Editors note: During the author’s 2008 and 2013 military deployments to Afghanistan, he observed free markets in their primitive state. He saw what America had been and what Afghanistan is today.
In this third-world country, the free market existed naturally. It wasn’t a government program or stimulus plan. Through war and political unrest, foreign invasions, tyranny, and the Taliban, the only constant for Afghans was commerce and free trade.
No other institution was able to sustain and support the peoples of Afghanistan, which for centuries had been the crossroads of commerce and empires.
That Which We Obtain Too Cheap, We Esteem too Lightly
THANKSGIVING, NOVEMBER 28, 2013 – KABUL, AFGHANISTAN
By Reggy Sternes
As I enjoy Thanksgiving with my combined and joint team in Afghanistan, I am thankful for being an American. We’re such a wonderful country! For us who’ve served in the armed forces, we know it is often an unthankful job. Ask ten Americans and I wonder if even one would know the U.S. is still fighting a war in central Asia. Fortunately, many of our youngest neighbors remember us and show their appreciation. I love the cards and letters we received from elementary school children. These letters really do warm one’s heart. I also appreciate the care packages from the Blue Star Mothers!
A Republic If You Can Keep It
I wonder if the people of Afghanistan are thankful for the blood and treasure spilled for their country? In 2014, our mission in Afghanistan changes from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support. We’ll transition from combat to exclusively advise and assist. In the coming years, I wonder if Afghans will understand the gift the U.S., NATO, and its Coalition partners gave this country.
When I first deployed, we dispensed money just to keep locals from joining the Taliban and fighting us. At that time, the going rate for non-skilled labor was $3.00 per day! The mission of the Reconstruction Teams was, essentially, to spend money to help the economy and employ Afghans. The Afghan stimulus plan is just another Keynesian-styled stimulus plan, one that requires more than $20 billion per year to sustain—and one that may never be self-sustaining by the Afghans. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but we’ve made Afghanistan dependent on outsiders. I’m scheduled to begin redeployment on Christmas day—something else I’m thankful for! During my two deployments, I will have spent a total of twenty months in Afghanistan—first in 2008 and 2009 and the again in 2013.
During the months spent here, I saw many things which will stay with me forever—the horrors of war and the loving bonds of family, the poverty of begging children and the kindness of our Afghan partners and strangers. It is a society of huge contradictions. It’s been battered by decades of war, Marxist-Communist rule, Taliban cruelty, and a violent insurgency and terrorism following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Its economic system was free market oriented under the Greeks, Romans, Mongolians, and the British. It was a collective, communist-socialist economy under the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) in the 1970s and 1980′s and today it’s a market oriented economy.
After America’s Revolutionary War, at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia it is recorded that Mrs. Powell asked Benjamin Franklin, “…what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, without hesitation, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We’ve given Afghanistan an enormous
opportunity—if they can eventually stand on their feet without aid. We’ve given them a new start and a republic… if they can keep it.During my first tour there, I mentored and advised the Afghan National Police, in Herat Province. On one mentoring mission, I asked a police colonel what the difference between the Soviet Union occupation and the American presence was. He told me, “The Americans are trying to rebuild us. They are helping us.” Contrast that with the Soviet massacre of 25,000 in Herat City, after an uprising and mutiny of Afghan Army troops—unfortunately, just one of the atrocities under the Soviet Union and later Taliban rule.
American Exceptionalism Versus Crony Capitalism
America is a very advance country. It’s the envy of most of the world and its economic, social, and political system made it the exception, especially at the time of its founding. Today, the U.S. struggles to grow out of The Great Recession. When I compare these two countries, I see in Afghanistan what America used to be. I see hope, opportunity, and an economy conducive to free enterprise. In America, I see what political infighting, central planning (by regulation), economic tinkering, and crony capitalism has done. I see well-meaning people embrace socialism, the same system that fell the Soviet Union and caused so much misery for its people. A system that plagued Afghanistan.
Instead of fixing the greatest system ever devised by man, many would prefer to “fundamentally” change it—one of President Obama’s 2007 most used campaign promises (Ref. 1, 2). Instead of fixing the system that guarantees individual rights, one that lifted more people out of economic disparity than any system known to man, they lean on a failed socialist, collective ideals. Ideals that sound wonderful in theory but fail upon implementation, as liberty is sacrificed for the heavy hand of of the collective. It simply destroys what we all desire the most, freedom and independence.
