Obama and Reagan’s Speeches about Freedom

President Obama spoke to Chinese college students on Monday, as President Ronald Reagan spoke to Moscow State University students in 1988. There were a lot of similarities – both men are great communicators, convinced of the rightness of their views and of their persuasive ability, and confident that their values are not just American but universal. But there were some clear differences in the philosophies they presented.

President Obama was eloquent in his defense of freedom in the heart of an authoritarian country:

The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship – of access to information and political participation – we believe are universal rights.

Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles – that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice….

Those are important American values, and I agree with the president that they are universal, as classical liberals have long argued. But I’m disappointed that President Obama didn’t cite freedom of enterprise,  property rights, and limited government as American values. Those are not only the necessary conditions for growth and prosperity, they are the necessary foundation for civil liberties.

He did glancingly mention in the paragraph above that “commerce should be open, information freely accessible,” so that’s half a clause about commerce, I guess. But that’s it for the freedoms that allow people to work and save, create, build, invest, and prosper. He noted that “China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – an accomplishment unparalleled in human history” but didn’t examine how that happened. (Hint: economic reforms that moved toward free markets and (quasi) property rights.)

His only subsequent mention of freedom touched on economics in the context of citizen participation and the Internet:

Now, that’s not just true in – for government and politics. It’s also true for business.  You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was – less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you.  It was a science project.  And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world.  So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn’t exist.

So I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter.

Yes, “the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows” were important to the development of Google. But more fundamental was the freedom of enterprise in America. There’s a reason that so many technological advances and consumer benefits are developed in the world’s freest economies. Property rights, freedom of exchange, low taxes, and limited restrictions on entreneurship allow people to invest and create.

Contrast the speech that President Reagan gave to the students who were still behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. Start with the way he addressed a very similar point to the one Obama made about Google:

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home.

Reagan praised democracy and justice and openness:

At the same time, the growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age….Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured.We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every 4 years the American people choose a new President, and 1988 is one of those years. At one point there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates – all trying to get my job. About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government – report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next President.But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections.

Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs – in many places, synagogues and mosques – and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that no government can justly deny; the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women – common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused. Go to any university campus, and there you’ll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you’ll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them; the people’s right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police. Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law….

But freedom is more even than this. Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.

And he came back to the basic purpose of democracy in the American context, not a plebiscitary system but a way to ensure that the governors don’t exceed the consent of the governed: “Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.”

He tied all of these freedoms to the American commitment to economic freedom as well. Throughout the speech he tried to enlighten students who had grown up under communism about the meaning of free enterprise:

Some people, even in my own country, look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste. What of all the entrepreneurs that fail? Well, many do, particularly the successful ones; often several times. And if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; yes, it’s what they learned from failing. Like an athlete in competition or a scholar in pursuit of the truth, experience is the greatest teacher….

And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world.

He even explained why China would one day, as President Obama said, lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty:

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world — places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. Low-tax agricultural policies in the sub-continent mean that in some years India is now a net exporter of food. Perhaps most exciting are the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China, where one-quarter of the world’s population is now getting its first taste of economic freedom.

President Obama said some important things to the Chinese students. But his continuing failure to mention the virtues of productive enterprise in a commencement address or to note the centrality of economic freedom in the American experiment could easily lead listeners to conclude that he really doesn’t care much for business and economic liberty.