Restoring Fortitude in the American People

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Freedom is a worthwhile goal, most would agree. Crucially and more specifically, freedom with responsibility is a worthwhile goal. A libertine society where anything goes and consequences are ignored is less American-style freedom and more a scene from an Antifa-led autonomous zone.

The American founding is based on ordered liberty. Our sense of liberty is based on the idea that was so well communicated by St. John Paul II: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Once you start talking about the need for responsibility as a critical part of freedom, you lose some people. Responsibility is hard. If freedom means charting your own way, taking care of yourself, and living with the consequences of your actions, then freedom is indeed risky. With the possibility of great reward comes great risk, after all.

Many people are simply not up for the challenge of responsibility and therefore true freedom. This is why it is so easy for politicians like Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders to manipulate the meaning of the word, and claim that you cannot be “free” unless you are given affordable housing, health care, and a decent wage. According to Sanders, to be free is to be able to live off of the services of others.

Thus, the promise of utopian socialism: Your basic needs will be met, and you can therefore pursue your dreams. Who meets these basic needs, and how are they incentivized to do so? Socialists never really figured that one out. Many millions died as a result.

Personal responsibility is more than just a conservative value, it is a foundation for a free society. If you are not responsible for yourself or your actions, then by definition you believe someone else must be responsible for you–and you will demand of your politicians that other, more productive people are forced to take on that additional responsibility so that you may take on less and less. Some might even label this “social justice.”

And if personal responsibility is a critical prerequisite for freedom, then fortitude is a critical prerequisite for personal responsibility. Courage, strength, resilience–all are increasingly missing from a society that now celebrates victimhood as a virtue. Victimhood has become so celebrated, in fact, that famous and privileged people (looking at you, Jussie Smollett and Sen. Elizabeth Warren) are willing to lie about being victims. Not exactly the Greatest Generation anymore.

It is time to restore fortitude in citizens before it is too late. At present, our country is strong and resilient despite the doomsday predictions of many. Truthfully, this is still the best place to be in the world, with an abundance of strong people: men willing to fight our wars, entrepreneurs willing to invest and create jobs, inventors working on the next breakthrough, and families willing to raise their children to be strong and successful.

Much of this is based on a sense of duty that is deeply imbued in the American spirit, the duty to be better than you were yesterday, the duty to pursue challenge, the duty to contribute. But much of it is also due to incentives and the simple knowledge that your hard work will indeed pay off.

But what if it didn’t pay off?

Without incentives, our most productive people, our strongest people, will see less and less point to their hard work. The infamous Soviet communist quote comes to mind: “As long as they keep pretending to pay us, we will keep pretending to work!”

A free society cannot last long with an increasing number of free-riders and a decreasing number of productive people. As Ben Shapiro recently quipped: “America is faced with a choice. Do we acknowledge what we are–the greatest power in world history, complete with the obligation to defend our interests–or do we sink into a warm bath, eat ourselves into morbid obesity with deficits and welfare spending, and wait for China?”

Without fortitude, without a sense of duty to be better, without a deep sense of responsibility, more and more people will choose the easier path. The easy path is easy because it is short and leads nowhere but down. It is a quick trip to dependency and free ice cream. But you can’t get out easily once you’ve descended.

If America is to maintain its place as the shining city on the hill, then citizens must start taking the harder path. This path is hard because it leads up. It is treacherous, and you may fall down at times. You must learn from your hardships here. There is no one to navigate it for you. You must take control of the destination yourself. It is scary, but it is worth it, and there is more than just riches on this path–there is meaning.

Only a strong person can walk this path. Freedom is scary, and responsibility is even scarier. It takes strength and courage to compete against others in a free society and chart your own destiny.

Conservative leaders breathlessly shout of their fight for freedom, “Freedom from government overreach.” But this is incomplete. It’s time we stopped limiting ourselves to demanding freedom from government control and begin demanding of the citizen that which is a foundation of freedom: fortitude.

This article was originally published by the Washington Examiner.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation.

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