[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George H. W. Bush (1991, Book I)]
[May 4, 1991]
[Pages 469-472]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the University of Michigan Commencement Ceremony in Ann Arbor
May 4, 1991

    President Duderstadt, thank you all very much. Thank you for that 
warm welcome. I want to salute the president, salute Governor and Mrs. 
John Engler, Representatives of the Congress--Pursell, Upton, and Vander 
Jagt, and distinguished Regents, and especially I want to pay my 
respects to our fellow honorary degree recipients. Barbara and I are 
very grateful for this high honor. Before this, there wasn't one lawyer 
in the family, and now we have two.
    The last time I was in Ann Arbor, we commemorated John Kennedy's 
unveiling of the Peace Corps. And as your commencement program 
indicates, Lyndon Johnson introduced the Great Society in a University 
of Michigan commencement address.
    Today, I want to talk to you about this historic moment. Your 
commencement--your journey into the ``real world''--coincides with this 
nation's commencement into a world freed from cold war conflict and 
thrust into an era of cooperation and economic competition.
    The United States plays a defining role in the world. Our economic 
strength, our military power, and most of all, our national character 
brought us to this special moment. When our policies unleashed the 
economic expansion of the 1980's, we exposed forever the failures of 
socialism and reaffirmed our status as the world's greatest economic 
power. When we sent troops to the Gulf, we showed that we take 
principles seriously enough to risk dying for them.
    But there's another message. There's another message. We also take 
them seriously enough to help others in need. Today, men and women of 
Operation Provide Comfort toil on behalf of suffering Kurds. And today, 
our thoughts and prayers also go to the hundreds of thousands of people 
victimized by a vicious cyclone in Bangladesh. Our Government has sent 
aid to that stricken land. Dozens of private agencies have sprung into 
action as well, sending food, water, supplies, and donations. The 
humanitarian instinct runs deep in our people, always has. It is an 
essential element of our American character.
    Our successes have banished the Vietnam-era phantoms of doubt and 
distrust. In my recent travels around the country I have felt an 
idealism that we Americans supposedly had lost. People have faith in the 
future. And they ask: What next? And they ask: How can I help?
    We have rediscovered the power of the idea that toppled the Berlin 
Wall and led a world to strike back at Saddam Hussein. Like generations 
before us, we have begun to define for ourselves the promise of freedom.
    I'd like to talk today about the nature of freedom and how its 
demands will shape

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our future as a nation.
    Let me start with the freedom to create. From its inception, the 
United States has been a laboratory for creation, invention, and 
exploration. Here, merit conquers circumstance. Here, people of vision--
Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford, Martin Luther King, Jr.--outgrow rough 
origins and transform a world. These achievements testify to the 
greatness of our free enterprise system. In past ages, and in other 
economic orders, people could acquire wealth only seizing goods from 
others. Free enterprise liberates us from this Hobbesian quagmire. It 
lets one person's fortune become everyone's gain.
    This system, built upon the foundation of private property, 
harnesses our powerful instincts for creativity. It gives everyone an 
interest in shared prosperity, in freedom, and in respect. No system of 
development ever has nurtured virtue as completely and rigorously as 
ours. We've become the most egalitarian system in history--and one of 
the most harmonious--because we let people work freely toward their 
    When governments try to improve on freedom--say, by picking winners 
and losers in the economic market--they fail. No conclave of experts, no 
matter how brilliant, can match the sheer ingenuity of a market that 
collects and distributes the wisdoms of millions of people, all pursuing 
their destinies in different ways.
    Our administration appreciates the power of free enterprise, and our 
economic and domestic programs try to apply the genius of the market to 
the needs of the Nation. For example, we want to eliminate rules and 
redtape that bind the hands and the minds of entrepreneurs and 
    Our America 2000 educational strategy challenges the Nation to 
reinvent the American school, to compete in the race to unleash our 
national genius.
    We've incorporated market incentives into our legislative proposals, 
so taxpayers will get a fair return on their dollars. Just look at last 
year's child-care legislation and the Clean Air Act, or this year's 
transportation bill.
    We've proposed a comprehensive banking reform package that 
strengthens the financial system upon which economic growth depends. We 
repeatedly have tried to slash the capital gains, so people with dreams 
have a chance of achieving them.
    And we want to extend this dignity of home ownership to people who 
live now in government-owned apartments. Home ownership gives people 
    And although we have tried to transfer power into the hands of the 
people, we haven't done enough. In a world transformed by freedom, we 
must look for other ways to help people build good lives for themselves 
and their families. The average worker in the United States now spends 
more than 4 months of each year working just to pay the tax man, and 
increasing numbers of citizens see that burden as a barrier to achieving 
their dreams. We've tried to put on a lid on the spending that drives 
taxes and to concentrate government efforts on truly national purposes. 
It's only common sense. And if we want to build faith in government, we 
must demand public services that serve the people. We must insist upon 
compassion that works.
    But the power to create also rests on other freedoms, especially the 
freedom--and I think about that right now--to think and speak one's 
mind. [Applause] You see--thank you. The freedom--I had this written 
into the speech, and I didn't even know these guys were going to be 
    No, but seriously, the freedom to speak one's mind--that may be the 
most fundamental and deeply revered of all our liberties. Americans, to 
debate, to say what we think--because, you see, it separates good ideas 
from bad. It defines and cultivates the diversity upon which our 
national greatness rests. It tears off the blinders of ignorance and 
prejudice and lets us move on to greater things.
    Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find 
free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on 
some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited 
controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the 
laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and 
hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain 
topics off-limits, certain expression off-

