The Magazine

Give Us Liberty

The economic consequences of government.

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Did America reach the social-democratic tipping point around the time George W. Bush was elected president? Doubtful. That is why “free enterprise” seems like either a normative ideal that is close to impossible to realize in a democracy—or a category so expansive as to be practically meaningless. What the Founders left us was not a specific economic system but a constitutional republic that relies on a specific set of institutional arrangements to limit the ability of one faction of the population to infringe on the equal natural rights of another. 

Some of those rights have economic components, but The Road to Freedom is less about rights than it is about fiscal and regulatory policy. That is a missed opportunity since, as Brooks suggests, the moral case for limited government and economic freedom can be found in the political principles of the American Founding. The Founders believed that every human being is born with certain inalienable rights that exist prior to the establishment of civil society and government. They are rights attached to our bodily natures and therefore literally cannot be taken from us unless we die. Our very existence gives us the right to life and therefore the right to self-defense. Our capacity for reason and conscience and worship give us the rights to civil and religious liberty. Our capacity for work gives us the right to property that results from our labor.

Government, in the Founders’ understanding, is instituted to protect equally these natural rights to life, liberty, and property—for investors and laborers alike. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first Inaugural Address, America needs 

a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.

Abraham Lincoln thought government should secure “free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” And in his 1984 address to the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan noted that inflation’s victims were not only the wealthy but also “working men and women.”

Work is what takes us from learned helplessness or dependence to earned success and independence. Through public policy, governments and societies affect how much we work, and for what reason, and for whose benefit. Government can pay us not to work, or it can tax our labor and incomes and investments to such an extent that we do not work harder on the margin. Not only do we make less money; we lose some of our sense of self-worth. We lose our right to labor, and to the benefits of our labor. Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reagan understood: Governments that assert a claim to a citizen’s property will have no trouble asserting a claim to his conscience as well. It cannot be a coincidence that the Obama administration, which wants to “spread the wealth around,” also coerces religious institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees. In both cases, Barack Obama believes his vision of the good trumps the equal rights of others.

Read The Road to Freedom for its explication of earned success, its definition of meritocratic fairness, and its moral commitment to using free exchange to improve the lives of the destitute. But don’t forget that the moral truths that animate this admirable book, and others, cannot be found in economics or statistics or social science. They are found in the individual dignity of every human being, and in the natural equality of man. Will Smith’s ability to pursue happiness does not depend on our 35 percent top tax rate. It depends on the depth of our commitment to the vision of the Founders.

Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon.