The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States contains what may well be the clearest and most concise description of the principal purpose of the American project: to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This short clause gives us two profound insights into the nature of America.
First, while liberty matters, so do the blessings that come from liberty. Liberty makes possible the pursuit and the attainment of happiness. Second, as Americans, we seek not merely to enjoy the blessings of liberty for ourselves, but to pass them on to the next generation. Only when we see our descendants enjoying the blessings of liberty will we know that we have lived up to this responsibility.
There are, indeed, no guarantees that the next generation will reap these blessings. They must be raised to do so. But how is their character to be shaped? Which virtues and which habits of mind are required to preserve freedom? And who is responsible for this crucial task?
Our Founding Fathers, busy as they were securing the hard-won independence of the fledgling republic, did not leave us a systematic answer. However, by surveying their writings and reasoning through the principles they laid down, we can discern four broad pillars that together sustain our republic:
- A limited constitutional government
- A vibrant civil society with free markets
- Strong families
- A culture that promotes virtue
These four essential elements reinforce one another. By limiting the size and scope of government, we allow families and the voluntary associations that comprise civil society to flourish while also enabling the government to perform its critical functions. By sustaining a culture that promotes the virtues befitting a free people, we allow citizens to find and pursue happiness within civil society. The Founders’ vision ultimately points to a limited constitutional government undergirding a vibrant civil society composed of strong families and voluntary associations and guided by a moral compass.
Over the course of recent decades, however, our culture has taken a wrong turn. Our government has thwarted opportunity and created impediments to family and community. The erosion of marriage and the unraveling of community among vast segments of the population, combined with a rise in government dependence and failures in public education, have weakened America's social fabric. These are worrisome trends that do not bode well for the future.
The Heritage Foundation’s new Index of Culture and Opportunity aims to track, over time, the health of our culture and the opportunities available in America. Ultimately, of course, these things cannot be definitely quantified. That is why the Index does not compound the individual metrics into a total score. Trends, however, can be followed—and this is just what the Index aims to do.
The underlying premise of the Index is that opportunity is not merely the absence of artificially imposed impediments. It is also the capacity to pursue happiness, individually and in community. And that capacity is forged primarily in our families, friendships, religious congregations, communities, and the innumerable associations we form.
It is here, in this vast realm between the individual and the state, that people pursue and find happiness. In America, we use our freedom to come together. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and small.” Americans, Tocqueville concludes, have mastered the science of association, which he calls “the mother science” in democratic countries.
A Culture of Opportunity
The family is the foundation of a strong society. In the family, the next generation of free citizens learns the virtues that set the stage for the orderly pursuit of happiness and the good life. Parents have the primary responsibility for the moral and religious upbringing of their children. What children learn from their parents will in large part determine whether children have a strong work ethic, steer clear of drugs and crime, defer gratification, and obey the rules. The home is a child’s first classroom, with great potential to awaken his curiosity and supplement his formal education.
To understand the centrality of the family, one need only see the host of problems that so often confront the children raised in homes without fathers, from lower graduation rates to greater incarceration rates. For those who are concerned about the vitality of the American Dream in the twenty-first century, strengthening the family ought to be an absolute priority. Far from being a tangential social or religious issue, the strength of the family is a crucial concern—both from an economic and a political perspective—and deeply intertwined with the health of the country.
Beyond the family, we come together not only in religious congregations and communities of faith, but also in businesses, trade associations, charities, babysitting co-ops, bowling leagues, reading groups, and countless other associations. These combine to form a fabric that unites citizens around mutual interests and, in so doing, teaches us the great art of self-government. Freedom is not merely the absence of tyranny. Citizens must also know how to be free. We learn how to govern ourselves in the variety of relationships we forge.
Through these associations, citizens develop a taste for independence, cultivate their judgment, and learn how to exercise their freedom in a responsible manner. Most importantly, we learn to improve our own lot and address problems in our communities through our own initiative and by relying on our neighbors and fellow Americans. This staves off the impulse that expects the state to remedy all of life’s ills—an impulse that is, if unchecked, fatal to liberty.
Lastly, civil society is also the realm of opportunity, both the opportunities created by markets—whose defining feature is voluntary exchange—and the opportunities that grow out of the other communities and networks we belong to. Without these opportunities that bring us together, there can be no American Dream to move ahead in life.
The Robust Ties that Bind
To grasp the centrality of family and civil society to the American way of life is to reject the false choice between radical individualism and togetherness-through-government that some promote. What conservatives stand for is togetherness through family, community, and association.
The question is not whether we will be independent or dependent. To be human is to rely on others. At issue, rather, is whom we will depend on. Families, friends, and neighboring fellow citizens who know us best and have our best interest at heart—these should be our primary sources of support. And, when government must help, it must not weaken these ties, supplanting and replacing them, but instead encourage people back into gainful employment, stable families, and communities of every sort. Policy should help bring people together, not create artificial roadblocks that keep them apart.
A government that recognizes limits to its reach allows civil society to flourish. A government that claims jurisdiction over every sphere of life suffocates civil society. The greater the size, scope, and reach of the state, the more disjointed, disconnected, and weakened civil society and individuals will be.
Revitalizing civil society means cultivating an environment in which the permanent institutions of family and religion, along with associations of every kind, can flourish and fulfill their role in cultivating and maintaining ordered liberty in America.
As the American experience over the past fifty years has shown, limiting the size and scope of government is impossible without stable marriages and strong communities. When the family disintegrates, the government attempts to replace its vital functions, social welfare programs multiply, and, as they grow, family and neighborhood bonds erode. A defense of marriage serves the ends of limited government more effectively, less intrusively, and at less cost than picking up the broken pieces of a shattered marriage culture. Fundamentally, then, social and economic conservatism are indivisible.
The stakes could not be higher. The robust ties that bind us together ultimately are the strength of our great nation. It is here that we reap the blessings of liberty and here that we hope to see our posterity do so as well.
David Azerrad is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. Ryan T. Anderson is William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This essay is adapted from the 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity.