The Fourth Birth of Freedom: 1776, 1861, 1981, . . .
By Michael Novak on National Review Online on April 27, 2016
On the weekend of Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts (celebrating the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill), students from leading American universities met at Harvard to formulate conservative principles for the 21st century. They began an exploration of the best thinkers of the past, searching the historical record of what had worked best to extend and preserve the blessings of liberty both for the present and for posterity. The event was organized by the Harvard Prospectus team, with the support of the Princeton Tory and the Stanford Conservative Alliance.
The following was the first of five keynote addresses.
I spent almost five years in graduate school at Harvard and three years teaching at Stanford, and in all that time I was to the left of American liberalism. Then, during the Carter years, I came to see that this nation required a new birth of freedom and a powerful new commitment to natural rights, not only on this continent but worldwide. And in America we desperately needed a dramatic explosion in new technologies, new industries, and new jobs.
In those years, I was captivated as never before by two American faces: the suffering face of Abraham Lincoln, who in this divided land at enormous cost barely defeated slavery, and the happy warrior Ronald Reagan, whose presidency brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of some 70 new democracies on this planet.
Lincoln saw in his time an inexcusable evil, and Reagan saw that half the world was living under totalitarian control. Day by day, quietly and insistently, Reagan built relentless pressure against the Soviet Union until, like an eggshell, it finally cracked. Simultaneously, he launched an initiative to encourage, teach, and assist a worldwide movement of human rights and the strategic institutions of democracy.
It greatly surprised me as a lifelong Democrat that these were the legacies of the conservative movement — not just talking about caring but actually bringing about the end of slavery, even at great cost. And then, under Reagan (with the help of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II), lifting oppression and inspiring democracies worldwide.
In reviewing the history of the conservative movement, I also came to admire two other conservative presidents: Teddy Roosevelt, for launching the great conservation movements across the country, especially in the national forests; and Calvin Coolidge, who changed conservatism by grasping the crucial role of cuts in tax rates, generating economic prosperity from the bottom up.
I remember writing speeches for more than one Democratic presidential candidate with lines like this: “My administration will have three priorities: jobs, jobs, jobs.” But one simple point had not occurred to me: You cannot have employees without employers. I understood that those who think of starting new enterprises are fearful, knowing that about half of all new enterprises fail within five years, and only about one-third remain in business for ten years or longer. I began to understand that we could reduce that fear by creating higher incentives for risk-takers. A large portion of Americans (and of people all around the world) work in small businesses, so the rate of small-business formation greatly influences the rate of new employees hired nationally. A simple insight, but it took me much too long to grasp it.
I was surprised to find that conservative leaders did not talk much about caring; they actually made social revolutions happen. The conservative movement is not given to words about caring. It is about achieving liberty and ending poverty in the real world. I see now that this has been a serious mistake on our part. Beginning in the 1840s in Europe, the new parties of the Left put intense focus on “caring.” They disguised their totalitarian tendencies by shouting, “The poor, the oppressed!” The bourgeoisie, they said, doesn’t care about them.
The conservative movement made a fatal mistake by allowing tyrants to capture the language of caring. In a civilization originally steeped in Judaism and Christianity, compassion matters. One indicator is the common perception today that conservatives are hard-hearted. People who buy in to that stereotype are not inclined even to listen to conservative arguments. We have ourselves to blame.
But we don’t have to keep hurting ourselves. Today, in 2016, millions in this world bear immense suffering. Conservative principles have the best chance of eliminating it. Conservative principles — natural rights — helped end slavery, and economic creativity and invention have lifted up more than a billion of the world’s poor in our lifetime. Conservative principles will once again liberate the world, in the generation to come even more so than in the past.
For example, dear young friends of liberty, a horrific new type of slavery has exploded across the earth: sex slavery. A cruel sexual trafficking is now condemning millions of helpless women and young men around the world to misery. This slave trade has spread throughout the United States, where young women are now being bought, savaged, and traded in shadowy markets. Alas, their numbers are growing.
One can see in the paper Challenging the Caricature the vivid photographs revealing the rapid destruction of just a few of these victims. To allow them to be described as “sex workers” is an outrage; they are slaves. Look at the photos, and endure them if you can. It is now your task, dear young conservatives, to move the House and Senate of the United States to establish a human-rights caucus to end this sordid traffic.
Still more practical tasks:
What inspired the free minds that brought down Communism from 1980 to 1989? Free communications through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the massive distribution of cell phones, and the explosive reach of the Internet. But nowadays, nearly a billion people, especially in Asia, are kept in mental captivity by governments blocking the Internet. For just a small investment, this blockage could be blasted open. How? A practical job for you to imagine and execute. The activism of Michael Horowitz has prepared the ground, but you need to finish the job.
