Captain James Lawrence’s famous exhortation to the crew of Chesapeake, “Don’t give up the ship,” has inspired Americans since it was first uttered by the mortally wounded sailor during the War of 1812. One of the first to be motivated by Lawrence’s call to persevere and keep fighting in the face of fire was fellow officer Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Flying a flag stitched with Lawrence’s words, Perry later went on to win a great naval victory in the Battle of Lake Erie despite his flagship being severely battered in the process.
What does this old sea story have to do with the future of freedom today?
It’s clear to any impartial observer, individual liberty and the cultural buttresses of a free society are not shipshape here in America. We face a tide of social, economic, and political problems that threaten to drown our country and wreck the great experiment in liberty and self-government that is the United States. In response to these challenges, too many on the left and even some on the right believe that the answer is that freedom must give way to control, individual and community responsibility to nanny-state paternalism, and openness to protectionism.
Despite our country’s battered state, if freedom is to survive and our society flourish, we must follow Lawrence’s words, persevere, and not give up the American ship built from the planks of classical liberal ideals, republican institutions, and a broad culture of virtue and personal responsibility. Those of us on the right of center, in particular, need to avoid the shoals of statism and collectivism and steer back on a course that puts freedom at the fore. It is not time to give up on the America of the Declaration of Independence—or the classical liberalism at its core.
The Temptation of Optimism
We who cherish America’s tradition of liberty must avoid looking at the country with Panglossian glasses. We can be long-term optimists and happy warriors. But if we are going to convince others to cherish the liberty interest as we do, we can’t simply sing “everything is awesome,” either relative to international counterparts or to memory of our own political sins. Nor can we just stress the cornucopia of products or experiences, either in “meatspace” or online, as if endless choice is a good in itself. Our target audiences just aren’t going to buy it.
I don’t buy it, myself. The urge to put our problems in context is understandable, as is trying to focus on areas of progress. There are great, even amazing, things happening around us.
Unmixed optimism isn’t warranted, though. It feels like our country is in decay. People can see the wreckage and rot in our society. They worry that liberty is part of the problem and see in government hope for a solution. Never mind that freedom has in some substantial ways been continuously eroded for nearly a century in this country – and that the growth of state power has undermined the social power that goes hand in hand with liberty. Yes, there have been historic improvements in freedom on critical margins for some groups (and we should celebrate these). Yet it would be foolish not to acknowledge that what it means to be free today has been degraded from the old ideal of self-governing men and women.
Our culture is a mess. We’ll be fine without young people saying sir and ma’am. Maybe we can live with green hair and nose rings (contrary to the late Cormac McCarthy, who suggested otherwise). And admittedly there are positive features of our cultural scene as well. But can we long flourish as a society when property rights are given little respect, and looting and rioting are defended, excused, or looked on with indifference? When social trust and robust neighborhoods are in decline while littering and disorder seem more ubiquitous? When we aren’t ashamed at trying to socialize the costs of our behavior rather than upholding individual responsibility? When so many individuals seek happiness or fulfillment in the “experience machines” of mind-altering drugs and online lives? When sex is treated like a mere bodily function or exchange, and a soft relativism suggests that prostitution is merely a job like any other? When so many people choose to forego having children, or when they do start families, go it alone by choice or the inability to maintain the stable, married families that children do best in? When identity and equity are privileged over excellence and achievement? When fragility is coddled and resilience undermined? Or even when we have so much architecture that fails to elevate or beautify our lived environments but is designed as a rebuff of tradition, aiming to show off technical prowess (attractiveness be damned) or to satisfy mere short-run efficiency (and the profits of those who often don’t have to live around the results)?
Of course, the only thing that makes our culture look healthy in comparison is our politics. The U.S. remains a relatively free society in global comparison. Contrary to claims that we live in some libertarian utopia, however, individual freedom has been eroded in domain after domain of our lives. We have a serious gap between the soaring rhetoric of freedom around us from the reality we face today.
In many areas, the last 90 years have been a story of growing government control. The array of taxes at both the federal and state level—income, sales, Social Security, Medicare, business, excise, sin, and others—is crushing. Federal spending has ballooned and outstrips revenue despite those high taxation levels. Neither party seems serious about getting a grip on spending, especially so-called entitlements which face real trouble ahead if they are not reformed. The federal government alone just spent over $6 trillion in 2022, a whopping 25 percent of GDP. Year after year of fiscal irresponsibility has led to us being over $30 trillion in debt.
