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Donald J. Boudreaux: What protects Americans' freedom?

| Thursday, May 10, 2018, 8:55 p.m.
A man wears American flag shorts in an exhibit hall at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center during the NRA's annual convention on May 6, 2018 in Dallas, Texas.
AFP/Getty Images
A man wears American flag shorts in an exhibit hall at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center during the NRA's annual convention on May 6, 2018 in Dallas, Texas.

I'm proud to be an American. Despite the stream of criticisms that I direct at the United States government, I celebrate the many creative achievements of countless individual Americans, past and present.

My pride in being an American isn't the sort of childish pride in one's country that an individual is commonly instructed to have merely because he or she happened to be born there.

Genuine pride is grounded in applause-worthy accomplishment. I'm proud to be an American because, compared to citizens of most other countries, Americans have demanded more freedom for themselves and protected that freedom more reliably.

I do not here refer to U.S. military victories, however glorious or significant any of those were. History is filled with mighty military victories. Each of these victories always promoted the interests of the rulers of the victorious dominions, and sometimes even the interests of the ordinary people in those domains. But too seldom did any of these victories promote human freedom.

Instead, when I write of Americans' quest for freedom I refer to specific American ideas and values — ideas and values that, while not unique to Americans, are historically too rare.

Americans' freedom is rooted ultimately in our sense of what the 19th-century British writer Auberon Herbert called “the right and wrong of compulsion by the state.” For example, throughout our history most Americans — or enough Americans to matter — have found government censorship of speech and of the press to be intolerable. Likewise, in America respect for private property and the sanctity of contracts has been widespread, if not universal. And we Americans have been creative and humane in cooperating voluntarily with each other to deal with community problems. Such cooperation reduces demands for government involvement.

Again, I don't claim that we Americans are unique on these fronts. Nor do I claim that we've been as steadfast as we ought to have been at protecting our freedoms. My claim instead is that, to the extent that Americans are “great,” that greatness is the fruit of our freedom. And our freedom, in turn, springs from what we will and will not tolerate government doing. Our freedom, in other words, is promoted and protected much more by the ways in our daily lives that we talk and respond to each other — especially about political matters — than by the Pentagon's warriors and weaponry.

I hear already the objections, especially from conservatives. “You're criticizing our military!” they shout.

I'm doing no such thing. The U.S. military is indisputably effective at keeping foreign governments from using their armies and navies to invade our shores. And I, as much as any other American, am happy to be protected from foreign military invasions.

I am instead arguing that protecting Americans militarily from foreign invasion and occupation is not synonymous with protecting Americans' freedom. If we Americans come to hold freedom in contempt — if we become so frightened and distrustful of ourselves as individuals that we empower our own state to intrude further into our lives — then we will forge our own chains of slavery. And if we do so, no amount of valor by the U.S. military will set us free. And I would, then, no longer be proud to be an American.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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