But neither is that the whole of the unfinished tasks of this blessed land. Consider also the following:
Our own tough and good Chuck Colson came out of jail to remind us of the cries for help still emanating from American prisons and from yet more-wretched prisons around the world. We need to stimulate more worldwide organizations like Colson’s Prison Fellowship.
Nina Shea and other brave human-rights activists have brought to our attention the miseries of so many millions of women, especially in Africa, made wretched by genital mutilation, stonings, and “honor killings.” Nina has chronicled the epidemic of obstetric fistula, which has turned millions of young African women and girls into pariahs. Making media attentive to these evils, and inspiring more political leaders to mobilize to correct them, will help right a massive wrong.
And there are still other millions of slaves and wretched ones on this suffering earth. Hordes of political radicals across the world are forcing Jews, Christians, and other believers, one by one, to choose between renouncing their God — their inner Light — and being bloodily hacked to death. Those victims who are not put to death are subjected to continuous rape, humiliation, enslavement, and painful tortures. A practical measure: Shine an intense light from the media; stir activist associations around the world; and oblige governments to apply political power to extend life and liberty.
This persecution is not merely trampling religious liberty underfoot. It is a rabid campaign to wipe whole religions from the face of the earth — not just Christians and Jews but scores of other ancient religious groups, including the Yazidis, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians. How can it be that the most religious nation on earth, the people of the United States, can sit by and let this slaughter continue?
If we do not care to protect the religious conscience, who will care to protect the non-religious one? Either all consciences are safe, or none are. And what would a human being be without conscience? I recognize that in our day a strong and growing minority of Americans mock those of us who are not secular. Some outrageously claim that religious persons do not deserve respect. They lie when they say we do not offer reasoned arguments. We beg to differ from theirs.
Jewish and Christian faiths have implanted the anti-totalitarian axiom in human consciousness: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Not everything belongs to Caesar. The power of Caesar must be kept limited.
Jürgen Habermas, one of Europe’s most prominent atheists, shows us that the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity originated not in Greece or Rome, or in Islam, or in the blood-spattered French Revolution, but were nourished under Judaism and Christianity. Atheists ignore this only in bad faith. Honest persons do not have to believe in Judaism or Christianity; Habermas doesn’t. But honest persons must give credit where credit is due.
In America today, Christians must and do defend the liberty of conscience for non-believers. But the “New Atheists” do not defend it for religious people. What kind of moral seriousness is that?
Finally, it has become fashionable in America to declare that the primary economic problem of our time is inequality. But equality is unnatural. It can be imposed only by force. (It does not appear even among children in the same family.)
Those who prioritize equality curtail liberty. Those who prioritize liberty typically raise standards of living for all. The goal should be to raise the standard of living of the poorest, decade by decade. That would help more than cutting down the most creative and wealth-producing. Beware of those who use the term “equality” carelessly.
Abraham Lincoln singled out the right set forth in Article I of our Constitution, the right reserved to authors and inventors to patent or to copyright their own creations, as one of six vital principles that revolutionized the world. For the first time in history, the most valuable form of property became not land but ideas. Ideas are open to the poor and the landless! After the founding of America, this right became the main dynamo of the wealth of nations.
Following the economic “malaise” bemoaned by President Carter, President Reagan changed the country’s direction dramatically. He ended the oil shortage, brought interest rates down by two-thirds, spurred the creation of 16 million new jobs, and put a higher proportion of American adults to work than ever before in history. Under Reagan, the American economy added to its wealth the equivalent of the whole economy of West Germany. This American boon lasted another 20 years after Reagan, through Democratic and Republican administrations. Reagan pointed out that government bureaucrats do not put more citizens to work; millions of new business startups do. He gave priority to sparking business startups.
What has been done often before can be done again. It’s now your generation’s task to empower millions more job creators. The age of social invention is not over. Your generation can be as inventive as any in the past.
In sum, dear daughters and sons of liberty, you are the new generation of Americans. You will carry extraordinary burdens. You are born to duties that will test you mightily. Over and over again, you will have to overcome nearly unbearable odds. Yet you were born in the land of the free. You were brought up in the home of the brave. So let me conclude with a story my generation first heard from Ronald Reagan.
Joseph Warren, the most famous physician in Massachusetts, joined the Minutemen pursuing the British from the Lexington Green back toward Boston. He took a bullet through his wig, just above his ear. Then later, standing in the front lines at Bunker Hill, he was felled by a bullet through the head.
However, before that battle, as a new major general, Joseph Warren told the assembled men of Massachusetts: “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”