As the North Carolina Constitution states, “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty.” It is important though not to let the smell from a grill spark up too much nostalgia. Misplaced nostalgia for a lost American Golden Age has driven politics for the past 30 years.
The burnished image of the past ignores the extent of legal segregation and unofficial discrimination. It ignores the extent of destruction in non-Soviet Europe and Asia. It ignores the truly existential threat posed by the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. And it ignores the devastation urban planning experts brought to long-established communities across the country.
Taking a much longer perspective, from the dawn of history until 1300, economic output per person was basically unchanged. As the cultural and institutional changes that we call capitalism began to take hold respecting the right to one’s own person, property, and promises, output began a steady climb so that it had doubled over the next 500 years. It took less than 75 years to double again, and the pace has been accelerating since. Economic output per person today is more than double what it was just 17 years ago.
To put it in human terms, more than a billion people have escaped poverty (they have not been passively lifted out, they played an active role in the improvement of their condition) since 1990 as protections of person, property, and promises spread.
Poverty has also declined in the United States. Since 1965, the proportion of people living in poverty has fallen from 15 percent to 2 percent. Compensation has kept pace with economic growth, although less of that compensation has gone been in the form of wages as employers have paid more for health insurance.
People as diverse as Jonah Goldberg on the Right and Steven Pinker on the Left celebrate these facts as the legacy of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on liberty and reason. What occasionally gets lost in the panegyrics is that liberty and reason are hothouse flowers that can thrive only in certain conditions but that do little to replenish those conditions on their own.
When we defend the modern world, liberal democracy, and a free economy solely on their material benefits, we unintentionally foster distrust when the right person loses an election, when people get swindled, or when a town loses its main employer.
If people do not have solid relationships in family or church, they look to government to help solve their problems. Nathan Glazer warned,
Every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association. In doing so, social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents and further encourages needy people to depend on the government, rather than on the traditional structures, for help.
It is not just an observation. Researchers in 2010 found that “individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt.” More government intervention makes politics more important and leaves less room for compromise.
Those of us who argue for limited government may have put too little emphasis on the importance of constantly repairing and reinforcing the traditional arrangements that compete with government. Our silence has, at times, led people to assume our opposition to a government regulation means we oppose the object of the regulation.
For the record, workers should receive fair pay, sellers and buyers should receive fair prices, people should have access to health care, and children should receive a good education. If we want to recognize the inherent dignity of each person and community, however, we should seek voluntary action before government coercion. The more we solve on our own, the more we build trust, the less we look to government, and the more we provide the conditions for continued liberty, prosperity, and happiness.