Independence Day weekend is an opportune time to reflect on liberty. It is also a good time to note the father of economics, Adam Smith, published his great “Wealth of Nations” just as Jefferson finalized the Declaration of Independence. We rightly view both as centerpieces of the Enlightenment. Together these two works pressed forward the still radical idea that every human has value and all of us are in possession of immutable rights, from which no government may justly deprive us.
Both Jefferson and Smith gave us a glimpse of what economic and personal liberty might be. Neither men were theorists but rather practical designers, laying out a design for a free government and market economy. I believe it remains the compelling vision for society, and given the vast expansion of markets and democracy over the past decades, that view appears majoritarian.
Our history is replete with dark moments that were pregnant with that which Lincoln aptly referred to as a “new birth of freedom.” That which seems most grim today may harbor such a watershed moment. It is from that perspective that allows me to look back to the time in which I have memory. For this half century or so, how have we done on matters of personal liberty?
The short answer is easy. Personal liberty in the United States has broadly expanded in both breadth and depth, even as liberty for some Americans has retracted. Let me explain.
As I entered elementary school a half century or so ago, the promise of our Constitution remained elusive for many Americans. In many states, African Americans lived under the oppressive boot of government. Denied equal access to education, housing, and in many places the right to marry whom they wished, the 1960s began a half century of undeniable change. Women faced deeply unequal access to schooling and employment opportunities, and a dozen other slights. The past 50 years of progress has transformed life for women, who for example, now attend college at a 40% higher rate than men. This expansion of liberty touched nearly every other group of Americans. Disabled persons, sexual or religious minorities and Native Americans all enjoy more access to civil life over the past 50 years than at any earlier time in the history of our republic.
Despite its lingering imperfections, this “new birth of freedom” has been unmistakably good for all of us. Inflation adjusted personal income since 1965 has growth over threefold.
A full understanding of liberty is also contingent to understanding Smith’s economic analysis. Many at the time thought an economy a zero-sum existence. Working against that mercantilist view, Smith hinted towards the expansive capacity of markets. As an illustration of his correct view, the life of even a low-income white man is far richer today in opportunity, earnings and associations than it was in the 1960s. As it has always done, expanding the blessings of freedom profit us all, not merely those to whom it had been previously denied. Sadly, this might be the one important lesson still broadly misunderstood today.
As bountiful as the expansion of freedom has been, in many areas, we have reduced personal liberty. Increasingly oppressive workplace rules limit the ability to enter new occupations through restrictive licensing. Maybe one-third of all Americans now face occupational licensing designed solely to keep out competition. While we have expanded freedoms to most, we have steadily restricted them for young Americans. For example, maybe a third of the combat veterans returning from Afghanistan cannot buy a beer or a cigar to celebrate, simply because we judge them as too immature for such choices. On college campuses, and in many workplaces, more Americans are afraid to speak their mind than at any time in half a century. We also see waves of political violence, the antithesis of freedom. Today in America, we still have both types of fascists on display; the fascists and the anti-fascists. Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson would lament all these new losses of freedom.
In the end, we are imperfect people in search of a more perfect union. Our very human nature ensures movement towards freedom will be unequal in time and place, and face setbacks. However, on this Independence Day weekend, even in the face of many malevolent and injudicious political forces, we have far more to be thankful for than we have to lament.
Michael J. Hicks, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at email@example.com