U.S. foreign policy hasn’t helped either. Bloated Pentagon budgets are disconnected from our security needs and we bear the burden of two decades of expensive, failed wars. That burden includes the costs of caring for generations of veterans, many of whom have significant medical and social needs as a result of their service.
Washington and the states also regulate nearly every part of our lives. In some cases, these measures address externalities that impose unwanted costs on the public. But much too often they aim to dictate outcomes and distribute benefits. Federal regulations alone cost about two trillion dollars a year.
These regulations have insidious negative effects beyond their strictly economic costs. They stymie people building businesses, harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit, and living their “life projects” as they see fit. The constant extension of civil rights administration divides Americans, politicizing and incentivizing differences, while undermining free speech, free association, and a merit-based society. Meanwhile, government surveillance — well beyond what is required for public safety — infringes on privacy. Institutionally, we’ve witnessed the rise of the imperial presidency, in which executive discretion replaces legislative deliberation. Even when Congress does act, presidents have claimed powers that go beyond their constitutional authority.
Symbolic of the shift from free to fettered is the New Deal-era Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Supreme Court’s decision blessing federal regulatory powers in Wickard v. Filburn (1942). In this case, the federal government’s reach was deemed to extend to activities only indirectly related to interstate commerce—specifically, a farmer’s ability to grow wheat to feed his farm animals on his own property. Using this precedent, Congress has driven a bus through the commerce clause and used it to justify one intervention after another. Rather than promoting the public good, this tendency to meddle has created economic sclerosis that prevents us from reaching our potential, often to the benefit of the well-connected and the detriment of the least fortunate in society.
There is a lot of ruin in a nation, especially one like ours that has historically enjoyed domestic stability and the greatest prosperity in world history. Despite recurring prophecies of doom, the American economy is still relatively strong and remains a good bet going forward. The cultural attributes and institutions that supported our economic rise in the first place are sticky. Meanwhile the contradictions of state-driven development policies are beginning to show in China, our major economic rival.
But our economy isn’t as robust as it should be. Economic growth is anemic for a country with our resources, both material and human. Productivity growth is unsatisfactory, too. We face massive public debt and deficits. Private debt is worrying too, as “total household debt climbed to a new high in the second quarter of 2023, reaching $17.06 trillion, with credit card debt exceeding $1 trillion.” The scourge of inflation is back after decades in which it seemed like a relic of the past. Health care costs and bureaucratic hassle remain high. Housing is a particularly problematic area, as supply can’t keep up with demand. This has pushed prices higher and the American dream further from realization for so many. It also seems hard to find enough skilled laborers that want to work in many places.
These conditions aren’t just obstacles to our material wellbeing. They also imperil our security, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen warned in 2010, noting “the strength and the support and the resources that our military uses are directly related to the health of our economy over time.” A thriving economy isn’t just a luxury, in other words. It’s a matter of the national interest.
The reason that this litany of maladies is salient to the question of freedom’s future is that many Americans look at them and, often with good intentions, turn to “solutions” antithetical to a free society. Half the country looks to the left with its promise of a benevolent government that effectively manages the economy, alleviates inequality, and expertly provides goods like education.
Such policies derive most of their appeal from an understandable desire for security. Too often, though, they are coopted by more radical agendas of green progressives, woke identitarians, and self-proclaimed socialists. Even when they use the term freedom, these groups favor an activist government that coercively provides what they consider fair rather than protecting our freedom to live our lives as we choose.
The other half looks to the right, which has fractured into many, sometimes overlapping, segments. Increasingly, some on the right have lost faith in freedom and free markets. This includes so-called “national conservatives” and “postliberals” who mock libertarians and the “fusionist” conservatism that sought common ground between them and traditionalists.
Recent critics from the right are more aggressive and optimistic about the use of government than many of their predecessors. For example, they disdain free trade and support protectionism and industrial policy. They also believe that the bureaucracy, currently hostile to anything not sanctioned by the progressive elite, can just be staffed with the right people. Then they expect that it will be transformed into an instrument of their social and economic agendas.
