In the book “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States,” Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez‐faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”
Herbert McClosky and John Zaller made a similar point in 1984: The “American ethos” is a combination of capitalism and democracy, both of which serve to divide and limit power.
Some people aren’t happy about America’s libertarian ethos. Two Ivy League professors lament that libertarian ideas “are astonishingly widespread in American culture.”
In America, even our revolutions are often libertarian. In the 1960s, we had a cultural revolution that extended the fundamental values of America to new groups and new issues, such as equal rights for women, blacks and gays; antiwar and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethos of the so‐called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.
In the 1980s, we had a “Reagan Revolution” that involved tax cuts, deregulation and an appreciation for entrepreneurship.
Few political analysts have come to terms with the fact that the same generation lived in the 1960s and the 1980s. Many of the same people were involved in the antiwar movement or the counterculture in the 1960s, the personal liberation and self‐help movements of the 1970s, and the entrepreneurial upsurge of the 1980s. All those trends build on the individualism of the American ethos and point toward an increase in choice and self‐reliance.
But, despite that heritage of freedom, we’ve always got the Hillarys and the Huckabees and the other people who think they could run our lives better than we can. The Huckabees on the right continue to resist the cultural changes of the 1960s, and the Hillarys on the left continue to resist the economic changes of the 1980s.
The “Huckabees” want to censor cable television because they don’t think you can be trusted to decide what your family should watch. They support bans on drugs, pornography, gambling and violent video games because you just don’t know what’s good for you. They want prayer in the schools and sound science out. They want to subsidize heterosexual marriage and ban gay marriage. They want government to take the place of God and stamp out sin on earth. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a classic Huckabee, complains about “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.”
The “Hillarys,” meanwhile, want to raise taxes because they think they can spend your money more wisely than you can. They don’t believe in school choice because you don’t know how to choose a school for your children. They think they can handle your retirement savings and health care better than you can. They think, as Hillary Clinton has advocated, that the government should produce video lectures on how to burp a baby and how to brush your teeth and have them “running continuously in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, motor vehicle offices, or any other place where people gather and have to wait.”
The Huckabees want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. The Hillarys want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in and setting your curfew. But the proper role for the government of a free society is to treat adults as adults, responsible for making their own decisions and accepting the consequences. And the good news is that mostly we do that.
The liberations of the 1960s and the 1980s built on the fundamental libertarianism of America to make this a country that extends more freedom to more people than ever before. Don’t get me wrong; we still have a government that is way too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public’s money. But, despite the efforts of the Hillarys and the Huckabees, America remains a free country, in many ways freer than ever.