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Free Enterprise and Choice: The Making of a Conservative

Original Article

When I first arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago and took my first steps outside the airport, I was stunned by what unfolded before my eyes.

I saw cars. Yes, automobiles. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. But what shocked me was not the quantity of vehicles, it was the sheer variety of them. They were red, blue, white, sedans, hatchbacks, station wagons, vans and pickups. There seemed to be an infinite variety of colors, shapes, sizes and designs.

To someone who had grown up in a country where practically only one stodgy model of passenger car — in black — was available, this was a mind-blowing sight. That is the first thing that led me to fall in love with America — diversity, which consequently meant choice. The fact that I could conceivably own a cool-looking purple van seemed impressive to my young mind.

Eventually, I figured out what made that diversity possible in the U.S. It was, simply put, freedom. Where I had grown up, the government centrally guided industrial production and essentially directed companies what to make. The result was an ugly, expensive, monochromatic car.

Freedom — or more precisely put, free enterprise — was the real reason people have had more choices here. The diversity resulting from this has been merely the product, not the real reason why the idea of America has been so appealing. I could never be a liberal or a socialist from then on.

This seemed a perfect beginning for the makings of someone who would become libertarian (or as Europeans would put it, “classically liberal”). Instead, I turned out to be conservative.

Free enterprise is indeed a crucial element of conservatism. It shares this ideal with libertarianism. But whereas libertarians see free enterprise, especially in a purely materialistic sense, as the solution for everything, conservatives seek more.

At this year’s “Conservative State of the Union” presentation in Washington, D.C., Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, enumerated three primary components of modern American conservatism: free enterprise, strong national security and traditional morality.

In my own field of foreign policy, the contrast between libertarianism and conservatism is especially pronounced today. Libertarians, joined by some so-called paleo-cons, would have the U.S. be internationally neutral and merely trade with other nations, unburdened by concerns regarding international politics or domestic upheavals of these countries. It is as if they would have us become a gigantic Switzerland.

What’s the problem with that? Plenty.

Aside from the impracticality of emulating Switzerland for a country of this vast size, there are national-security and moral implications. Switzerland was able to remain neutral during World War II and trade freely only because Hitler was busy fighting others. How long would Switzerland have remained free once Hitler had become the undisputed master of Europe? Similarly, how long would a neutral U.S. have remained free and prosperous once a vast Eurasian axis dominated by Germany, Italy and Japan had been established?

Then, there is the moral dimension. During World War II, Switzerland traded actively with Germany. In effect, it abetted Nazi greed and enabled the brutality of the Nazi war machine. The end result was that its libertarian amorality became a collaborator to immorality — evil, plainly put. Is this something we wish to emulate today?

There are voices today that would have us do precisely that. Fatigued by war, they would have us retreat from Iraq, abdicate our global responsibility and simply conduct business. Just make money and let the rest of the world go where it may, they say. They do not realize that there will still be others, envious of our freedom and prosperity, who will seek to inflict a great deal of harm upon us.

Outside the zone of civilization with respect for the rule of law, free enterprise is not enough. To fight evil abroad — militarily, if necessary — and to assist those allies who would join us in pursuit of freedom are long-term, pragmatic national-security necessities. They are also the morally right things to do.

In the end, free enterprise is impossible without vigorous national defense and defense of like-minded allies, as well as a strong moral compass of good and evil.

And that is why I am a conservative today, and support President Bush’s vision of spreading democracy around the world.

James J. Na, senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (discovery.org), edits “The Korea Liberator” (korealiberator.org) and “Guns and Butter Blog” (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com).