Once there were Engineers in this country. They built skyscrapers, highways and spaceships.

Years ago I had a long argument with a conservative friend about the role of the federal government, and from that argument we agreed that America's greatest accomplishments during the 20th Century were, first, victory in World Wars I and II; and second, construction of the Interstate Highway System. Many years before that argument I had a Jesuit history teacher who felt it was a tragedy the Greeks got conquered by the Romans, because the Greeks were so much more civilized, the Greeks were artists.

Well, screw art. The Romans built roads. They were the first ones. They didn't build roads to service the empire; they had an empire because they leveled and graded and cambered, laid gravel and then volcanic stone atop the gravel. And the roads made it possible for people to go places, to meet other people and other kinds of people. It fostered the exchange of information and led directly to the very idea of personal freedom.

Construction on the Appian Way, the world's first highway, began in 312 B.C. Over the next 700 years, Romans built 55,000 miles of road. Before there were paved roads, any substantial traffic would turn even a good dirt road into a muddy, rutted, impassable mess. Someone traveling hard might make only a few miles a day. But on Roman roads, a courier could make 60 miles a day; and that ability to travel and communicate made the Roman Empire possible.

Within living memory we were the Romans. The generation that fought and won World War II next built 43,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System, built the space program that sent men to the moon ... but since then we have turned inward, we've hunkered down to live small lives in the world they built. We have not lost the ability to build highways and spaceships, merely the desire; perhaps we can still change that.

We are so accustomed to our freedom that we have forgotten its source. Before the ballot box there was the road. The road gave us the ability to go somewhere else, try something new, become something better. That freedom -- to vote with your feet -- may be more important than the ability to cast a ballot. In the U.S. a vote is usually a binary action, for this, against that ... but the road has endless choices: the road goes everywhere.

You can hear Daniel Keys Moran reading the above in this 1.5MB MP3 file.

The RealAudio version is at this NPR archive.