More moderate parts of the right are not exactly offering a bold alternative. Even when they’ve talked a good game about freedom, they’ve often practiced the same rent-seeking, cronyism, and sometimes outright corruption as the left. For the libertarians, classical liberals, and traditional American conservatives or fusionists (who have always seen freedom as the distinctive quality that makes American conservatism American), the present is certainly not their moment.
The Renewal of Liberty
There is no doubt that freedom is on the ropes. But the answer isn’t the siren song of activist government, left or right. That approach will wreck the country even more while providing little hope of long-run amelioration of our troubles.
We need a renewed fusionism that will privilege the protection of individual liberty and free-market economics while reckoning with the cultural challenges around us. For many of our problems, removing barriers to economic activity will help. We also need to make a better case to the American public in defense of liberty and explain how it can support their well-being.
But political reform won’t be enough, since many of the problems that turn people towards collectivist solutions are social and cultural. We need to reduce the supply of troubles for political entrepreneurs to take advantage of – and show how social power can be harnessed outside the state to relieve the ones that remain. Thus we’ll need societal renewal through an emphasis on the values and virtues that are foundational to a free people. This is a more challenging path, but one that has a better chance of succeeding.
This path requires that we be optimistic about what freedom, free markets, and cultural renewal can achieve. But we also need to be humble about being able to create heaven on earth. It’s counterproductive to promise results beyond what we can reasonably hope to accomplish. Thus any program for America must be based on—and promote—a conservative understanding of human nature and the limits of human knowledge. The recognition that a problem exists doesn’t imply that there’s always a solution. And we need to be wary of the unintended consequences that accompany every significant action.
The vision we offer is a society in which people are generally free to order their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, consistent with the equal rights of others. This respects the innate moral dignity of all people. Government would thus be limited to protecting individuals and their property from coercion (that is, the threat or use of physical violence) and fraud, providing a small number of true public goods, and handling the most problematic negative externalities.
This vision is a long way from anarchism. We need a strong national defense, stable monetary regime, and a robust public safety and court system to enforce the rule of law. The latter would help foster respect for the individual and mitigate against the politicization of identity.
Such a classical liberal regime will, given what Adam Smith said about our propensity “to truck, barter, and exchange,” engender a robust market economy that allows for free trade and the efficient allocation of scarce resources that are essential to our prosperity. Removing the moral hazard that comes from government programs would also incentivize individuals and communities to practice traditional virtues while developing strong characters and what Albert Jay Nock called “social power.”
Under this system, society functions because individuals and voluntary organizations take appropriate responsibility for themselves and promote a moral ecology that buttresses a free, constitutional order. But it also calls on free people to resist the urge to politicize the things about which they disagree with others. In other words, we need people to embrace classical liberal toleration, which doesn’t call for "affirmation” or respect but, as I’ve written elsewhere, merely the avoidance of “using force or advocating the use of force against those who hold ideas and beliefs or who engage in practices that one thinks are wrong but which do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.”
A classical liberal political order offers a broad scope for human freedom and leaves people largely alone (at least by government) relative to the control and regulation we see today. But it isn’t a naïve call to shrink from politics and the use of power. Instead, it recognizes the need for a robust but limited government that has the capacity to act vigorously where it is justified. That includes international affairs, as well as domestic public safety. In the former, the federal government should develop a realistic foreign policy that defends our territorial integrity, the conditions of our prosperity, and our constitutional order here at home.
Where government is engaged, moreover, a commitment to classical liberalism doesn’t require we shrink from political deliberation or public affairs. As the founders insisted, we need people who share our views to participate in political life. Under modern conditions, that includes understanding how to operate in complex bureaucracies. This is the case even if the goal is to eliminate some parts and shrink others. For example, if there are going to be publicly administered K-12 schools, higher education systems, or libraries, we don’t need to cede control to unelected teachers, technicians, and bureaucrats. There is nothing antithetical to liberty about the public working at the state and local level to ensure that these institutions, paid for out of the public’s wallet, also reflect public opinion.
FUSION will engage with some of these big issues that matter greatly to our country’s future. It will look at them from perspectives that take freedom and free markets seriously. And it will try to flesh out how we can get from the type of general approaches sketched out above to the particulars. I look forward to learning from the conversation in these virtual pages.
In the meantime, don’t give up the ship.
William Ruger is president of the American Institute for Economic Research.