America was exceptional because of its people, according to Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 text, Democracy in America. (Ref. 3, 4) A Frenchman, Tocqueville, traveled and observed America’s young republic during the early industrial revolution. When comparing the US to the aristocratic order of Europe, he said, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” This quote underscores the importance of the morality (ethics) within the American spirit and why capitalism worked so well here. I contend that we are still good and so are our businesses, because good Americans create and own good businesses. Remember, the free market is self-correcting: If businesses are not honest and use decent in their dealings, customers will not buy from them; and if they fail to create value, bankruptcy follows. However, corporate excesses and scandals often lead news headlines—treating these problems as if the entire free market system is at fault. I mentioned crony capitalism earlier. It and free markets could not be more divergent.
The “crony” part of capitalism involves political favors by politicians for campaign contributions in return for government contracts, and monopolistic privilege and exemptions form regulations—all which conspire to manipulate markets for money, and money for power. This is the side effect of large government and its intrusions. This political corruption gives free market capitalism (to some) a bad name. They blame the goose, instead of the farmer who is slowly killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Symptoms Versus the Disease
In Afghanistan, the people initially embraced the Taliban because it promised to clean up corruption. Afghans were willing to try almost anything to stop bribery, disorder, and the special privilege of the politically-connected “aristocrats” who held power. (Ref. 5) Like all people, they wanted
The Afghans are a religious people and 68-percent of them are illiterate (Ref. 9): two things that allowed a deceptive idea to take shape. They gave blind faith to something they knew very little about because of their desperate condition. They gave faith to the propaganda, instead of discernment. In America, we are almost as frustrated. We see declining wages, higher taxes, and politicians that promise one thing and deliver another. We see corporate executives earning tens of millions of dollars per year, while workers on the line make $15 to $20 per hour. We sense the inequality and the privilege of the rich.stability and the rule of law, so they allowed the Taliban to take power, just as the Russians embraced the Communist in 1917 (Ref. 6, 7) and the Germans embraced the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazis) in 1933 (Ref. 8). Afghanistan, like the Russians, Germans, and others, who believed the propaganda of their time, fell victim to totalitarianism.
In the 1920s, the Russians and Eastern Europe were convinced Karl Marx had the solution to this ageless problem. Until recently, America wasn’t plagued with this illness. Our constitution constrained the powers of the Federal government and The People were sovereign—that is until the early 20th Century, when Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and others cast aside limited government for progressivism. (Ref. 10) As politicians slowly sidestepped the limits on government and threw off the reins of the Constitution, crony capitalism began to infiltrate our government and economy more and more. Eventually, two major forms of capitalism came to exist: cronyism and free market. Crony capitalism is a disease as old as society. But, just because a corporation is big doesn’t mean it’s the crony type. However, once a business reaches a certain size, politicians pressure them to pay and play.
One central theme of the 1917 Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution—however; they blamed the symptom (crony capitalism) instead of the disease (corrupt government). (Ref. 11, 12) What emerged was almost four generations of failed Communist central planning and authoritarian rule. Americans are losing trust in their elected officials. For many, that’s why they placed so much hope in Barack Obama’s presidency. However, despite his promises for “hope and change,” few have retained their faith in Congress or the president. Congress’s approval rating was 9.1 percent in the Real Clear Politics Poll (November 21, 2013) (Ref. 13), and President Obama’s approval rating was 38 percent (November 26, 2013) (Ref. 14) —if one takes the glass-is-half-empty view, then 91 percent and 62 percent of Americans do not have a favorable opinion of Congress or the president. Given these dismal pole ratings, it is obvious the People crave hope and change. However, what will Americans embrace next? Will they blame the disease or the symptoms, like so many other nations? Will they blame the farmer or the goose?
America was exceptional because it devised a system of government that prevented concentration of power in to the hands of one or few. We have to thank British King George III for that! Unfortunately, we’ve neglected to uphold our original form of limited government. We’ve allowed our representatives to alter the balance of power and redefine the scale and influence of the federal government. As government constraints weakened, politicians and the corruptible saw ways to grow power and wealth—an affliction that eventually infects every form of government. It took 150 years for crony capitalism take hold; and then another 50 years for voter cronyism to take shape. Tocqueville also observed that, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” (Ref. 15) Isn’t this just another way to say, cronyism. What do you think? Are we at “the day” which Tocqueville warned us about?
