Every single human has infinite value and limitless potential, and it is our pursuit of happiness, purpose, and contribution, engendered in our liberty to freely make associations, that enables us to reach our fullest potential.
This pursuit becomes more challenging when people experience horrible ordeals, live in poverty, suffer from addiction, are out of work, survive the criminal justice system, or face disadvantage.
We are further limited as society becomes more coarse —in which we regularly give each other the "Twitter treatment." Anonymous and abrasive behavior has become the norm. Even the Founding Fathers are treated as evil and stupid even after having achieved something never created before — a nation built on the belief that liberty is a natural right that no person can willfully deny to another (and, yes, we know their record is marred by the stain of slavery).
Unfortunately, many elected officials and policymakers seem to have forgotten the purpose of leadership is to protect liberty — to secure the environment that fosters our ability to pursue our potential. They have lost the understanding that successful leadership starts with recognizing our inherent dignity.
Tactically, it's somewhat understandable. It's very difficult to ask leaders to see members of society as more than a numbers game. Officials reach decisions by evaluating the right tax rate, the appropriate level of giving, the target demographic. They stop seeing people as people.
As Maryland State Board of Education President Andy Smarick tells it, it's also not that hard to understand because "humans are capable of terrible things."
History teaches us — frankly, history belabors the point — that we are prone to war, torture, terror, genocide, duplicity, greed, selfishness, jealousy, and more. We can cause misery for ourselves and for others. There is no way around that fact.
Under that set of circumstances, is it any wonder that one would try to suppress another's liberty? Perhaps, but leadership is pointless unless leaders focus on the human drive and creative will — people want to succeed, can achieve their goals, and wish to be a net positive to their family, friends, and community. Government must therefore appreciate and augment that yearning. More Smarick:
So much of the history of society and government is the story of varied civilizations and successive generations doing their utmost to figure out how to enable people to live peaceably, securely, and happily and with justice and prosperity despite our failings. ...
So, here we are: We know that humans are liable to do terrible things but we are committed to the proposition that individual freedom is sacrosanct. ...
So how in the world do we manage?
Even nursing our fatal flaws — hubris, jealously, lust, and ambition — we have demonstrated great courage, self-restraint, etiquette, and grit. We have built adages, customs, and institutions like marriage, charity, prayer, meditation, fraternal associations, and volunteerism in an effort to be our better selves. We have benefited from numerous efforts to ascribe humanity into our governing and social structures. And we have been led by great people who knew how to turn our weaknesses into our strengths, and to let us experience the capabilities within ourselves.
That’s precisely what Adam Smith — the father of capitalism — and James Madison — the father of our Constitution — did. Their shared world-altering insight was that instead of treating humans’ likely behavior in the world of economics and governing as a danger, something that would need to be tightly controlled, let’s try to harness humans’ strengths and redirect their negative energy for mutual benefit.
So America arranged institutions such that potential liabilities become assets: greed, selfishness, profit-seeking, hunger for power, our penchant for “faction” as Madison called it — these can be set against one another to create the healthy tension in separation of powers and federalism; to drive prices down, to spur innovation, to bring about healthy economic churn. ...
We openly acknowledge human limitations. We, however, allow people to be free because we admit that we don’t know what’s best for them. We don’t presume to centrally create the right answer to every possible problem in every possible scenario; instead, we allow the best minds across cultures and across the centuries to develop, to pressure test, to hone stories, practices, habits, rules, and organizations that foster the best in us and check our dangers. Then we evolve big systems and institutions — rights, democracy, free markets, separate branches — that don’t dictate outcomes but instead enable individuals and communities to generate their own conclusions.
This is, I think, the way to engage fully in the public life of the nation but with requisite reservation.
Far easier to say than to do, especially in a world where benevolent (and sometimes not so benevolent) elites strip us of our dignity by presuming to limit our penchant to try and fail, but to then try again and succeed.
Can we protect ourselves from repeating the same mistakes? Can we avoid the "technocratic progressivism" of the last century, for instance, in which rapid modernization and a shift toward urbanization and cultural and religious mixing led elites to claim "expertise" as means to rule? In today's big data era, can we prevent "behavioral economics" from becoming the new "technological progressivism"?
(Behavioral economics) argues that people are 'irrational,' that we 'misconceive' and 'misestimate,' that we have 'illusions.' It then attempts to generate 'workarounds' and 'tricks' so experts can help us live happier and healthier lives. We the people — we’re told — are not behaving in our own best interests. The experts can help us.
Data can be very useful. Data tell us where we are weak, and show us where we can aspire to be better. But data are not tradition, debate, or wisdom. Sometimes, data aren't even science. We must resist the temptation to allow numbers to remove virtue from decision-making, or to demote liberty by handing over presumption and authority to technocrats.
History's greatest leaders are those who have had their humility tested by the attractions of elitism, and they have formulated a response that is faithful to the belief that a strong government is one of the people, by the people, and for the people. It would be a shame to lose our dignity through an over-reliance on a less-than-human understanding of our nature.