The Habits of Liberty

Newt Gingrich

IN 1958, THE GREEN BAY PACKERS HAD their worst season ever, winning just one game. However, just two years later the Packers advanced all the way to the National Football League (NFL) championship game. How did they achieve such a dramatic turnaround?

After the 1958 season, Vince Lombardi assumed the head coaching job and instilled winning habits in his football team, which broke them of their losing ones. “Winning is a habit,” he said. “Unfortunately, so is losing.”

Lombardi did this by executing a series of policies designed to increase discipline and prepare the team physically through rigorous training regimens. Under his leadership, discipline was mandatory and physical fitness expected. In just one year, he took the worst team in football and led them to a 7-5 winning season. The next year the Packers advanced to the NFL championship game, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles. After the game, Lombardi told his players that this would be their last defeat in a championship game. He was right. The next season, 1961, the Packers won the NFL championship, the first of five they would win during the 1960s. Under Lombardi’s leadership, the Green Bay Packers never had a losing season.

Lombardi’s rapid turnaround of the Packers illustrates a profound and universal truth. Success and failure hinge largely on the habits followed by the people involved. Correct policies are the ones that reinforce habits of success, while the wrong policies reinforce habits of failure. Furthermore, the Lombardi example shows us that with the right policies, it is possible to replace habits of failure with habits of success.

This principle applies just as much to our country as it does to football teams. Much like there are winning habits for football teams, there are specific habits of success unique to America, which are the source of our remarkable safety, prosperity, and freedom. In the same way Lombardi’s policies led to championships, government policies reinforcing American habits of success make our country stronger while those undermining the habits of success make us weaker. This framework for successful public policy has profound implications for the challenges currently facing our nation.

Five habits of liberty have been important for over 400 years of American civilization, from the time of the first English speaking settlers at Jamestown. They are:

  1. faith and family
  2. work
  3. civil society
  4. rule of law
  5. safety and peace

These five habits helped sustain what has been called “American Exceptionalism.” They are the unique qualities of America’s founding ideals and system of government that are focused on protecting the unalienable rights of the individual, which together have provided the framework for America’s incredible success.

Faith and family held a great deal of importance for the founders because they recognized it was through faith and family that habits of liberty would be passed on to future generations.

Work was valued as a necessary companion of the right to pursue happiness, political and practical independence being requirements of freedom. Work was the great means by which the American people could achieve the independence and dignity, which God had endowed them.

The founders recognized that a vibrant civil society acted as an essential bulwark against tyranny. Volunteerism in particular, would allow the American people to solve problems on their own without the heavy hand of government controls.

Newt Gingrich at the podium

The rule of law was considered a necessary instrument to restrain the government from arbitrary action against the people. The constitution crafts a system of checks and balances designed to constrain each branch of government. Possible tyranny of the majority, which through democratic processes could violate the natural rights of individuals, was also a fear of the founders. To combat it, the Bill of Rights was developed.

Finally, maintaining safety and peace were believed to be the primary purpose of the government. Early commanders in chief made it a point to avoid involving the new country in foreign conflicts, but did not hesitate to use military power to protect its citizens. U.S. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson’s actions toward the Barbary pirates made it evident that the United States would have to maintain a robust defense to deter hostile aggressors, and remain vigilant to protect the God-given rights of all Americans.

These distinctly American habits of liberty have made it possible for the American people to pursue happiness in countless ways. Without them, the unalienable rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence would not be worth the parchment they are written on. American Exceptionalism, which is at the core of our remarkable and historic success, would never have emerged and helped create the conditions for Americans to flourish in all walks of life if not for our establishment of these habits.

American history is filled with examples of government policies that succeeded because they reinforced these five habits of liberty and, alternatively, government policies that failed because they eroded these habits.

The welfare system is a perfect example. Before the 1996 reforms, the welfare system reinforced habits that were the antithesis of the habits of liberty. It taught people to be passive and dependent on government, enabled by easily manipulated work requirements and lack of a time limit on receiving assistance. The old system also undermined family by offering increased payments for more children, giving single women an incentive to have children out of wedlock. The Washington-dominated policy also crowded out local efforts to combat poverty. Instead of encouraging varied and flexible responses to help the poor, the federal government offered a one- size-fits-all program.

The welfare reform of the 1990s reoriented the welfare system around the habits of liberty. Work requirements were strengthened, making work or school a requirement to qualify for assistance. This change helped break the cycle of dependence that was trapping people in poverty. Also, single mothers now had to have a job, at least part time, to receive benefits. The addition of child care costs to their budgets made having more children significantly more expensive. This financial reality, faced by all other families, increased the incentive for parents to stay together and utilize the greater earning power of two people. Furthermore, the reform included more money for teen pregnancy prevention, including abstinence education.

Finally, by switching funding distributed to the states from a matching funds formula to block grants, states were given more freedom to customize their programs to fit local needs. Many states found ways to incorporate local charities and civic groups, strengthening civil society instead of undermining it. The result of welfare reform was that welfare roles were cut in half and millions of families were lifted out of poverty.

Today, the real unemployment rate, which factors in those who have stopped looking for work, remains over 10%. Gas prices are volatile, putting stress on family budgets. Health care costs continue to skyrocket, undeterred by the big government health reform law signed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Our national debt stands at $14 trillion and climbing. Beyond these immediate challenges, the past decade has seen an economic dislocation as jobs are shipped overseas, leaving many Americans working longer hours with a smaller surplus left after basic expenses are met.

Because of these challenges, our country is currently engaged in a profound conversation about what changes must be made to get America back to its winning ways. Understanding American Exceptionalism and the five habits of liberty is vital to determining what must be done. We need to reflect on the sources of our historic success then develop policies that reinforce the five habits of liberty instead of habits of failure.


Newt Gingrich is a candidate for president of the United States and a former Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is the author of A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.