“A nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free,” warned Abraham Bishop, a friend and supporter of Thomas Jefferson. “Beneath national greatness sink individual greatness, honor, wealth, and freedom.” These words could have been written today. Pomposity masquerading as grandiosity has consumed American politics. The right venerates the power of the nation-state; the left sings the praises of fashionable corporations and NGOs; both trample the human person in their frenzy for greatness.
I wrote this book to defend the old American ideals of “honor, wealth, and freedom.” Honor—not pride, but a life of integrity; wealth—not indulgence, but the right use of creation’s bounty; freedom—not licentiousness, but ordered liberty in the soul and commonwealth. America is defined by the creative tension between rights and responsibilities. Until recently, we knew liberty without order was decadent and order without liberty was tyrannical. But many powerful and influential figures have decided this wisdom is obsolete because it obstructs their demands for “systemic equity” or their desire to “own the libs.”
They’re wrong. Ordered liberty defines America. We cannot become great as Americans by ignoring who we are.
The essays in this book first appeared as a series of opinion articles in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The theme of the series is libertarianism: an unapologetic defense of liberty as America’s greatest political good. I wanted to explain the philosophy of liberty in terms everybody could understand. Public affairs shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of professional political operatives and intellectuals. Self-governance is essential for liberty; public deliberation about important issues and ideas must be the domain of the many, not the few. There are some things we must never “outsource” to experts, at risk of relinquishing our humanity. Governing the nation is one of them.
I had three goals in writing these essays. The book’s structure reflects those goals. Part I covers the history of American liberty. By surveying how it was pursued, debated, and enshrined, I wanted to remind my countrymen of liberty’s central place in American public affairs. That also means coming to terms with major turns away from liberty. The Progressive revolution of the early 20th century is an obvious case. But the struggle for liberty is much older than that. Even the ratification of the US Constitution was a mixed blessing for freedom. It did not spring fully-formed from the heads of the Founding Fathers. Rather it was the culmination of an unsteady process, with power politics and fiscal-military ambitions mixed in. Nevertheless, the Constitution deserves our respect and loyalty. To revive American liberty, we must renew rather than repudiate its spirit.
Part II explores the philosophy of liberty. Libertarianism affirms a natural-rights approach to politics. Each person has the right to be free from force and fraud. Too often, we defend these rights in private but overlook them in public. But if anything, it’s more important to prevent rights-violations by the government, for the simple reason that the government is much stronger than any private entity. (To those fretting over Big Tech: Please remember Twitter can delete your account without consequence, but Uncle Sam can kill you without consequence.) Recognizing the disproportionate threat the government poses to liberty, we can better appreciate the difference between law and morality, the religious roots of human dignity, and the complementarity of freedom and order.
I turn from philosophy to policy in Part III. We desperately need a libertarian perspective on national problems such as unsustainable government spending and entitlements, misguided health care programs, a broken immigration system, and reckless foreign policy. At home and abroad, the government has become dysfunctional because we’ve forgotten its proper scale and scope. It’s become trendy in some circles to dismiss liberty-focused reforms as “zombie Reaganism” or “market fundamentalism.” These are unserious criticisms. Certainly, libertarianism appreciates the contributions of free enterprise to human flourishing. But civil society, the crucial domain between markets and states, matters just as much. So does federalism: local governments will be important players in securing responsible and freedom-respecting reforms. Far from reifying “atomistic individualism,” libertarian policy is both realistic and communal. It’s time we relearned how to govern ourselves, rather than passing the buck to Washington, DC.
A constitutional republic dedicated to ordered liberty is a great blessing. We do not consent to be ruled by insular oligarchs, pretentious mandarins, or an unruly mob. We do not consent to be ruled at all. Instead, we agree to be governed—public reason under the rule of law has the final say. Defenders of freedom and virtue have recently taken a beating in politics, but libertarianism can get us back in the fight. I hope these essays leave you with an appreciation for what makes the American experiment unique and worthy of continued loyalty.
This article, The Spirit Of ’76: Libertarianism and American Renewal, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.