The current issue of The Atlantic features a compilation of short essays dedicated to the future of the American idea. The authors represent a diverse group of prominent Americans, and I look forward to addressing some of their individual contributions in future posts. For the time being, however, I would simply like to share my own understanding of the American idea as a means of participating in a project I admire.
The American idea is the conviction that freedom works. Countless thinkers from across the world have all expounded upon the nobility and promise of individual liberty, but Americans were the first to implement that philosophy as the foundation of a practical political framework. It was certainly unprecedented, but we should be careful lest we lay too much emphasis on its status as an experiment. No doubt there was trepidation among the Founders—there always is when people confront an unknown future—but America was not put forward as a tentative model to be measured against a predetermined benchmark. Economic prosperity, a unique and flourishing culture, and widespread spiritual improvement are all characteristic of our society, but were they all lacking, it still would not be cause to abandon our original charter. Happily, we need not worry about making such a choice since, as it turns out, high material quality of life and moral dignity are mutually reinforcing rather than exclusive. Call it the American corollary.
A further extension of the idea that freedom works is the idea that free men work. Industriousness, ingenuity, and innovation are all deemed virtues in the American vocabulary. Under the American scheme, life is both laborious and vibrant, evidenced in such Americanisms as “party hard.” There is nothing more likely to imbue a person with endurance and enthusiasm than a valid sense of ownership of his own efforts. Self-reliance in the American sense has nothing to do with being able to support yourself in isolation from the rest of society, rather it is the incorrigible confidence that if left to your own devices you will come out ahead. Freedom is not a theory of which hard work is not a consequence—they are the substance of an American life.
Please feel free to share your own take on the American idea or criticize mine in the comments section.