INTRODUCTION What This Book Is About, and Why
This is a book about doing well and doing good, about taking care of business and taking care of one another. It is far from obvious that those concerns go together. In fact, it is commonly assumed that they are in tension, if not in irreconcilable confl ict. It is often said, or at least implied, that we must make a choice between doing well and doing good, between concern for business and concern for people. There are indeed tensions, and there are indeed choices to be made, but this book explores the reasons why, all things considered, there is not a necessary opposition between doing well and doing good, between taking care of business and taking care of one another. Far from these interests being opposed, they may actually need one another.
This is also—in fact, it is most importantly—a book about the moral challenge of living in a free society. Freedom is not freedom from challenges. Most human beings over the course of history have not lived in free societies. Even today, most human beings do not live in free societies. Freedom is not the “natural” condition of humanity, nor is it self-evidently justified. Freedom is always under challenge and must give an account of itself. Which is to say that people who would live freely must give an account of themselves.
Our subject is economic freedom, but this book is about much more than economics. That is because economic behavior is inseparably intertwined with other social spheres, notably the political and the cultural. At the heart of the sphere we call culture is the moral and the spiritual. And so, precisely because our subject is economic freedom, this is also a book about democracy and the moral truths by which freedom is—or can be—ordered to justice.
In some ways, giving a moral account of freedom should be easier after the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. With the collapse of Communism, the chief alternative to the free society has been devastatingly discredited. The theory and practice of “real socialism” has been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. Around the world, societies are awakening from the nightmare of socialism and turning with eager hope to democratic models of freedom, including economic freedom. After the long, shadowed years of the cold war it seems that the democracies have been vindicated with a suddenness and lucidity that almost nobody expected. In such a circumstance, we might think it very easy to give a moral account of the free society. We might even think that such an account is unnecessary, that freedom is a self-evident good that is now evident to everybody.
In fact, however, it may now be more
diffi cult to give a moral account of freedom. During the cold war we had, so to speak, the great benefit of a clear and present danger, and of a clear and present contrast. Whatever the failures of our own society, it was manifest to all but the willfully blind that it was immeasurably preferable to the chief alternative. A free society was justified by contrast with a slave society, and the slave societies were there for all to see.
In this century, the democratic idea has been revivified by two unmistakable contrasts, National Socialism and Communism. Also in the democracies, the theory and practice of freedom was under vigorous intellectual attack during the 1930s, when it seemed apparent to many that the future was being pioneered by the likes of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. With the exposure and defeat of the horrors of Fascism and Nazism in World War II, the democratic idea seemed mightily vindicated, although not a few continued to pin their hopes for the future on Communism.
As of this writing, Communism is not yet finished. In countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba aged despots vow to keep the faith. But they are now viewed by almost the entire world not as the wave of the future but as lifeless relics becalmed in the stagnant backwaters of history. Communism is finished as a global force, as an aggressive idea harnessed to moral energies and military force. Unlike any time since at least 1917, then, the free society is not self- evidently justified by contrast with an ideologically aggressive alternative to the free society. This makes it more imperative, not less imperative, that we be able to give a moral account of freedom. It also makes it more difficult. For all the terrible human costs involved, the conflicts with Nazism and Communism provided moral and intellectual justification on the cheap. Now, and, let us hope, for the foreseeable future, we do not have global monsters to convince us that our way of ordering our life together is worthy of moral commitment.
The free society—otherwise known as constitutional or representative democracy— is not the obvious or taken- for- granted way of ordering public life. This democratic regime is a human contrivance, an achievement that is never entirely achieved. Th e American Founders understood that, inscribing on the Great Seal of the United States their hope that this would be a novus ordo seclorum—
a new order for the ages. At Gettysburg, Lincoln reflected on the Civil War as a great testing of whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. Democracy is a continuing experiment. It may seem odd to speak of America as an experiment. After more than two centuries, it is, after all, the oldest, largest, most powerful, and in many ways most stable republic in human history. Yet the American proposition is as audacious today as it was when Jefferson penned liberty’s creed, beginning with the words, “We hold these truths . . .”
The experiment will continue so long as the truths are held. When Americans can no longer persuasively articulate the truths of freedom, they will discover to their dismay that there are many ways to order society other than the way of freedom. In the absence of Stalins and Hitlers, the chief enemy of freedom is our own indifference to the truths of freedom. G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is a nation with the soul of a church will remain true so long as America understands itself as an experiment off ering the hope of a novus ordo seclorum.
America is the first creedal nation in human history. America did not just happen. It was professed into being. In that sense, America is the first universal nation, for all who are convinced can join in professing its creed—as indeed its creed is professed in the remotest corners of the world.
We may be made nervous by talk about an American creed. We should be made nervous by it. We know about the darker side of a universal mission called “manifest destiny.” We know about the American Way of Life as a “civil religion” that can too easily turn into idolatry. That happens when we forget that the truths we hold are truths that keep the experiment under unremitting judgment. The Founders did not invent the truths they held. Th eir contribution was in daring to construct a constitutional order according to truths that had a long and conflicted history. Th eir ideas were a sometimes curious mix of the Scottish Enlightenment and Calvinist Christianity, shaped by the emergence of democratic insight among English dissenters, and colored by their idealization of republican Rome and Periclean Athens. The result has been aptly described as a Puritan-Lockean Synthesis. From that they produced a constitutional order of social contract encompassed by covenantal purpose and obligation.
It is not enough simply to repeat the formulations that they used to give an account of this experiment joining social contract and historical covenant. While the words of the Constitution have continuing legal force, they cannot by themselves secure the future of the experiment. The ideas of freedom need to be thought through and given fresh expression with each generation, and never more so than now. Otherwise, the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom become, as James Madison said, nothing more than parchment barriers against tyranny.
In this century, eminent Americans have proposed various ways of thinking through again the ideas that can sustain a free society. There was John Dewey’s proposal for “a common faith” that might replace the traditional religion that he supposed to be dead. Walter Lippmann called for a “public philosophy,” John Rawls expounded an elegant “theory of justice,” and Richard Rorty invites us to join him in espousing a “liberal irony” that, he believes, can nurture the moral solidarity necessary for a democratic society. The list of intellectual worthies who have produced conceptual schemes of similar purpose can be readily extended.
Among the problems with all those efforts is that they had little resonance with the democracy that they were intended to serve. They produced interesting ideas for debate among mainly academic elites. A few thousand people, for instance, have read Rawls’ very impressive A Theory of Justice,
and there may be a thousand or more interpretations of what it means. It is in the nature of a theory of democratic justice that it should offer truths that can be held by the people who are the democracy. Otherwise it is not very democratic. Democracy cannot be morally legitimated by ideas that are not understood or accepted by the people.
At least in America, the ideas of democracy must be in conversation with the moral intuitions sustained and articulated by religion. Tocqueville said religion is the first political institution in American democracy. That is even more true today than it was in the 1830s. Give or take two or three percentage points, all the relevant survey research tells us that 90 percent of the American people claim to be Christian or Jewish, and 95 percent say ...