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More Than Any Other, This Understanding Is the Distinguishing Feature of True Liberalism

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


Whatever are the neglected merits of Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, Peggy Noonan errs in applauding Pres. Carter’s claim that Americans faced a choice between “fragmentation and self-interest” and “common purpose and the restoration of American values” (“Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise’ Speech Aged Well,” Feb. 24).

A core American value is the belief that society can be peaceful and prosperous without everyone pursuing a common purpose. This understanding is reflected in American federalism, which permits different states to implement different policies according to their citizens’ different preferences. More importantly, rejection of a common purpose is implied in the Declaration of Independence’s ringing affirmation that each of us has an unalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” To identify liberty as a keystone of a good society is to realize that self-interest isn’t fragmenting when people engage with each other voluntarily, as they do in free markets which incite each person to pursue his or her individual happiness by helping countless strangers to pursue theirs.

If the term “common purpose” has any concrete content, then such a purpose can be possessed and pursued only by collectivist societies. A free society has the opposite: individual liberty governed by the rule of law. Pres. Carter was wrong in 1979 – just as politicians, left and right, are wrong today – to insist, in effect, that Americans can succeed only by mimicking collectivists.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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