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limits, even certain gestures off-limits.
    What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of 
conflict and even censorship. Disputants treat sheer force--getting 
their foes punished or expelled, for instance--as a substitute for the 
power of ideas.
    Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have 
only incited distrust. They have invited people to look for an insult in 
every word, gesture, action. And in their own Orwellian way, crusades 
that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.
    We all should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land and 
by the growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in 
settling disputes. Neighbors who disagree no longer settle matters over 
a cup of coffee. They hire lawyers, and they go to court. And political 
extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting 
citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race.
    But, you see, such bullying is outrageous. It's not worthy of a 
great nation grounded in the values of tolerance and respect. So, let us 
fight back against the boring politics of division and derision. Let's 
trust our friends and colleagues to respond to reason. As Americans we 
must use our persuasive powers to conquer bigotry once and for all. And 
I remind myself a lot of this: We must conquer the temptation to assign 
bad motives to people who disagree with us.
    If we hope to make full use of the optimism I discussed earlier, men 
and women must feel free to speak their hearts and minds. We must build 
a society in which people can join in common cause without having to 
surrender their identities.
    You can lead the way. Share your thoughts and your experiences and 
your hopes and your frustrations. Defend others' rights to speak. And if 
harmony be our goal, let's pursue harmony, not inquisition.
    The virtue of free speech leads naturally to another equally 
important dimension of freedom, and that is the freedom of spirit. In 
recent times, often with noble intentions, we as a nation have 
discouraged good works. Nowadays, many respond to misfortune by asking: 
``Whom can I sue?'' Even worse, many would-be Samaritans wonder: ``Will 
someone sue me?'' Talented, concerned men and women avoid such noble 
professions as medicine for fear that unreasonable and undefined 
liability claims will force them to spend more time in court than in the 
office or in the hospital.
    And at the same time, government programs have tried to assume roles 
once reserved for families and schools and churches. This is 
understandable, but dangerous. When government tries to serve as a 
parent or a teacher or a moral guide, individuals may be tempted to 
discard their own sense of responsibility, to argue that only government 
must help people in need.
    If we've learned anything in the past quarter century, it is that we 
cannot federalize virtue. Indeed, as we pile law upon law, program upon 
program, rule upon rule, we actually can weaken people's moral 
sensitivity. The rule of law gives way to the rule of the loophole, the 
notion that whatever is not illegal must be acceptable. In this way, 
great goals go unmet.
    When Lyndon Johnson--President Johnson--spoke here in 1964, he 
addressed issues that remain with us. He proposed revitalizing cities, 
rejuvenating schools, trampling down the hoary harvest of racism, and 
protecting our environment--back in 1964. He applied the wisdom of his 
time to these challenges. He believed that cadres of experts really 
could care for the millions. And they would calculate ideal tax rates, 
ideal rates of expenditures on social programs, ideal distributions of 
wealth and privilege. And in many ways, theirs was an America by the 
numbers: If the numbers were right, America was right.
    And gradually, we got to the point of equating dollars with 
commitment. And when programs failed to produce progress, we demanded 
more money. And in time, this crusade backfired. Programs designed to 
ensure racial harmony generated animosity. Programs intended to help 
people out of poverty invited dependency.
    We should have learned that while the ideals behind the Great 
Society were noble--and indeed they were--the programs weren't always up 
to the task. We need to rethink our approach. Let's tell our people: We 
don't want an America by the

