The values and desires of this country’s first European settlers and institutional architects were not all in perfect alignment. They each drew from different perspectives. Many had witnessed immense human suffering and social and political disasters they sought to avoid repeating. Many of them had strong Christian values. Others leaned toward personal morals, ethics, convictions, or theories. There were many personalities, subcultures, and differences of opinion present prior to and during the birth of this nation. However, we might be able to ascribe one common value to all of these people—the idea that this nation could and should live up to its potential, to a potential that so many other governments and societies fell short of.

That idea that this nation could and should live up to a higher potential was a founding theme. In other words, there was an overall belief that from the local level all the way to the national level, the newly established and empowered institutions that sustain livelihoods would reach their potential value, and would help (or at least not prevent) other institutions and organizations from reaching their value. The concept of achieving a higher potential would carry into areas of the economy, the government, educational institutions, civil society, the landscape and environment, families, and individual wellbeing.

For example, the federal government would operate only where fundamentally necessary in order to support but not interfere with a strong economy, a livable landscape, a safe and just civilization, coherent families and communities, and productive educational institutions. Similarly, a healthy civil society would operate freely while providing enough guidance and support for a unified and just government, a healthy economy, a safe environment, intact families and communities, individual prosperity, and relevant educational institutions.

Families could grow safely, and raise children who could eventually help the nation conduct its business. The environment would provide plenty of resources for a prosperous nation: wood, productive farmland, fish, game, and space for free enterprise, among other things. By accomplishing important goals without interfering with other aspects of people’s livelihoods, the institutions, organizations, systems, and structures of this new blessed nation would live up to a high potential. The Founding Fathers attempted to establish this over long debates, negotiations, and a number of extremely innovative institutional provisions.

More than two hundred years have now passed since our national journey began. Are these aspirations being born out? Have institutions such as the government and civil society developed as the nation’s founders expected or wished? Is our government operating cleanly and carefully, preserving personal liberty, establishing fairness, enabling a prosperous economy, enabling strong and healthy families, allowing for stable and functional communities, and promoting a livable landscape? Does our economy support our wants and needs? Does it provide rewards for good work and allow improvements to move forward? Does it provide a surplus for a healthy government and leave behind a place worth living? Does it do all this without consuming the time and space needed for happiness and fulfillment?

Is this a nation full of people that feel a sense of achievement in their lives? Are these people active in keeping their government and communities on a straight path? Do they have the tools and leverage to leave things in good condition for the future?

Do we have communities and families that share a common purpose and are strong enough to give back more than they need to take? Do people feel a sense of belonging and a satisfaction in the fact that they share a common fate?  Do we have a landscape that has what we need in the deepest sense, such as productive land, clean air, clean water, manageable weather, and the living natural backdrop that reminds us that we’re home?

This is not to ask whether things are perfect, but whether most of the time, in the most important ways, these systems and structures accomplish their most important goals. Do they?