I watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001, from my Los Angeles home. A friend in Manhattan later told me that the ashes of those murdered that autumn morning fell across every borough of New York—ashes like the snowflakes at the close of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” falling all across a city I know well, with whose people and accents I am so well acquainted. After my friend related this to me, I had an image in my mind of those ashes that bright and sparkling late-summer morning making their descent on the whole of the city, ashes of corporate executives, secretaries, and janitors, of fire fighters from Brooklyn and Queens, of Filipino immigrants like Ben, who never failed to slip me a free drink at Windows on the World, of investment bankers like Greg, who called me every day to sell a treasury bond or two, or just to laugh.
I know the sort, their down-to-earth qualities and rough virtues of courage and hard work. I believe I may also know something about the ideology employed by the man who orchestrated the attacks. In many people’s minds, Osama bin Laden was simply a holdover from a primitive form of Islam. But if you listen closely to some of the man’s own recorded messages to the world, a more complex portrait emerges. In what may have been his last recorded video message, released after he had been killed and just after the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, bin Laden said that “the path to stop the hegemony of capitalism is to carry out a real radical change” so that the president “will be liberated, and with him, everyone else, from the hegemony of these corporations.”
Whether Bin Laden’s political ideology was deeply influenced by socialist thinking is an open question. What is undeniable is that bin Laden found it useful to tap into socialism’s anti-capitalist mentality and class-warfare vocabulary. With the fall of Soviet communism, many assumed that such thinking was in permanent retreat, but the impulse is never further away than human nature itself. It pipes a tune seductive to the darkest elements of the human heart—envy, sloth, pride—while promising speedy solutions to problems that the better angels of our nature crave to be reminded.
To build an authentically free and virtuous society is far more complicated and difficult, requiring habituations to just deeds, both visible and invisible. But as far as I have been able to discern in my circuitous odyssey across the political spectrum, economic and personal freedom is simply the best plan for human persons to seek and attain genuine goods. The free market rewards greatness and excellence instead of trying to eradicate them. It permits men and women the space to express, pursue, and create higher things. And it leaves room for the most effective kind of charity to those in need.
Freedom is indispensable to the flourishing of a virtuous society, and virtue is the indispensable glue to maintain and make sense of freedom, calling it to the higher end of truth. Without virtues—which are more than “values,” because virtues are objective rather than a matter of subjective preference—we are susceptible to either of two temptations: to seek tyranny over others or to permit tyranny over ourselves, often because we idolize security and material comfort.
One would think that the connection between free markets and lives of virtue would be obvious in the “land of the free and home of the brave.” But there are voices in the world that dispute that connection, and do so in the name of ideology, religion, and morality. I have had the occasion to travel and speak with business, economic, and political leaders in scores of countries across the economic and political spectrum, and I find that many of them, while well-meaning and motivated by a deep love for humanity, simply do not have the faintest notion of the vital role of ethical business enterprise and entrepreneurial creativity for a flourishing economy that can lift people out of poverty. I do not say that I am surprised by this fact.
I understand how easy it is to make the fixed-pie mistake of the offering plate, which is all about transferring wealth without asking how it is created in the first place. But it is a mistake, nonetheless, to think of wealth as if there was a static quantity of it, and redistribution were the answer to poverty. It is precisely those societies that have liberated the entrepreneur to create new wealth that have generated the reserves of wealth, along with the means of creating and delivering a host of positive goods and services, that have done the most to roll back extreme poverty and place people on the path to economic well-being.
Does the very prosperity that has lifted so many people out of extreme poverty also come with dangers? Undoubtedly. In a sharp analysis of the free society, the economist Friedrich Hayek speculated, “It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, and that once freedom is achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued.” He goes on to ask, “Does this mean that freedom is valued only when it is lost, that the world must everywhere go through a dark phase of socialist totalitarianism before the forces of freedom can gather strength anew?”
He answers, “It may be so, but I hope it need not be.”
Hayek offers what I consider a partial remedy to this threat: “We must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.” He is right, but I would add something: we must make the building of the free and virtuous society once more a moral adventure—for its construction was morally inspired in the first place. It emerged from an exalted vision of man and his inherent and transcendent destiny.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis offers an evocative articulation of the anthropology—the understanding of man—I have in mind. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal,” he writes. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Such an understanding of the ultimate destiny of man is crucial to a free and virtuous society. We must continue to point out the utility of economic freedom—the undeniable fact that a free economy is the way to prosperity. But if we are concerned about the end of freedom in our world, the decline and possible death of liberty and justice for all, then we would do well to remember the other “end” of freedom, the purpose and destiny of men and women called by their creator to lives of liberty and virtue. In the final analysis, very few people will go to the barricades to defend economic freedom’s utility. But a way of life that protects all that we hold dear, a civilization that elevates our spirits, a culture that is rooted in realities of eternal significance; this is a different story. For such a moral crusade, we should be able to raise a vast army.
Would you join in my crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?