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The Truths We Hold: A Pocket Primer of Principles

The Truths We Hold: A Pocket Primer of Principles

By the Editors

1 The free market isn’t right because it works. It works because it’s right.

The free market succeeds because it reflects and respects our imperfect human nature. Other economic systems start out with false or utopian notions of how people might be trained to act—then harness the vast resources of modern states to train them. Such coercion swallows up liberty, violates human dignity, and fails every time.

The free market is the only efficient, honest system by which billions of people can cooperate in meeting human needs. A price is a message from consumers to producers about how badly they want a product; supply and demand function to organize useful work without the need for economic dictators. Every time the government steps in to interfere with people freely negotiating prices, it mixes the signals and encourages bad investments. Most economic crises, including the Great Depression, have been caused or protracted by bureaucratic meddling.


2 The rule of law should protect the individual from illegitimate force.

The best protection any of us can have is a stable rule of law that enforces legal contracts, sets fair guidelines for adjudicating disputes, gives everyone equal access to the courts, punishes fraud, and makes people pay what they owe. That’s very different from having an activist government that constantly meddles in the efforts of free men and women to profit from their own hard work and talent. Such efforts are the engines of prosperity and invention. Because it allows for progress, the market also produces inequality—in any contest, some people outcompete others. 

3 Small, stable government and a free economy allow talented people to rise and new ideas to emerge.

Human beings were created free, and they do their best work when they’re looking out for themselves and their families. In a limited, constitutional government, people are free to speak, associate, pray, preach, work, invest, and do every other human thing. Following their consciences, they can pursue happiness in this life and the next. Too few societies in history have respected people enough to grant them the freedom they deserve. Instead, most states have aggrandized power—in pursuit of the rulers’ self-interest and ideologies. The Anglo-American tradition of liberty, from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence, is one long rejection of such paternalism.

4 Limited government is the only system worthy of human beings.

People love power and hate to let it go. One lesson of history is that the wealthy and articulate typically learn how to “work the system.” They use government to stifle competition, impose their values, and enshrine themselves as oligarchies. With a small government, new ideas and new people always have a chance to break through and rise; big government tries to freeze things in place to secure power for the few, in both business and politics.

No government can impose a virtuous society from the top down. Instead, healthy culture grows organically from free, nongovernmental institutions such as charities, churches, private schools, clubs, and volunteer groups. This “civil society” (Tocqueville) is what creates social order. Bureaucratic, expansionist government by its nature seeks to weaken, restrict, and replace such institutions with centrally managed agencies of the state.

Liberals’ paternalistic approach—favoring policies that turn citizens into lifelong spoiled teenagers or timid subjects of a domineering state—does not comport with the Western, Judeo-Christian vision of man: a fallen creature, prone to selfishness, but who can learn to treat his neighbor justly with the help of God and a vibrant community. The Constitution made faith free of federal constraints largely because most of the Founders recognized that religion, in shaping virtuous citizens, was the greatest support of a free system of government. Only when we discipline ourselves can we safely live in liberty.

5 As government grows more powerful, it sucks up all the air and stifles other institutions, destroying civil society.

The best thing the federal government can do most of the time is to get out of the way. Its real job is to protect us from one another by defending the rights to life, liberty, and property. Beyond that, the state is meant to do only the things that can’t be done effectively or fairly by individuals—like guarding the borders, enforcing laws, and keeping people from dumping waste in other people’s wells. Everything else is done more efficiently and effectively by private initiative, community organizations, and local government.

In socialist countries (like most of Europe), there are very few private charities, almost no religious or independent schools, and few incentives for helping one’s neighbor. Too much of the wealth is taken from people in ­taxes, and the responsibility for almost every activity is shunted onto the government. That stifles diversity of thought, helps dominant elites impose their values on dissenters, and turns free citizens into clients of the state. It’s interesting that the demographic group that gives the most to private charity in America is conservative churchgoers, while secular liberals give the least. Instead they vote to raise taxes—on themselves and on everyone else.

Once the state, through high taxes, has annexed half or more of a country’s wealth—and hemmed in the rest with regulations—many people can’t afford to start a business, pay private school tuition, buy what they want, build a house, or otherwise shape their own lives. Instead they must petition the government for their needs. Private organizations are starved of funds, micromanaged by the government, or suppressed.


6 The golden mean between anarchy and tyranny is ordered liberty, which we nourish by freely working for our communities.

No man is an island. We are social beings by nature, and when economic, social, or political forces tear up the organic bonds of community, we each become a naked individual shivering before the power of the state. To avoid that, we must support civil society, behave responsibly, care for our neighbors, and defend nongovernmental institutions—especially faith-based groups—from interference.

The American tradition is not every man for himself but everyone first for his family, then for his neighborhood, then for his city, and county, and state, and finally for the country as a whole. Society is built as a pyramid of loyalty that begins with the nuclear family. When foundations are destroyed, people in need have nowhere to look but to government—which becomes an ever more coercive and intrusive pseudo-community.

Every community sets certain standards that limit the exercise of our rights. Sometimes these restrictions go too far, but they are part of every society in recorded history. We accept certain limits because we know that disordered liberty today leads to chaos tomorrow and tyranny the day after. Rights come with responsibilities, and reckless uses of freedom tear down the institutions (such as the family) that can push back against the state.

7 A democracy needs citizens who know their rights and duties, their history and institutions. Knowledge of the past is a safeguard against destructive innovations.

We aren’t serfs in Tsarist Russia. We are free citizens, and it’s part of our heritage to govern our own communities. Our ancestors fought for that right, and we honor them by preserving it through civic involvement, informed voting, and activism. Such work is possible only if we know what they did and why. But too few Americans know about their country’s past or its principles. In extensive, statistically valid studies, ISI has discovered an appalling civic illiteracy among Americans. While the general population scores very low on basic questions of American history and government, elected officials score even worse. Students at elite U.S. colleges learn very little about our country—then go on to form its governing class.


8 The American Constitution embodies transcendent truths learned over thousands of years of tradition and experience, binding us together as Americans.

Although the Constitution had certain historical blind spots that eventually required amendments, it has proved the single most durable, stable guardian of freedom of any governing document on earth. It is based on timeless principles of justice and unchanging truths about human nature. It preserves a balance between liberty and equality, the will of the many and the claims of the few. It sometimes frustrates us, because it is doing its job; it also frustrates people who want to take away our rights. Those rights don’t change, and having a stable document whose very structure safeguards them is our best protection against the abuse of government power. And if the twentieth century teaches us anything, it’s that government power was made to be abused.


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