Most people would agree that freedom is a worthy goal. Freedom with responsibility is an important goal. A libertine society in which everything is allowed and consequences are ignored is less American-style liberty and more like a scene from an Antifa-led autonomous area.
The American founding was based on orderly liberty. Our sense of liberty is based on the idea that was so well communicated by St. John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
Some people will lose their faith in you if you talk about responsibility as an essential part of freedom. It’s hard to be responsible. Freedom can be defined as charting your own course, taking care yourself, and accepting the consequences of your actions. There is always a risk involved in taking great rewards.
Many people simply don’t want to take on the responsibility of true freedom and responsibility. This is why it is so easy for politicians like Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders to manipulate the meaning of the word, and claim that you cannot be “free” unless you are given affordable housing, health care, and a decent wage. Sanders claims that to be “free” is to be able and able to live off the services provided by others.
This is utopian socialism’s promise: Your basic needs and your dreams will be met. How are they incentivised to meet these basic needs? Socialists have never really figured this one out. As a result, many millions died.
Personal responsibility is not only a conservative value. It is the foundation of a free society. If you are not responsible for yourself or your actions, then by definition you believe someone else must be responsible for you—and you will demand of your politicians that other, more productive people are forced to take on that additional responsibility so that you may take on less and less. Some might even label this “social justice.”
Personal responsibility is a prerequisite for freedom. Fortitude is also a prerequisite for personal responsibility. Courage, strength, resilience—all are increasingly missing from a society that now celebrates victimhood as a virtue. Victimhood is so celebrated that even celebrities (jussie Smollett, Sen. Elizabeth Warren) will tell lies about being victims. Not the Greatest Generation anymore.
It is now that citizens have the courage to face the future. Despite the doomsday forecasts of many, our country is strong and resilient at the moment. It is the best place to live in the world. There are plenty of strong people around: men willing and able to fight our wars, investors willing to create jobs, inventors willing to make new discoveries, families willing and able to raise their children to succeed.
A lot of this is due to a sense that you have a duty that is deeply rooted in American spirit. It is the duty of being better than you were yesterday, to seek challenge and to contribute. Many of this is due to incentives, the simple knowledge that hard work will actually pay off, and the simple understanding that there are many ways to do it.
But what if it didn’t pay off?
Our most productive people, our strongest, will see less and lesser results without incentives. The infamous Soviet communist quote comes to mind: “As long as they keep pretending to pay us, we will keep pretending to work!”
With an increasing number and decreasing number of productive people, a free society will not last. As Ben Shapiro recently quipped: “America is faced with a choice. Do we acknowledge what we are—the greatest power in world history, complete with the obligation to defend our interests—or do we sink into a warm bath, eat ourselves into morbid obesity with deficits and welfare spending, and wait for China?”
People will choose the easy path more often than they do without fortitude, without a sense that they have a duty to be better, and without a deep sense if responsibility. Because it is short and easy, the easy path leads nowhere but down. It’s a quick trip to dependency, and free ice-cream. But you can’t get out easily once you’ve descended.
Americans must choose a harder path if they want to keep America’s status as the shining city at the top. This path leads up, and it is difficult. It is treacherous. You may fall down from time to time. Learn from your failures. You are the only one who can navigate it. You have to decide where you want to go. It is scary, but it is worth it, and there is more than just riches on this path—there is meaning.
This path is only possible for a strong person. Freedom is scary. But responsibility is even more frightening. It takes courage and strength in order to compete against others and chart your own course in a free society.
Conservative leaders breathlessly shout of their fight for freedom, “Freedom from government overreach.” But this is incomplete. It’s time we stopped limiting ourselves to demanding freedom from government control and begin demanding of the citizen that which is a foundation of freedom: fortitude.
This article was originally published in the Washington Examiner.
The Daily Signal offers a variety perspectives. This article is not meant to represent the views of The Heritage Foundation.
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