The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College’s 161st Commencement, held in the College’s Biermann Athletic Center on May 11, 2013.
It is precisely because economic freedom and opportunity outperform centralized planning and regulation that so many millions have risked everything for a chance at the American dream.
Fifty-five years ago, my father fled Cuba, where he had been imprisoned and tortured—including having his teeth kicked out—as a teenager. Today my father is a pastor in Dallas. When he landed in Austin, Texas, in 1957, he was 18. He couldn’t speak a word of English. He had $100 sewn into his underwear. He went and got a job washing dishes and made 50 cents an hour. He worked seven days a week and paid his way through the University of Texas, and then he got a job, and then he went on to start a small business.
Now imagine if, at that time, the minimum wage had been two dollars an hour. He might never have had the opportunity to get that dishwashing job and work his way through school and work his way up from there. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thanked God that some well-meaning liberal didn’t greet him when he landed in Austin and put his arm around him and say: “Let me take care of you. Let me make you dependent on government. Let me sap your self-respect—and by the way, don’t bother learning English.”
When I was a kid, my father used to say to me: “When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?” For my entire life, my dad has been my hero. But what I find most incredible about his story is how commonplace it is. Every one of us here today has a story like that. We could line up at this podium and each of us tell the story of our parents or grandparents or our great, great, great grandparents. We are all children of those who risked everything for liberty. That’s the DNA of what it means to be an American—to value freedom and opportunity above all.
In 1976, Margaret Thatcher delivered her “Britain Awake” speech. In it, she said: “There are moments in our history when we have to make a fundamental choice. This is one such moment, a moment when our choice will determine the life or death of our kind of society and the future of our children. Let’s ensure that our children will have cause to rejoice that we did not forsake their freedom.”
If we don’t fight to preserve our liberty, we will lose it. The men and women graduating here today, blessed with a world-class liberal arts education and a Hillsdale love of learning, are perfectly situated to lead the fight, to tell and retell the story of the miracle of freedom to so many Americans—so many young Americans in particular—who’ve never heard that story from the media, or in their schools, and certainly not from Hollywood.
Mrs. Thatcher continued: “Of course, this places a burden on us, but it is one that we must be willing to bear if we want our freedom to survive.”
Throughout history, we have carried the torch for freedom. At Hillsdale, you have been prepared to continue to do so, that together we may ensure that America remains a shining city on a hill, a beacon to the world of hope and freedom and opportunity.
Thank you and God bless you.