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numbers. We don't want a land of loopholes. We want a community of 
commitment and trust.
    When I talked of a kinder, gentler nation, I wasn't trying to just 
create a slogan. I was issuing a challenge. An effective government must 
know its limitations and respect its people's capabilities. In return, 
people must assume the final burden of freedom, and that's 
    An introductory course in political philosophy teaches that freedom 
entails responsibility. Most of our greatest responsibilities confront 
us not in the government hearing rooms but around dinner tables, on the 
streets, at the office. If you teach your children and others how to 
hate, they will learn. And if you encourage them not to trust others, 
they'll follow your lead. And if you talk about compassion but refuse to 
help those in need, your children will learn to look the other way.
    Once your commencement ends, you'll have to rely on the sternest 
stuff of all: yourself. And in the end, government will not make you 
good or evil. The quality of your life--and of our nation's future--
depends as much on how you treat your fellow women and men as it does on 
the way in which we in Washington conduct our affairs of state. After 
all, the opposite of greed is not taxation. It is service.
    My vision for America depends heavily on you. You must protect the 
freedoms of enterprise, speech, and spirit. You must strengthen the 
family. You must build a peaceful and prosperous future. We don't need 
another Great Society with huge and ambitious programs administered by 
the incumbent few. We need a Good Society built upon the deeds of the 
many, a society that promotes service, selflessness, action.
    The Good Society poses a challenge: It dares you to explore the full 
promise of citizenship, to join in partnership with family, friends, 
government to make our world better. The Good Society does not demand 
agonizing sacrifice. It requires something within everyone's reach: 
common decency--common decency and commitment. Know your neighbors. 
Build bonds of trust at home, at work, wherever you go. Don't just talk 
about principles--live them.
    Let me leave you today with an exhortation: Make the most of your 
abilities. Question authority, but examine yourself. Demand good 
government, but strive to do what is good. Take risks. Muster the 
courage to be what I call a Point of Light. Also, define your missions 
positively. Don't seek out villains. Don't fall prey to obsessions about 
``freedom from'' various ills. Focus on freedom's promise, on your 
    When John Kennedy talked of sending a man to the Moon, he didn't 
say, we want to avoid getting stranded on this planet. He said, we'll 
send a man to the Moon. We must be equally determined to achieve our 
common goals.
    We live in the most exciting period of my lifetime, quite possibly 
of yours. The old way of doing things have run their course. Find new 
ones. Dare to serve others, and future generations will never forget the 
example you set.
    This is your day. Barbara and I are very proud to share it with you. 
Congratulations to each and every one of you. And thank you for the 
    And God bless the United States of America.

                    Note: President Bush spoke at 11:22 a.m. in Michigan 
                        Stadium, after he and Mrs. Bush received 
                        honorary law degrees from the university. In his 
                        remarks, he referred to James J. Duderstadt, 
                        president of the university; Gov. John Engler of 
                        Michigan and his wife, Michelle; Representatives 
                        Carl D. Pursell, Frederick S. Upton, and Guy 
                        Vander Jagt; and President Saddam Hussein of 
                        Iraq. Following his remarks, President Bush 
                        traveled to Camp David, MD.