Communist Adopt Capitalism
The parallels between the America, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan highlight the important differences between liberty and socialism. Despite being an enormous country with almost unlimited resources, Communist Russia could not feed itself. Even though it imported tons of food, its centralized planning and distribution system could not balance demand with supply (Ref. 16, 17). In America, our stores are well stocked and we expect to find what we want—bread, eggs, gain, pop tarts, soap, it’s always there—and it’s all balanced by the invisible hand of free markets. In the USSR, citizens waited in lines for hours to receive their daily ration. During this same period, America fed, clothed, and manufactured goods for the entire world, including the USSR. The contrast is daunting.
In Afghanistan, if I want something all I have to do is go shopping. I remember waiting months for the US Army supply system to provide basic office supplies. For example, we once waited three months to receive toner for our laser printer. In frustration, I asked an Afghan merchant if he could get it for us. He told me he didn’t have it in stock but he could have it in a week. At the local bazaar, one could buy DVDs, cell phones, computer parts, exquisite rugs, shoes, precious metals, food, soap, anything. Think about it: the US Army supply system is probably the best government logistics system on the planet, but somehow this local Afghan businessman could provide better and timelier resupply.
Inalienable Rights and Frogs
In Afghanistan, all they want from their central government is safety and streets. For the rest, they rely on their family, tribe and church (mosque)—something Americans used to depend upon before the start of the Progressive Era of the early 1900s and the growth of government intrusion since then. In America, most of us strive to get a good education, so that we can get a good paying job and take care of our families. We expect to be employees. Fewer believe they can start a thriving business.Freedom is an inalienable right, given to us by our Creator. It’s not given to us by our government—else it could be taken away just as easily. Free markets are timeless, because it involves a free transaction between two or more free people. It’s a basic human right. If you take it away, you take away a natural right. In Afghanistan, like all Americans, people just want a better life for their family. In fact, they are ambitious and simply want the opportunity to try. In America, we expect a lot of “free” benefits from our government—we’re accustomed to it and many of us want even more.
In Afghanistan, I saw thousands of small businesses and many employed others. However, there are few employment laws—or at least laws that anyone knows about or abides by. Government isn’t making businesses pay for health care or unemployment or liability insurance. There are no Social Security, Medicare or any other employment taxes. If such laws were enforced in Afghanistan, there would be very few employees and lots of law breakers. If Afghanistan had the anti-business and anti-hiring environment which America has today, they’d have little hope for tomorrow. Since before the time of Christ, Afghanistan was the crossroads of Europe and the Far East. Commerce and free trade lie in the heart of every Afghan. During certain periods, they’ve had remarkable wealth. Unfortunately, it was only through government corruption and outside invaders that they’ve declined to a third-world nation.
I’m not saying we need to become Afghanistan, we are a modern republic. But we could surely learn a few lessons from them. Our regulations and laws prevent Americans from taking the risks necessary to start new businesses. Congress passes expensive “job creating” stimulus bills and in the same breath enacts laws that are anti-job creation. Our disjointed system almost forces us to become employees of large businesses. In fact, the regulations give enormous advantage to existing companies and especially large corporations—it’s anti-competitive. (Ref. 18) I haven’t touched on risks and costs from unnecessary and excessive law suits and regulation compliance—which strangle American business growth and employment (Ref. 19) (to learn more visit:Institute for Legal Reform). But, like a frog which eventually succumbs to the warm and then warmer water until it’s boiled to death, America has developed a legal system which is boiling businesses alive. It destroys our incentive to start a business, expand, and hire workers.
Job Creation! Job Creation!
During the start of The Great Recession, I heard politicians promise more “job creation.” They bragged about the jobs they saved and the “shovel ready” projects that were going to employ so many Americans. (Ref. 20) Job creation! More job creation! That’s all I heard. Americans believed it for some bizarre reason, too. Government, not the free market was going to save the day! Forget that the government produces nothing but debt and regulations and its only revenue is seized from tax payers. How does taking money from private-sector job creators and giving it to government invented jobs stimulate the economy? Isn’t this just a magic trick? Government can only transfer money from you to their friends.
In Afghanistan, when we mentor the government and security forces, we have a saying for residual Soviet era processes and bureaucracy, “You can’t make this s#*t up!” Forgive the rudeness of this statement, but it does illustrate a point. Unfortunate, we can make that same claim about our government! (Ref. 21) The US Government loves to over regulate, over tax, and over criticize businesses and the free market. Somehow, all the problems they created are blamed on the “greedy” and “corrupt” free market—and too many of us believe it!
What’s So Good About the Free Markets Anyway?
