‘The natural progress of things,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Whatever our differences, William F. Buckley Jr. and I often found ourselves in the same trenches as we fought for a free society against a grasping government. Also like him, I have a “considerable — and considered — optimism” that freedom can overcome the collectivism that has taken hold in the classroom, civil society, and the halls of American government.
I have always been optimistic that freedom can prevail. That optimism is based on my conviction that the cause of freedom is just and can unite a majority of Americans. Previous freedom movements — the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the women’s-suffrage movement, the civil-rights movement — all succeeded because they struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to right an injustice. Those of us who pursue freedom today must be similarly motivated. We must right the injustices that are holding our country back — the injustices that are preventing so many Americans, especially the least fortunate, from pursuing and achieving their dreams.
To make this a reality, we must establish a vision of a free and flourishing society — something that guides and inspires not only those who are like-minded but the nation as a whole.
In a free society, people help themselves by helping others. Social and material progress is driven by innovation and creative destruction, which leads to new and exciting opportunities for everyone. Societies that best approximate these ideals have proven to be the most successful at achieving widespread well-being — especially for the least fortunate.
But vision alone cannot create a free society. We also need a strong culture of principled entrepreneurship grounded in the belief that people can find fulfillment by benefiting others. This requires a deep respect for the moral dignity of all individuals, no matter their station in life. Similarly, toleration is a hallmark of a free society. It enables not only the community but the interactions necessary for human progress.
Ultimately, a free society cannot exist without secure individual rights, including property rights and equal treatment for everyone under the law. These encourage the efforts, investments, and risk-taking that make free societies so innovative and productive. The role of government should be limited to those activities in which voluntary cooperation and competition are insufficient.
Cooperation and competition are impossible without free speech and free markets undistorted by the subsidies or anti-competitive regulations that characterize cronyism and corporate welfare. They also require an environment that fosters learning through free speech and thought, which are crucial to challenging the status quo. It is the open flow of knowledge that leads to innovations that increase well-being throughout society.
Finally, a free society requires that all of its members have the right incentives. Social and material progress is possible only when people benefit themselves by benefiting others. Whether someone’s motives are altruistic, self-interested, or a mixture of both, free societies encourage mutually beneficial behavior and discourage attempts to gain at the expense of others by cheating or advocating self-serving laws and regulations.
These items taken together, I believe, constitute the framework for a free society. This framework must be applied holistically in order for society (especially the least fortunate) to benefit. The best incentives in the world can’t offset a lack of vision, and society as a whole loses if the law treats one group differently from another. As we apply this framework, we must do a better job of understanding what matters most to people, then demonstrate how a free society offers the best opportunity for them to achieve their goals.
This approach will inevitably take us beyond the issues and causes on which conservatives have reached broad consensus. One such example is criminal-justice reform, which has gained wider traction in recent years because it addresses the essential issues of justice, fairness, and morality. It is also consistent with the foundational principles of a free society.
The modern criminal-justice system was created by the same force that afflicts the rest of America: overbearing government at every level of society. After decades of growth, the federal criminal code contains roughly 5,000 criminal laws and hundreds of thousands of regulations with criminal penalties. State criminal codes, which are multiplying every year, only compound the problem.
As a result, the United States is the world’s biggest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. As of 2013, America had roughly 2.2 million people in local, state, and federal prisons — 500 percent more than we had 30 years ago. All told, this system costs taxpayers a staggering $39 billion annually.
We must take steps to address this crisis. Doing so will save tax dollars while enhancing public safety. It will also promote human dignity. As Mr. Buckley so eloquently put it: “The amount of money and legal energy being given to prosecute hundreds of thousands of Americans who are caught with a few ounces of marijuana in their jeans simply makes no sense — the kindest way to put it. A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an imposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy.”
No matter what issue we address, those of us who fight for freedom must renew and increase our commitment to the cause. The Founding Fathers, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and the thousands of others who led successful movements were willing to dedicate their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Their struggles and sacrifices united people in the vision of a better tomorrow. Theirs is the example we must follow if we hope to advance the cause of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for future generations of Americans.
– Mr. Koch is the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries Inc. His book Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies was published in October.