One of the inescapable consequences of writing a syndicated column on politics and public policy for nearly 30 years is that I am constantly told what I think and why I think it.
You may find this consequence perplexing. Isn’t my job here to tell readers what I think and why I think it? Sure. But most readers aren’t passive recipients of information — particularly those who read this page. They listen critically and answer back, even if only in their heads. Some go further than that. They write me, call me, or send letters or comments to the newspapers that run my column.
A common theme in such correspondence, especially over the last several years, is that I don’t mean what I say. Some accuse me of parroting someone else’s beliefs instead of my own. Others ascribe opinions or goals to me that I don’t have or would even find abhorrent.
I appreciate the entertainment value of armchair psychiatry, conspiracy theories, and political sophistry as much as the next person. But just in case there is any doubt, let me restate some basic facts about my beliefs, my work, and this column.
First, I write whatever I like, about whatever I like. Naturally, the editors who run my column correct spelling and grammatical errors. They edit for length. And they ask for clarifications when I explain myself poorly or cite a statistic they find confusing or improbable. But that’s it. No one is in a position to approve or disapprove of my work.
Second, I believe what I say I believe. Although my views have shifted over the decades on a few issues, in response to changing circumstances or different facts presented to me, my core beliefs are the same ones I espoused in my high school newspaper, the student magazine I founded in college, and the syndicated column I began writing for North Carolina newspapers in the summer of 1986.
I believe in personal freedom — and in the personal responsibility that inevitably comes with it. I think human beings tend to be wealthier, healthier, and happier to the extent they are freer. I also think human beings have an inherent right to be free, simply because they are human beings. That is, I believe in and employ both consequentialist arguments (freedom is good for you) and natural-rights arguments (freedom is your birthright).
To say that freedom is my highest political value is not to say that I dismiss others. Nor does it mean that I oppose all government actions that inhibit freedom. Indeed, I recognize that government actions are inherently coercive. I’m not an anarchist. In fact, I don’t think anarchy is a coherent idea. Human beings crave freedom but are also, by nature, often tempted to be disagreeable, shortsighted, and violent. That’s just basic psychology and another inescapable fact of history.
So I believe government should (and always will) exist to protect individual rights and to finance certain core services that, because of collective-action problems, will not be adequately provided through purely voluntary means. At the state and local level, those services include public safety and health, education, and some infrastructure.
These views were traditionally described as liberalism — in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and their intellectual progeny — until the early 20th century. That’s when left-wing progressives successfully redefined the term. So today, my philosophy is considered conservative, libertarian, “fusionist,” or perhaps “conservatarian,” which is an unlovely but fairly accurate term.
I firmly believe that maximizing freedom produces large, persistent social benefits. A steady stream of empirical research informs my belief. Just in the past few months, new academic studies have confirmed that economic freedom correlates with faster economic growth, higher living standards, more investment in developing countries, greater longevity, a freer press, greater public trust, and higher levels of general happiness in societies.
I and others who espouse the virtues of smaller government and greater freedom may be mistaken. But our beliefs derive from logic and experience. Please structure your rebuttals accordingly, and thanks for reading.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.