When asked to contribute to the Spectator’s ongoing “Freedom Watch,” series, I welcomed the opportunity, as I don’t think those of us involved in the political scene spend enough time talking about freedom, beyond the sound bites and rallies and speeches that pass for today’s political theater.
I say this because I believe there is a battle taking place for the future of America, a battle whose lines have been drawn with government on the one hand and liberty, the hallmark of the American experiment, on the other. It’s a battle those of us aligned with liberty are in danger of losing—although our banner still indeed waves.
We live in an era in which conservatives have not effectively outlined the proper and limited role of government, and as a direct consequence of our failures, more and more of our citizens are turning to an ever-encroaching government in times of crisis. Yet to allow the balance of power in this nation to continue to shift further and further toward government and thus further and further from liberty is to surrender the very thing that makes America so historically unique.
We must push back against this in three ways. First, we should recognize that what Charles Murray calls our “cultural capital” is in peril. In a recent address to the American Enterprise Institute, Murray credited much of America’s greatness to “the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions.” Yet current events reveal us to be in a very different situation— one in which “chosen” businesses receive bailouts and in which the Supreme Court rules that a government can seize private property because some bureaucracy thinks a shopping mall is in the best interests of a town. The stark reality is that we’re in severe danger of losing what our nation’s Founders risked their lives and sacred honor to create.
Second, we need to realize that this is more than just a philosophical problem. We’ve had a front-row seat to its practical implications over the last six months, as the financial crisis has given way to the most significant expansion of government in generations. And now, as outlined in his budget, our ambitious new president is poised to grow the federal government into the central force in American health care, education, and energy—accepting deficits stretching well into the trillions of dollars to do so.
Lastly, we cannot forget that each of us can make a difference. No matter how clichéd that may sound, the fact is our Founders created a nation centered on the simple notion that the individual was the sole repository of political power. This idea, that the individual and not the government or the ruling elites could alone determine the course of a nation, was in practical terms entirely new. And how powerful an idea it has proven to be.
It’s that notion, for instance, that enabled a seamstress named Rosa Parks, riding the Cleveland Avenue bus line and living to that point a normal, unremarkable life, to change the course of history by having the courage to say “No” regardless of the consequences. And it’s the same notion that allowed a humble backwoods lawyer with no formal education named Abraham Lincoln to rise to the pinnacle of this nation, right our greatest wrong, and ultimately preserve our Union.
My overarching point is this: every one of us has great power in determining where we go next as a civilization, and with that great power comes an equally great responsibility. It is up to each of us to do in our time what our conservative forebears did in theirs, that being whatever is in our power to halt the relentless drive of government to encroach on our liberty. Ronald Reagan once remarked of freedom that it “is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.” As conservatives, and more importantly as Americans, our ultimate aim can be stated simply: to ensure that ours is not the generation that lets freedom die.