As stated earlier, free enterprise is a God-given right. It is the natural state of men and women. (Ref. 22) It’s also not easy, but that’s why it works so well. All humans need drive, purpose, and challenge to get out of bed in the morning—to have meaning to life. It’s like oxygen. We need it to prosper and succeed—at least that’s what I’ve found. If we neglect our liberty and expect government to provide for our every need, if we envy others and blame free markets, businesses, and everyone else, then we’ll eventually boil to death. We become the failed Soviet Union, all over again. When we incorporate freedom’s values—strive to serve others, and believe in the individual—we thrive and prosper!
Just ask the once Marxist China. In 1970, Chinese citizens wore the Maoist drab gray uniform (Ref. 23), worked farms for the collective, and suffered with famine and poverty. Their government killed 45 million of its own! (Ref. 24) Today, though their people are far from free (they live under a one-party dictatorship), free markets have made it the manufacturer of the world. Because of its reintroduced capitalist principles, they can now feed themselves and have enough to export. In fact, China is the world’s top agriculture producer by value. (Ref. 25) China exports more than they import to America. (Ref. 26) Because of their “free‑er” markets and introduction of private ownership, they are prospering. Take that Chairman Mao, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin!
In Afghanistan, the “Rich” Own Small Businesses
During my deployments to Afghanistan, I had plenty of time to watch and wonder. I saw the common and dissimilar elements of our two societies. As we convoyed throughout the country side and cities, I saw commerce everywhere. When I spoke to Afghans, I learned they were no different than Americans: they wanted a secure country, food on the table, and an education for their children.
But, unlike Americans, they took every advantage to earn a living—entrepreneurship was everywhere. In the dustiest and most remote villages, bartering and exchange of products and services was the natural state of affairs. I noticed that those who owned businesses provided better lives for their families, too. They were the “rich” ones.
There are two forms of capitalism, free market capitalism and crony capitalism—let’s not forget that. Only Americans can decide which form they want to embrace: If we encourage liberty and discourage politics and special interest, we will cure the disease that inflicts our great country. But, if we continue to follow politicians that created the disease, in the first place, then our country will cease to be good. We will cease to be exceptional.
Do We Esteem to Lightly?
America is a rich and prosperous nation. Our poor live like the rich in so much of the world. Yet too many of us envy what others have; and some Americans even feel guilty for what they’ve earned. I’m not sure why they feel this way. Perhaps it’s guilt or fairness they worry about. Ask a citizen of North Korean, a communist country, if they’d prefer their more “fair” form of government to ours? I’d wager, they’d opt for liberty because nothing is really fair. They still have a political “crony” class and then everyone else. Is that fair? Their leaders prosper and hold the people hostage to geography and speech. Look at history, I fear, envy, power, and totalitarianism are the most repeated sins of mankind.
It sucks to be at the bottom or in the middle, when others have it better, but we have every opportunity to make it in America. For those that don’t, we take care of them. You really cannot lose here! In a single lifetime, one can go from immigrant minimum wage earner to successful middle-class (or higher) business owner. That same immigrant’s child can go from student to scientist, to engineer, to physician to anything.Whatever their reason, too many Americans embrace socialism, communism, and redistribution. They want to change the very source of our prosperity: freedom and opportunity. Instead of blame or envy, they should admire those that took the risks to earn their prosperity.
If we have a dream, the ability, and the ambition we can make almost anything a reality. However, the human condition is to take the easy route. If it’s too good or too easy, we fall back and coast. It’s when we are a little uncomfortable in our condition, that we aspire to improve our lot in life. That’s the magic of the United States and the free market system. At our country’s birth, we had providence on our side and because of the intolerable acts of the British, we created an economic system and government that made us an exceptional nation. Will we kill the golden goose or will we feed and care for it? Will we allow crony capitalism, crony voter-ism, and envy win the day? If you’ve ever traveled to a third-world county, you understand what so few Americans understand: We won the “lottery of birth.”
By being born here we were given an enormous blessing. All we have to do is act upon it. Unfortunately, too many don’t understand what we have. I’m reminded of an infamous quote by Thomas Paine, in his wittings “Crisis” (December 23, 1776), “That which we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly…”
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Article Photo Credits and Sources
- Afghan market: source chttpcommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileAfghan_market_teeming_with_vendors_and_shoppers_2-4-09.jpg
- Benjamin Franklin:
- Soldiers on mountain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Afghan_market_teeming_with_vendors_and_shoppers_2-4-09.jpg
- Boiling frongs: httptbrickert.wordpress.com20140131afterburner-with-bill-whittle-boiling-frogs
- City: httpwww.magforwomen.combest-5-american-cities-to-live-in