One of the consequences of writing a syndicated column on politics and public policy for more than three decades is that I am constantly told what I think and why I think it.
You may find this consequence perplexing. Isn’t it my job here to tell readers what I think and why I think it? Sure. But most readers are not passive recipients of information. They listen critically and respond, even if it’s only in their head. Some go further. They write to me, call me or send letters or comments to the newspapers that run my column.
A common theme in such correspondence, especially in recent years, is that I don’t mean what I say. Some accuse me of repeating someone else’s beliefs instead of my own. Others attribute opinions or goals to me that I don’t have or that I would even find abhorrent.
I appreciate the entertainment value of armchair psychiatry, conspiracy theories and political fallacies as much as the next person. But just in case there’s any doubt, let me restate a few basic facts about my beliefs, my work, and this column.
First, I write what I like, about what I like. Naturally, the editors who run my column correct spelling and grammatical errors. They edit for length. And they ask for clarification when I misunderstand or quote a statistic they find confusing or implausible. But that’s all. No one is in a position to approve or disapprove of my work.
Second, I believe what I say I believe. Although my opinions have changed over the decades on a few issues, in response to changing circumstances or different facts presented to me, my core beliefs are the same as those I espoused in my high school newspaper. , the student magazine I founded in college and the syndicated column I started writing for North Carolina newspapers in the summer of 1986.
I believe in personal freedom – and the personal responsibility that inevitably comes with it. I think human beings tend to be richer, healthier and happier the more free they are. I also believe that human beings have an inherent right to be free, simply because they are human beings. In other words, I believe in and employ both consequentialist arguments (freedom is good for you) and natural rights arguments (freedom is your birthright).
To say that freedom is my highest political value is not to say that I exclude others. Nor does it mean that I oppose all government actions that impede freedom. Indeed, I recognize that government actions are inherently coercive. I am not an anarchist. In fact, I don’t think anarchy is a coherent idea. Human beings yearn for freedom but are also, by nature, often tempted to be disagreeable, myopic and violent. It’s just basic psychology and another inescapable fact of history.
So I think government should (and always will exist) to protect individual rights and fund certain basic services that, due to collective action issues, will not be adequately provided by purely voluntary means. At the national and local levels, these services include public safety and health, education and some infrastructure.
These views were traditionally described as liberalism – in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith and their intellectual progeny – until the turn of the 20th century. It was then that left-wing progressives succeeded in redefining the term. So today my philosophy is considered conservative, libertarian, “fusionist” or maybe “conservative”, which is an unkind but reasonably accurate term.
I firmly believe that maximizing freedom produces significant and persistent social benefits. A steady stream of empirical research informs my conviction. In recent years, academic studies have confirmed that economic freedom is correlated with faster economic growth, a higher standard of living, more investment in developing countries, greater longevity, a more freedom, greater public confidence and higher average levels of happiness.
I and others who espouse the virtues of smaller government and greater freedom can deceive us. But our beliefs stem from logic and experience. Please structure your rebuttals accordingly and thank you for reading.
John HWell is a board member of the John Locke Foundation. His latest books Mountain folklore and people of the forest, combine epic fantasy and ancient American history.