This weekend handed me a few lessons about the nature of free enterprise and cars, though I still have little knowledge of the more mysterious inner workings of either. Early Sunday morning, I guided my Honda Civic to a stop after a slit punctured into the tire sidewall finally gave way. The only human nearby—a man in a truck who had watched the incident—drove off, and the spirit with which he threw his car into reverse and peeled out of the deserted park made his eagerness to not “get involved” almost humorous. Almost. In the process of finding someone—anyone—to assist me, I wrote down a series of phone numbers on the back cover of Arthur Brooks’s book, “The Road to Freedom.” Brooks’s road is paved with the imperative of making the moral argument for capitalism, a system that is not only economically efficient, but one that best inculcates the virtues of personal and community responsibility. That morning, my own road to freedom was a rockier path. I don’t have roadside assistance, and as I waited while the occasional passerby ignored me, and I listened on the phone as automotive retail shops said they didn’t have the names of any wreckers and couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) look them up, I wondered how persuasive a moral argument for capitalism would be for most Americans when we have twisted the pursuit of happiness into a more selfish endeavor, indifferent to larger social concerns.
We understand that we possess the freedom to pursue individual happiness, but it appears we’ve lost the concept of self-imposed limits on that pursuit—and a corresponding sense of duty to help neighbors in need. Are we Americans willing to abandon our pursuits even temporarily to listen to a moral argument about why, as Arthur Brooks suggests, “the future of the nation is worth more to each of us than a few short-term benefits?”
Stranded by the side of the road, I had a chance to consider the importance of caring about the bigger picture the weekend prior to my off-road adventure, when I stayed at a secluded inn on the Blue Ridge parkway in Asheville. The innkeeper handed the group of young women I was with an excerpt from Norman Cousins’s 1981 book “Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook,” and then he shyly gave us two rules. First, “You don’t have to read it,” he said. Second, “You cannot throw it away in your room,” since doing so would hurt his feelings to find the literature in the trash after our departure.
I chose to read the excerpt, and was immediately drawn to Cousins’s assertion that the greatest problem confronting a free society is “the individual who has no real awareness of the millions of bricks that had to be put into place, one by one, over many centuries, in order for him to dwell in the penthouse of freedom. Nor does he see any special obligation to those who continue building the structure or to those who will have to live in it after him.”
Who, then, is the enemy of a free society? “A man whose only concern about the world is that it stay in one piece during his own lifetime.” In other words, the indifferent man.
At times, we all fall prone to this tendency. But it is the indifferent American who becomes an enemy of free society and free enterprise alike. In conceding ground little-by-little to big government in order to win a short-term benefit here or there, Americans are encouraged to become indifferent to a future in which such benefits are unsustainable for subsequent generations.
For the moral argument for free enterprise to be made and heard, Americans must abandon our sense of indifference. We must care about what happens—not just to us and our benefits—but to the liberty of those around us, and most importantly, to those who come after us.
If we simply leave it to the government to provide for our future liberty, we will be stranded on the side of the road to freedom for years to come.