Remarks upon receiving the Bradley Prize
15 June 2016
I must begin by expressing how honored I am to receive the Bradley Prize and to acknowledge what a distinguished fellowship I am entering, not just regarding the whole body of Bradley Prize winners, but the other three winners this year in particular.
It is especially meaningful to receive the award because the Bradley Foundation, and specifically the late Michael Joyce, its one-time chairman, played such a large role in my career, from Mike’s support at a crucial moment when I was starting on Losing Ground through the 1990s.
Receiving an award like this surely causes all of us who get it to reflect on how lucky we’ve been. In my case, I have been extraordinarily lucky in my bosses, starting with my mentor, the late Paul Schwarz, back in the 1970s. Bill Hammett, president of the Manhattan Institute and a peerless intellectual entrepreneur, gave me the chance to write Losing Ground in the early 1980s. But I hit the jackpot when I joined the American Enterprise Institute in 1990. For almost 18 years, Chris DeMuth was my boss. He supported me through thick and thin—and with me, there has been some pretty scary thin. Chris was absolutely fearless during the tempest over The Bell Curve. The unnerving thing about Chris—and this happened to lots of his scholars besides me—was that you’d get in a conversation with him about your specialty, and after a few minutes you’d realize with horror that he knew more about it than you did. For the last seven and a half years, my boss has been Arthur Brooks, who is engaged in developing a movement linking conservatism, classical liberalism, and human flourishing in ways that speak to my own deepest beliefs. I cannot exaggerate how proud I am to have been associated with AEI under both of these men.
And then there’s Catherine, my wife. She is my soulmate. Ordinarily that would be enough. But I’m a writer, and finding a good editor is a pretty close second to finding your soulmate. Catherine has edited everything I’ve published from Losing Ground on. And by “edit” I don’t mean that she reads my stuff and scribbles in the margin “Sweetie, this is wonderful.” The pages I get back from her have enough red ink on them to refinish fire trucks.
I love it when people say that my writing has a distinctive voice and that they like my voice. It’s one of the most gratifying compliments a writer can get. But the reality is that it is not my voice. It is ours.
These are hard times for me and, I imagine, for many of you. I believe on the basis of first principles that liberty is an “unalienable right” of all human beings—repeat, “unalienable”—and that, as Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, that the “sum of good government” is one “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [and] which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” Even if it could be proved to me that such a government is not the most efficient or efficacious form of government, I wouldn’t care. My right to liberty has nothing to do with expediency.
At the moment, it has become apparent that many people who mouthed those principles were just kidding. I have been dismayed by how few people are really on the side of the Founders. Nor are we ever going to restore the consensus of Americans who once shared the Founders’ vision. Arguing from first principles is very eighteenth-century.
I don’t have a magic solution for retrieving the situation. But since this room tonight probably has a higher density of people who agree with me on those principles than any other room in the country, and many of you are as depressed as I am, let me share with you, my own way of dealing with it. It takes the form of a credo that does not depend on first principles, but beliefs about the way the world works. I repeat it to myself whenever I get too far down. It goes like this.
I believe that it is part of being human to want a life that has transcendent meaning.
I believe that the institutions through which life acquires transcendent meaning are limited to just four: family, community, faith, and vocation.
I believe that these institutions are rich and vital sources of satisfactions when they are the locus of the stuff of life—when these institutions and the people within them have the action; the responsibility for consequences.
I believe that having responsibility for the consequences of our actions is what keeps our lives from being trivial; that responsibility is not the price of freedom, but its reward.
For these reasons, I believe that people should be left alone to live their lives as they see fit, requiring only that they accord the same freedom to everyone else, dealing with their problems as individuals, families, and communities, with the central government providing a peaceful setting for their endeavors but otherwise standing aside.
That’s my credo. It consists of strong assertions not just about the way the world works, but about human nature. I imagine that the credos of many of you, while they differ in their specifics, share a lot with the spirit of those assertions. The question then becomes: Are those assertions true? Objectively true?
And at this point, I put on my social scientist’s hat. I believe that the objective truth of these propositions is becoming apparent in everyday life, in towns and cities throughout America, for rich and poor alike—apparent in ways that are getting harder and harder to deny, no matter what one’s political ideology may be.
I believe that over the course of the next few decades, advances in genetics and neuroscience are going to demonstrate that those propositions are objectively true at the biological level. They are objectively true for reasons that reach far back into the evolutionary forces that shaped Homo sapiens.
And then I take comfort in the likely future course of technology and national wealth. The future that lies ahead of us is in some ways going to be unfathomably different from anything we have known before. Who knows: Maybe the earth will soon be populated by transhumans, and everything I’ve just said about Homo sapiens will be irrelevant. But let’s say, for purposes of argument, that humans remain recognizably who we’ve always been. Based on the trend lines, we can expect that as time goes on individuals will be empowered by technology in ways that are vastly greater than they are now and that per capita wealth will be vastly greater than it is now.
In the face of these forces, I have to be optimistic. I don’t know how long it will take, but there must come a point at which people will decide that the best way to run society is no longer through bureaucrats using thousands of rules to manipulate how people are permitted to live their lives.
It ultimately all comes back to what is true. Perhaps science will reveal that people just want to pass the time from birth to death as pleasantly as possible; perhaps it will become apparent that the notion of transcendent meaning in a human life is fraudulent. In that case, no amount of political advocacy will derail the course which the country has taken for so many decades. Ultimately, you can’t fight reality. If my credo is not true, they win, we lose.
But what I continue to believe, undiminished, in this troubling hour, is that the assertions in the credo are true, that my understanding of human flourishing corresponds to the realities about what it means to be human. And if they are true, we do not need to fret about how the miracle will come about. If they are true, the other guys ultimately cannot fight reality. If they are true, the vision of free people living their lives as they see fit will not merely endure. It will prevail.