It’s easy to get wrapped up in the everyday worry — would the Washington Post’s Alex Burns be assassinated with a Russian or Chinese sniper rifle? — but the real issue underlying a recent New York Times piece is the almost reassuring safety of our political discourse.
In it, Burns argues that when it comes to the Second Amendment, “politicians should remain just as firm in their support for privacy” even after President Trump’s decision to admit journalist Michael Schmidt to the United States, even as tensions rose with North Korea, even as China threatened to cancel the next American presidential visit. And so on.
Story Continued Below
Such worries are our reality, just as the issues that are the driver of our disagreement — including, perhaps most notably, Russia — are real. But they are the very differences that lead us to appreciate the need for openness and freedom. So instead of focusing on how we compare, or how seriously to take the position that the China-focused Times piece takes, it’s worth taking a few moments to focus on how to maintain and nurture this openness and freedom.
On this note, it’s worth recalling what one of the first important American public intellectuals was famous for: Alexis de Tocqueville. When writing about freedom, Tocqueville understood it not just as the end of bargaining — as Henry Hazlitt puts it, “freedom that is bought and sold is not liberty” — but also as the ultimate way of securing freedom.
Tocqueville looked across the American landscape at the poor of the Mississippi and found, as historian Tocqueville Langston has described, that the prime source of prosperity in a society is not a free market, but prosperity that can flourish only when personal ability, rather than obligation, is the measure of the nation’s progress.
A free economy that is based on demand, rather than obligation, guarantees prosperity for everyone. A free country can offer living wages and free government entitlements, in the manner of our Founding Fathers, without fearing that people will lose their freedom.
For Tocqueville, the individualized nature of freedom — the inherent ability of every person to achieve his or her personal potential — is the very thing that makes democracy possible. De Tocqueville’s central insight was the “exhaustive individuality” of individual freedom, something many in the West still persist in defining as an unfettered right to bear arms. Yet, as he noted in Democracy in America, the individualization of freedom “provides a more vivid expression of the human nature of democracy than the infringement of its strictures by tyrannical majorities.”
This fact has never been more important, not just because of our recent, real problems in the world but also because of the future. De Tocqueville warned of the lure of dictatorship, the path to slavery, the easy path to despotism. And yet, there is something infinitely more appealing about freedom than the path to tyranny. Why? Because freedom is real — even as leaders, by their coercion, increasingly oppress us.
For this reason, we must continue to push back against the idea that we are living in the dark ages. Because the truly frightening thing that we see all around us is how little we know about the world. Or about our fellow human beings.
Whether it is modern China; or the issues we discuss at Georgetown; or the issues we argue about across the world — from environmental degradation to nuclear warfare — in whatever language we use to talk about it, American engagement is the best defense we have against any enemy who might seek to suppress our freedom.
It is not that we face anything but the world’s greatest challenges. It is that despite those challenges, we are as close to absolute, absolute security as we have ever been, thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, our First Amendment, and our passion for liberty. We have what Tocqueville called “a bill of particulars no greater than that of any other free government.” And it is through freedom that we strive for such a security.