has been the rarest society that has tried to follow the second course. Why does the United States remain among the most prosperous and harmonious nations on Earth? It’s not because of the IRS, ObamaCare, the FBI or any other government agency or program. It’s because of the free-market system, combined with a political system that checks and balances the power of the authorities. This is such a sure-fire creator of wealth and happiness that we do well even running on its fumes.