Do Your Own Thing
Thomas Jefferson began his draft of the Declaration of Independence on June 11, 1776. The Continental Congress later “mangled” his words, according to Jefferson, and shortened his draft by 25%. Finally on July 2, 1776, Congress signed off and signed America up for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Americans celebrate July 4 rather than July 2, because the Declaration was announced on the fourth.
Vicki and I have been to one or two Fourth of July parties around the world. But mostly, we skip them. I can do without hotdogs and hamburgers, speeches and oompah, sparklers and fireworks. Rather than soggy hotdogs I prefer to choose, day to day, to live life, enjoy liberty, and continue my pursuit of happiness.
Especially my pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson’s world was very different from ours. In those days, nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. In The Birth of Plenty, William Bernstein writes, “no human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef, no letter, no information, no idea, order or instruction of any kind moved faster [than a horse]. Nothing had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would.”
So what can we take away today, in the modern world, from a Declaration of Independence that reflected a slower, rural, farm-oriented society? I think we can encompass Jefferson’s positive, proactive view of freedom.
Too many of us today think of freedom in negative terms, in the sense that we become free “from” some evil or another. FDR’s famous speech on the four freedoms included freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom from religious persecution. My Google search for “freedom from” came up with freedom from torture, hunger, anxiety, depression, and freedom from habitual sins like impurity, over-eating, substance abuse, gambling, smoking, and more. These freedoms all popped up on Google’s first page.
Jefferson could have organized the Declaration around freedom from tyranny, freedom from taxation without representation, freedom from the rule of a king who lived in another country. And indeed, he included those freedoms in the body of the text. But right up top he nailed his positive approach to freedom with his focus on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We’ve made tremendous progress since Jefferson’s day. Today, those of us from the developed world have the freedom to do and be whatever we wish to do and be. If we choose to abandon farming—or anything else—we just do it. We’re free to roam most of the world. After all, airplanes travel much faster than horses. Vicki and I have traveled to perhaps 70 countries; friends have been to more than twice that number.
With a positive view of freedom, we take advantage of a new life in Costa Rica, say, or Vietnam rather than flee from the old. Sure, we may be fed up with the United States, Canada, Europe, or wherever. We may detest abusive taxes, the nanny state, and laws that prevent us from buying medicine we need. We may want to smoke once in a while, and have the freedom to buy the size of soft drink we prefer. We can opt out of the United States or wherever to leave behind what we dislike.
But I submit we’re better off focusing on our new lives abroad. Move to Vietnam not because you dislike having to prove you’re over 21 to buy wine in Texas, even if you’re 65 years old, like I am. Instead move to Vietnam because you like the tropical climate, quiet beaches, pretty girls, frenetic Saigon, low costs, and good coffee.
Pursue happiness rather than run from something disagreeable. To me that’s the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
Even with the new possibilities, most Americans choose to stay put. I can think of good and valid reasons for staying close to home—like jobs and family. If your life revolves around grandchildren, it makes sense to stick around your grandchildren. And I think fear plays a major role. Travel abroad and you face the unknown. The unknown can be scary.
Still, if you’re reading these words, you’re unlikely to retain a deep, desperate fear of the unknown and of travel abroad. Rather, you want to take advantage of today’s world and its possibilities. You want to join the growing ranks of those who choose to live, work, travel, and invest overseas.
You want to move faster than a horse.
To get the most out of work, travel, and life abroad, and to fulfill the promise of freedom in the Declaration, I propose you accept the world on its own terms.
Harry Browne wrote one of my favorite books, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Browne’s advice: do your own thing. Harry made the distinction between the direct approach and indirect approach. Suppose you live in Los Angeles, Harry said, and you’re tired of the noise, smog, congestion, and so on. You have two choices. You can change everyone in Los Angeles to behave according to your liking. Harry calls this the indirect approach. Or you can take a direct, hands-on approach: move.
Prefer the direct approach. I think Jefferson would prefer it, too. Live your own life, and forget about changing the world you find waiting.
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Latin America Correspondent Lee Harrison also writes this Fourth Of July:
As Americans we understand freedom: it’s the cornerstone of our culture. Our standards of freedom—things like speech, voting, assembly, and the ability to make your own way to success—have spread throughout much of the world.
But as an expat, you’ll be amazed at the new freedom you’ll feel living in a country that isn’t one of the world’s aggressors or the target of others’ aggressions. A place where terrorism isn’t an issue…where the problems of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran aren’t yours to sort out…where you don’t have to explain drones or prison camps…a country that doesn’t need to spy on its citizens.
Without these things—and the constant reminder of them from the media—your life takes on a new kind of freedom that you’ve probably never experienced. From afar, you’ll see that being the world’s policeman doesn’t preserve our freedom…it destroys it. And being out from under that cloud, you’ll feel freer than ever.
And this from Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice:
In my childhood, I believed that I was fortunate to come from the only country in the world that could honestly define itself as being free. As I got older, I began to question that premise. After extensive travel, I know for certain that the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on freedom.
After years of living abroad, I’ve had to question many long-held assumptions. I’ve learned that the United States doesn’t have the best medical care in the world nor is it the world’s safest country. It doesn’t have the best education system or the world’s highest literacy rate. The Internet in the United States isn’t the fastest, and the so-called free market economy is dominated by a small handful of major players.
By any measure, the United States isn’t the only civilized country in the world. Poverty is all too apparent—I’ve seen more beggars and homeless people during one week in the United States than I’ve seen in the past year living abroad. Clearly, the United States isn’t the egalitarian melting pot that it claims to be, and it’s a lot easier for residents of many other countries to realize the “American Dream” of home, career, and family than it is for most Americans. One-by-one, the assertions that I’ve had drilled into me over the years have slowly been disproven.
In the United States, our right to privacy has slowly deteriorated to the point of being practically nonexistent, and there are way too many laws and regulations that to some degree strike me as absurd. The police are increasingly militarized and respond to small incidents with full-out SWAT assaults.
In the United States, we can’t order a rare hamburger or buy raw milk. Somehow, this is meant to protect us, but I believe that we’re capable of taking personal responsibility for ourselves. We can face a US$2,500 fine from U.S. Customs if we attempt to bring a chocolate Kinder Egg into the country, but we can buy assault weapons without needing background checks.
I don’t hate America. Indeed, the land is beautiful and life is generally predictable. When I’m in the country, the familiarity of comfort food and the ease of communication in my native language are certainly welcome benefits. But living abroad has given me the opportunity to gain a global perspective.
Now that I’ve been out of the country for 10 years, I’ve gained a different view about freedom and what it means to me. I still vote, read the newspapers, and have kept certain business interests in the United States. I’m still an American and I still appreciate the potential of my country. However, living abroad has been enormously enlightening and it’s forced me to re-examine the assumptions I made in my youth.
Continue reading: Is It Safe (And Feasible) For A Single Woman To Retire Overseas?