Daniel Sutter: The economic value of national unity

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The Edmund Burke Foundation recently hosted the National Conservatism Conference which explored, among other questions, the meaning and importance of patriotic national unity. Conference organizer Yoram Hazony argued that conservatives need to break away from the libertarian and classical liberal idea of the “individual … as the only thing that matters in politics.” Politics is about citizens pursuing their common interests, and the bonds formed in this pursuit are important for the economy as well.

America’s founders were liberals, or the classical liberals mentioned by Mr. Hazony. Liberalism maintained that governments were supposed to serve people, not the other way around. This idea was radical at the time, and had been established slowly in England over centuries.

England’s “constitution” was never written down or formally adopted. In the 1770’s, King George III was pushing for more royal prerogative. Our founders’ decided to create a country based on an idea, not ethnicity or military conquest. And the idea was freedom.

Founding a nation based on agreement among citizens follows naturally from the political theory of liberals like Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu. The consent of the governed legitimates government, and the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights made this explicit.

A nation can only have one set of institutions. Politicians will either have limited or unlimited power. Property rights and economic freedom will either be respected or not. Either people will be free to live, or must get permission to move, work, or worship. America’s institutions – limited government, markets, and personal freedom – achieve the founders’ values.

Institutions significantly impact economic performance and prosperity. Physical capital (factories, mines, and farms) produces our goods and services, but secure property rights encourage people to make these investments. Limited government secured through representative democracy establishes the rule of law.

The citizens of a nation must accept its institutions, and by implication, the values the institutions embody. Acceptance based on genuine agreement binds people together. Even if everyone agreed on fundamental values like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, disagreements will arise on specifics or the form of government to best secure these values. No one gets exactly what they want. We agree to respect our differences and not let them tear us apart.

Libertarians emphasize the universal nature of human rights. The Declaration of Independence’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness apply to all people, even when ignored by a dictator. Many libertarians’ internationalism, I think, offends conservatives’ strong sense of nationalism.

Yet I think there should be common ground here. Not all people agree on fundamental human rights. People who believe in freedom can found a country based on this. A foundation in freedom has enabled America to accommodate so many immigrants historically. Americans’ shared values more than offset racial, religious and linguistic differences.

The citizens of a free nation effectively bond together to protect these values and the institutions which secure them. This is how politics is about more than just individuals. And it must be, because many people and nations which do not accept freedom will act in criminal and imperial ways. Freedom isn’t free, and citizens must protect each other’s freedom.

Shared values and the commitment to defend each other also produce trust, or a widespread belief that fellow citizens are not trying to take advantage of them. Research demonstrates the economic value of trust, even when controlling for institutions like the rule of law and economic freedom. Markets function better when employers trust employees, businesses trust customers, investors trust financial institutions, and so on.

Politics is about more than individuals. In a free country, politics involves a shared commitment to protect our fellow citizens’ freedom. And freedom allows individuals to pursue their happiness in many different ways.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.