Freewill: Conservatism’s Core

Thoughts from a Principled Conservative Outpost—Fourth in a series on the aspects of Panhandle conservativism.

Society functions best when individuals have the freedom to pursue, without undue coercion, their interests within the bounds of law, ethics and morality determined by community standards. Free-market economies, where individual choice and competition are the drivers of prosperity and innovation, are largely self-sustaining. Free will is the rock upon which American Exceptionalism rests. The concepts upon which the U.S. was founded are unique principles of freedom, egalitarianism and liberty. Our nation was conceived with a special mission to lead, inspire and spread fairness and freedom widely, which enables a unique political and social system promoting individual freedom, democracy and economic opportunity. These are the principles of our founding, and they are alive in the Texas Panhandle.

There are critics of American exceptionalism who argue exceptionalism leads to nationalism, imperialism and a justification for a series of wrongs. Critics are correct. However, in a principled conservative outpost, change comes, if at times too slowly. Claiming exceptionalism, locally or nationally, does not right all wrongs. A region and a nation are made up of individuals who exercise free will. The human heart and its accompanying mind are not to be blindly trusted. Accepting exceptional status can overlook flaws and injustices, to be sure. According to Will and Ariel Durant, we must know history: “Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.”

Thomas Jefferson’s view of free will reflected his engagement with Enlightenment ideas and his observations on human behavior and governance. In a letter to Isaac H. Tiffany, written in 1819, he wrote, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” The balance between individual rights/opportunities and respect for other’s rights/opportunities is a knife edge that must be walked in a constitutional republic. The wars over barbed wire in the Texas Panhandle in the late 1800s seem to demonstrate the balance between personal freedom, the exercise of free will or individual liberty and the rights of others. In the end, the consideration of access and control led to the general acceptability of barbed wire—according to the Texas Historical Commission, barbed wire saved the Texas Cattle industry, which thrives across the Panhandle. This balance between individual liberty and respect for others is the fulcrum on which a constitutional republic lifts itself, in the Panhandle and everywhere else.

In any healthy community of folks who live and work in any society (a geographic region), there exists an expectation that people will choose between different courses of action based on the exercise of will. All need to be able to think freely, access information and make choices about their leaders and policies according to personal judgments and beliefs. For example, the act of voting is within itself an expression of free will. A healthy constitutional republic requires civic engagement. People choose their representatives and decide on issues and ideas based on personal principles. Citizens use free will to guide choice, create change, express opinions and participate in community life. Moral responsibility and free will are two sides of the same coin. One without the other is impossible to fathom. Citizens are expected to exercise personal and civic responsibility welded together for the benefit of each. This results in a common good and the rights of others informing decision-making as an exercise of morally applied free will. The idea of accountability presupposes the ability to make free choices.

Contemporary economist and social theorist, Thomas Sowell, emphasized the importance of personal choices and the consequences of choice in determining an individual’s outcomes in life. Individual socioeconomic status cannot be attributed solely to external factors like race, class or social structures, although these and other factors influence decision-making and opportunity. The capacity to choose choreographs a life beyond circumstances. Sowell suggests the exercise of free will is the spine upon which an effective society lives and breathes.

George Orwell, in 1984, warns against the dangers of authoritarianism, which erodes free will and individual liberties. He emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, personal autonomy and resistance against manipulation and control. Orwell’s critique of the totalitarian systems suggests a strong belief in the value of free will and individual choice, recognizing the challenges and complexities of exercising such freedom within oppressive societies.

At West Texas A&M University, we value the student as an individual and implore students to value themselves as unique individuals who are free to choose right from wrong, just from unjust, in the exercise of will. As I have stated before, “Students should be challenged daily to be good leaders and good followers. Ultimately these skills will make for a successful transition into the workplace and provide the foundation for the high calling of engaged citizenship. That is the purpose of a university.”

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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