The American Revolution Was a Flop
The new republic started advancing life and liberty by keeping a substantial part of its population enslaved. (This, at least, proves the frequent British put-down that Americans don’t have a sense of irony.) … .And if, as some scholars argue, the Civil War was the unfinished business of the American Revolution, then Americans — like the Russians — paid a very high human cost for their revolutions.
On to liberty. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that more than 2 million people were incarcerated in 2011; that includes federal, state and local prisoners, as well as those awaiting trial. To put that total into perspective, the International Centre for Prison Studies ranks the United States ranks first in the world in the number of prisoners per 100,000 residents. That’s well ahead of Canada (which ranks 136th) and even Russia. The U.S. incarceration rate for African American men, which is about six times higher than that of white men, according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, points to yet more unfinished business.
As for the pursuit of happiness, Americans are free to do just that — provided that they aren’t rotting in jail. But are they likely to find it? Most Americans work longer hours and have fewer paid vacations and benefits — including health care — than their counterparts in most advanced countries. Consider also that in the CIA World Factbook, the United States ranks 51st in life expectancy at birth. Working oneself into an early grave does not do much for one’s happiness quotient. This year the United States tied for 14th in “life satisfaction” on an annual quality-of-life study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Last Fourth of July, while I visited sweltering-but-beautiful Washington, I came across an inscription in the Jefferson Memorial in which the third president warned against allowing institutions to calcify: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . . [W]ith the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”