*** By Grant Callen. Originally published in The Clarion Ledger, The Laurel Leader Call, and the Madison County Journal in February of 2010. ***

The countries have gathered, the torch is aflame, and for a fortnight, the attention of the world is on Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Nations large and small pit their best athletes against the world for the chance to win medals and listen to their anthems. When you compare the countries of the world there’s no denying that the United States has dominated at Olympic competition since the modern games began in 1896. We’ve won 2,511 total medals, more than double the next closest country, the Soviet Union with 1,204. When you compare gold medals, the gap only widens, the United States has 1,007, and the Soviet Union has 473. In fact, we’ve never participated in an Olympic games without bringing home gold, a distinction solely held by the United States.

Beyond Olympic performance, our exceptional system of government, which emphasizes free enterprise and markets, has made America profoundly successful. We’ve been the destination of choice for centuries for freedom yearning people from across the globe. Whether it’s the British of the Colonial era, the Irish and Germans of the nineteenth century, or the Asians and Latin Americans of the twentieth century, all these waves of immigrants came to America looking for the freedom to work and the opportunity to better themselves and their families, and they found it.

Today, as we emerge from a painful economic recession, many appear to have forgotten what made America exceptional. Some see this “crisis” as an opportunity to make dramatic changes to our system, undermining the very characteristics that have made us successful. There are those that would casually trade away our exceptional system for a modicum of security. But this is hardly the first time America has taken a blow.

In 1976, unemployment was up, earnings were down, and inflation had begun to creep up so dramatically that many were concerned it might never slow. In a radio commentary he delivered four years before he was elected President, Ronald Reagan challenged those that, not unlike today’s cynics, had begun to talk about the American experiment as a failure.

“I know that I’ve used these broadcasts to criticize those who have lost faith in our system; those who would make fundamental changes on the premise that what we’ve done in the past is all wrong and those increasing in number who think we are over the hill and headed for the dustbin of history.”

(Sound like anybody you know?)

“Therefore it is important every once in a while to remind ourselves of our accomplishments lest we let someone talk us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater . . . the system has never let us down – we’ve let the system down.”

Reagan was right then and he’s still right today, the American system has never let us down.

Today, America remains extraordinarily productive. We have the largest and most technologically advance economy in the world with a Gross Domestic Product of around $14.2 trillion, almost three times that of Japan, the second largest economy. In spite of being only 4.5% of the world’s population on only 6% of the world’s land mass, we produce 20% of the world’s total GDP and are home to 140 of the top Fortune Global 500 companies.

We are an economic superpower, not just because of our vast natural resources or our educated populace, although we have both, but because of our market-oriented economy. Individuals are largely free to work, save, invest, produce, and consume as they please and economic decisions are made by thousands of participants in the market instead of a top-down, government controlled approach. Our free enterprise system has made us prosperous, created unprecedented wealth, and improved the standard of living for an inestimable number of people in America and around the world.

The very system that has made us economically successful has also made us successful at the Olympics. We reward productivity, ingenuity, and hard work, and create a fair playing field on which to compete. As Reagan put it, “Our system freed the individual genius of man [and] released him to fly as high and as far as his own talent and energy would take him.”

Whatever yardstick you use to measure success, whether it’s Olympic medals or GDP, our system has proved exceptional and America stands atop the platform.