“You didn’t build that”…your community did. Those quickly famous words reflect Americans’ debate over whether we want a society dominated by government or shaped by free choice. They also disparage the contributions of business men and women who embrace the risk, reward, creativity and work that drive our economy and sustain our quality of life. In that attitude, the president reflects much of America’s elite, who celebrate the public and nonprofit sectors, while harboring indifference or disdain toward business.
That worldview is a long way from our cultural and constitutional roots. In choosing the blessings and risks of independence over the security and servitude of dependence, the founders crafted a constitution carefully structured to protect property, contract, and economic rights.
The founders understood something we’re in danger of forgetting: fundamental to pursuing happiness is the right to choose our labors, keep their fruits, and make the arrangements we choose to perform those labors. The rights of property and contract are a necessary foundation to express and enjoy all other rights.
Some misguided voices dismiss economic liberty as merely business—less precious or important than civil rights like speech and privacy. But considered clearly, economic freedom is the backbone not just of our survival but our pursuit of happiness.
Commerce. Design. Production. Distribution. Sale. Purchase. Service. Enterprise touches so much of what makes life full. The ways we avoid hunger and enjoy plenty; the means we use to overcome bitter cold and wilting heat, to appreciate comfort. The fabrics we weave and stitch to cover our skin, so we can savor fashion and beauty.
Even the ideas we explore and words we speak depend on commerce to be shared. Almost everything we enjoy is enhanced by our freedom to exchange to pursue what we want. Economic activity and gainful pursuit are as much the blood and oxygen of freedom as are verse, art, and song.
Freedom is not confined to the steps of a dance, or the words of a poem. Freedom is exercised in building the concert hall, in printing books, in loading delivery trucks, in operating computer servers and fiber-optic cables spreading words and images, ideas and aspirations. There is hardly freedom to express without the freedom to produce, distribute, and exchange.
These truths aren’t just philosophical or moral. They’re practical. Freedom works. It succeeds. Those struggling colonies, clinging to the edge of a continent adopted this exceptional creed and produced exceptional results. In not many decades, they built the most prosperous, stable, powerful, idealistic nation in history. It didn’t happen according to a politicians promises or a bureaucrat’s 5-year plan. It wasn’t mandated by enlightened regulators. It was driven by the undirected actions of people free to pursue their happiness.
It’s a pattern we see all over the world. Freedom produces growth, jobs, opportunity, and prosperity. The economically freest countries have the highest standard of living, the cleanest air and water. The economically freest countries are the most generous when disaster, tragedy, or atrocity strikes abroad.
And we’ve seen the reverse lesson. The most controlled societies are the poorest, the most miserable, hungriest, coldest, and most choked by pollution. As an aside, if you hear anyone blame “business” or “capitalism” for ills like pollution, child labor, or exploitation, remind them that’s nonsense. Those evils have always been part of human experience. Free enterprise produced the growth and prosperity to push back and reduce those blights.
But there’s always a chorus of voices insisting there’s a better way, a more enlightened path, if only politicians and experts can plan it and carry it out by controlling our choices and our opportunities. Today, our exceptional American success is at risk.
Too many ignore history’s lessons. Some take our prosperity for granted, believing it’s immune to governmental malpractice. Others say the pie is limited anyway, they best they can do is game the system to grab the biggest piece, or spread it around, and reward friends and supporters.
The deniers of exceptionalism don’t understand our prosperity flows from an essential mix of vision, work, capital, and risk and perseverance, through setbacks. Those happy elements spring from freedom, not from mandates, planning, or even majority vote.
With a thousand threads and obstacles and distortions, they misallocate resources, divert productive effort, bleed away prosperity, reward their friends and cronies, try to direct what gets produced, what gets consumed, how much, and by whom.
It’s not just “business” they’re choking. It’s our pursuit of happiness.