Michael Hicks: Freedom is difficult

Simply living in the United States is as easy as it gets, and almost always has been. However, fully participating in the American experiment is very demanding. No government before or since has asked citizens to do something as difficult as embracing the ideas of our founding documents. The rewards for doing so build the very foundation for American exceptionalism.

Our founding was an extraordinary moment in world history, and the Founding Fathers were well aware of it. Our Declaration of Independence took great care to explain why we were leaving the British Empire, and what the new nation would be. The simple claim that “we hold these truths to be self-evident …” is simply the single most important sentence ever written.

Following a dozen years of war and debate, we forged from that a Constitution that was even more radical. It made clear that the ability to assemble together in crowds, to speak without control of government and to worship as one sees fit were “inalienable rights.” These were given by our “Creator,” not a government.

By the time these words were written, we were already a polyglot nation of many faiths, ethnicities and races. A tiny few came to enjoy royal land grants. Most were escaping religious persecution, deported as criminals, imported as mercenaries or fleeing poverty as peasants. Others came as chattel slaves.

Remarkably, the framers of the Constitution wrote broadly enough to ensure the expansion of that vision of “inalienable rights” would eventually extend to everyone. It has taken time, bloodshed and heartache to get us where we are today. But, most of all, it took moral courage.

Fully embracing our Constitutional freedoms takes so much faith and moral courage that it has been called a secular religion. Like a religion, embracing the radical freedom of our nation is demanding. It asks that we look at other people, different people and strange people, and accept them as equals.

The Constitution makes no demand in our personal lives. We need not believe another religion holds truth, nor view another person as an equal. It does demand that in civil life we accept the radical idea of universal value. That, in the end, all of us matter.

That radical idea compels us not merely to accept in civil life people who we might find distasteful, who worship their Creator differently, who speak or dress or eat differently—we must assert them our equals under law. We must allow them to vote, to hold office and to share their ideas openly. This simple proposition takes more moral courage than anything any other government has asked of its citizens.

To be fair, you can live in our great nation without giving personal freedom much deep thought. Most of us don’t walk around every day thinking about these matters. That is because freedom is in the air around us.

Still, we should reflect at how late many basic freedoms arrived. The Voting Rights Act, or Brown v. Board of Education have only come to pass in living memory. In 75 years, Americans will be equally puzzled why it took so long to legalize same-sex marriage.

We should also reflect on how many of our fellow citizens fail the simplest tests of our Constitution. The antisemitic protests on college campuses are an appalling example of the failure of moral courage. The rise of Christian nationalism is an even greater risk to the Republic.

We should be heartened by the knowledge that the future doesn’t belong to moral cowards, and an American future belongs to those who support and defend the Constitution; not those who reject freedom of speech and religion.

These matters are political and moral, but it is the political economy of the Constitution that has given us enduring strength. The full embrace of our Constitution is a gateway to prosperity that was unimaginable to the Founders. I think Adam Smith, the father of economics, writing through the decade before our Declaration of Independence, would have anticipated much of our current prosperity.

Our Constitution calls upon us to treat one another as equals before the law. The discipline of this enables trade and commerce in ways that singularly enrich the United States of America.

Published in 1776, Smith’s Wealth of Nations noted that “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange” was common to all humans. Thus trade, commerce, the simple act of selling one’s labor, products or services was a human institution of high importance.

The Constitution, like no document before it, envisioned civil interactions between citizens who were equal before the law. Americans and American civil institutions disciplined to this view are far more able to conduct commerce than those of other nations.

It is difficult to fully demonstrate this truth. North America is an abundant land, full of natural resources. How can I be so confident that freedom, not natural bounty, makes the difference? Well, there are two ways.

First, we know from numerous studies, that individuals who live in free places economically outperform those who live in restricted places. China is a bountiful place as well, but the average American worker is about six times as productive as the average Chinese worker. The typical American worker produces the same value of goods and services by late afternoon on a Monday as a Chinese worker does all week.

Second, we know that places within freer nations do better than those that are less free. Growth in Europe was dominated for the last three centuries by trading hubs like London, Amsterdam and the Hanseatic cities. Freedom has always been the grease that eased the tasks of commercial interactions.

We all take some time to celebrate freedom on the Independence Day weekend. On the other 364 days of the year, we should marvel at what liberty has gifted each of us; the freedom to love as we wish, worship as we wish and speak without fear of retribution.

We should also remember how demanding it is to live within a system that proclaims as a central tenet that we are all equal before the law; and how easy it is for some of our fellow citizens to reject that universal birth right.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].