Many of us believe that America's greatest gift is our freedom. Our Declaration of Independence declares we are endowed by our creator with the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we take these freedoms as our guidepost – a broad statement about how we want to govern ourselves. They apply not only to political and social but also to business relationships. The Declaration covers and the Constitution protects the freedom to sell things that people need or want, and we benefit from this freedom. The presidential political campaign has shown, however, that some on the Democratic left don’t acknowledge the benefits of vigorous business activity, and some on the Republican right label any business limitation as “socialism”.
As we move into a high-stakes presidential election, this reluctance presages what could be a polarizing general election between candidates with extreme viewpoints. One way to prevent this scenario and have a real choice is to agree how to balance our reliance on business with our very personal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and choose the candidate that reflects this balance during the election primaries. Most Americans are closer than politicians think on the role of business and personal liberties in this country.
Doing business is not only an important freedom, but exercising it makes America better by meeting people's needs and wants with a supply that has usually proven to meet this demand with reasonable prices. While many criticize this system for unfairly enriching the few, creating wealth disparities, motivating us to buy unnecessary things and encouraging behavior that harms society, most Americans wouldn't trade it for government-controlled monopoly (although that sounds easier).
Nonetheless, most of us do believe the government should constrain this market when it interferes with our guidepost freedoms. This approach beats an alternative where the government outlaws private business and is an important and completely legitimate way to balance competing priorities. The benefits of unfettered business (adequate supply of food, jobs to earn money, encouraging people to be productive) must be balanced against our right to live, be free and pursue happiness.
Most fundamentally, we can and should limit business activities that hinder our right to live and pursue happiness. As a country, we should, for example:
• require doctors to treat the sick (and, to ensure fair payment, institute universal health care coverage);
• prevent businesses from polluting the air, water and land — and causing climate change;
• impose restrictions on food and drug distribution;
• ensure worker protections, because you can’t pursue happiness if you are injured on the job or receive sub-living wages; and
• fund a robust public education system, because education supports personal freedom, business activity and our national interest.
Some, however, reject government action to protect individual freedoms because they see their taxes used to help people who don’t carry their own weight. True, we want everyone to contribute to society, and fairness dictates that each of us work if we can for what we need to survive and thrive. The more we feed ourselves, avoid consequences of pollution, avoid unhealthy food and drugs and bring ourselves to a comfortable professional life, the less everyone else must carry. So, in theory, we should encourage personal responsibility.
Still, not everyone can take care of themselves, much less pull their weight. No one can seriously argue that we individually can avoid the consequences of climate change or escape food disease without government oversight. Not everyone can succeed in school and business, afford health care, compete for the best jobs or even understand what it takes to hold down a job. If we are all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then we must use our collective resources to help fellow Americans who have a harder time. As a bonus, their success (and ability to spend money and avoid poverty) benefits our economy almost as much as business-created jobs.
Most of us believe this is how we should balance business and personal freedoms. But it goes unsaid because our two-party system rewards candidates who speak to the extremes in each party and not to our common beliefs.
So, I'm saying it now. Find a candidate who will honestly balance the legitimate competing freedoms that we are guaranteed and their benefits and not one that rejects the liberty they disagree with. Do this during the primaries, where often only the most extreme voters bother to vote, resulting in a general election limited to the most extreme candidates. Vote to nominate general election candidates who will not polarize the country but, rather, unite it in support of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of us.