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Sunday, July 04, 2010

That Dangerous Idea of Liberty

This Fourth of July marks the 234th anniversary of one the most dangerous ideas ever unleashed on the world. That people do not belong to governments, but governments belong to people. This was not an altogether new idea. History was filled with all sorts of theorizing and debating over the grounds on which a king might be overthrown. But the process that began with the Declaration of Independence did not merely set out to replace one set of chains, with a nicer set, but to overturn the top down rule of government, and replace it with a system in which people choose and replace their governments at will.

That sort of liberty is of course a dangerous idea. In most places revolutions mean that one gang is thrown out, and another gang marches in, and the mobs in the street are given a choice between going along or being on the wrong side of the guns. If the current Iranian revolution ever happens, that is exactly what it will end up looking like. It is what revolutions across the world and across time have looked like. The phenomenon best described by George Orwell in the conclusion to Animal Farm, as the pigs who led the revolution become indistinguishable from their former human masters.

America being the work of human beings, rather than angels, it is impossible to say that this sort of thing did not occur at all. The treatment of many veterans of the Continental Army was a particularly shameful chapter in American history. But in the bigger picture, the Constitution did what no form of government had ever done, shift the balance of power toward the people. The Constitution equipped with the Bill of Rights was not just another chain for the people, instead it was meant to be a leash on government.

Today we do not need to refer to other countries and other eras to understand how important that was, because we ourselves are living in a time in which government has begun to pile on the chains, and the leash doesn't work too well anymore. The late 19th and 20th centuries embraced progressive government and rejected popular rule. Both Republicans and Democrats reintroduced the iron law of elitism, that stands behind all tyranny, the idea that the welfare of the people is best served by the unquestioning rule of a small better qualified class, and that the people can serve their own interests by cooperating in the reforms being implemented for their benefit.

We still pay lip service to the Constitution. Just as every Supreme Court Justice who steps all over the Constitution, makes sure to reference some random line to pin their judicial activism on, and every Congressman and President wraps himself in the Preamble of the Declaration in order to propose laws that utterly pervert its intent. The Constitution and the Declaration have become symbols, rather than realities. They have ceased to be walls, and become bridges that can lead a politician absolutely anywhere.

Do you want to force every American to buy health insurance or pay a fine? Just mention that famous preamble, "All men are created equal", in order to argue that the government should be able to compel all men to buy a service of its choosing, in order to make them properly equal in their inability to obtain decent medical services. That is what happens when laws become ideas of laws, and ideas become trimmed into aborted phrases that are nothing more than words of poetry.

With time any principle can be turned into poetry, and then into a metaphor that turns out to mean the exact opposite of the original principle. That is all the more true of the dangerous principle of liberty, which is dangerous because it inhibits the rulers, while liberating the ruled. Governments wield the tools of power. Democracy turns access to those tools into a competition, but devalues the tools themselves. Which means that the political elites who compete for those tools will inevitably find a way to rewrite laws in a way that empowers the tools of government. That is what happened to us.

The great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people can be stated briefly. It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not. I believe in the right of the people to rule. I believe the majority of the plain people of the United States will, day in and day out, make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men, no matter what their training, will make in trying to govern them. I believe, again, that the American people are, as a whole, capable of self control and of learning by their mistakes. Our opponents pay lip loyalty to this doctrine; but they show their real beliefs by the way in which they champion every device to make the nominal rule of the people a sham.

Theodore Roosevelt

So spoke the man who had been the 26th President of the United States, 98 years ago as he was trying to recapture an office against Taft, the candidate of his own party. Roosevelt would not succeed. What he proposed in his speech at Carnegie Hall was to reclaim popular rule through direct primaries, referendums, recalls and using popular will to outweigh the judiciary.

But anyone tempted to cheer old TR might also want to think twice, because the debate was no longer over individual freedom, but over whether the government should protect the people against business interests, or protect business interests against the people. That ugly split in which government excels at playing different elements of the country against each other, for its own benefit was already here. The current ObamaCare framing that supposedly pitted the "people" against the "corporations" was the product of that same political perversity which promises protection to different sides, while feeding off all of them at once.


The fundamental Progressive mistake was to believe that rule of the people meant empowering government, rather than disempowering government. TR championed populism as a check against monopolies and trusts hijacking government. But all that did was turn government into the center of power, with the ultimate monopoly on power. And given a monopoly on power, government can then rewrite the rules to benefit itself. Much like the case of the squabbling heirs who take their quarrel over the family fortune to court, only to have the court claim it all for itself-- the battle to control government, allows politicians to rule through the ancient principle of divide and conquer.

And that is where we are at now. We have been thoroughly divided and conquered. We scramble back and forth searching for politicians who might save us from themselves. The problem in that sort of thinking is readily apparent. We invest power into politicians, so that they might stop oppressing us. Which is a lot like giving money to a bully, so that he'll stop demanding money from us. It never works. There are the occasional principled politicians, but even they tend to view government as the solution-- as Theodore Roosevelt did.

Politicians naturally believe that the solution to problems lies within government, because that is their purview. Given power, they will try to make government do the right thing. Which just perpetuates the cycle. The Constitution was meant to break the cycle by shifting power from governments to the people. But like a mudball rolling down a hill, governments pick up power as they go along. And eventually the power shifts. That is why Jefferson suggested a revolution every 20 years, even an utterly misguided one, would be a healthy thing for maintaining liberty. Because it checks the tendencies of government to become safely established in its powers.

Two-Hundred and Thirty Four years ago, the established rulers, the loyalists and the colonial governments, saw the Sons of Liberty and the other patriots, much as the Democrats see the Tea Party movement today, dangerous mobs of ignorant rabble who have to be brought into line. That is how governments always see people who begin insisting on their liberties. Because the ultimate privilege of government is power, and exercising that privilege requires the compliance of the people.

A government that insists on exercising power and a people that insist on exercising their liberties will always be at odds with one another. The Declaration of Independence began a process not merely of the political independence of one geographical entity from another, the American Colonies from England, but of the political independence of the people from governments, both through their ability to change governments, and their rights that exist independent of the will of governments. In the 20th century, we have had government after government try to stuff the American Revolution back in its sack. And in the 21st century, that process has been drastically accelerated.

Today we are living in the twilight of American democracy. The Democratic party has used immigration and racial politics as a tool to create its own constituencies. It maintains gerrymandered districts purely designed to elect candidates of a single race. It is now moving to consolidate its grip on power by invalidating the entire idea of "One Man, One Vote" as a tool of racist privilege. The next step will be either an end to regional representation, saddling us with a system in which our only remaining ability is to vote for one party list or another, or voting by racial representation in which voting totals are figured into an overall census oriented breakdown by regional area, or nationwide, and in which votes count only in racial proportion, and not numerically. Either system will further devalue the voter, and enhance the power of governments to play Divide and Conquer games with their subjects.

But that "Dangerous Idea of Liberty" is still around. It is not an idea that politicians would like us to think about very much. They want us to watch fireworks, enjoy our bbq's and look at all the pretty colors. To drive out to the lake, go swimming, and cheer when the politician of the moment speaks. To celebrate, but not to think about what exactly it is we are celebrating. For too long we have confused lifestyle with liberty, and that too serves the interests of a system which asks us to exchange liberty for lifestyle, which promises to feed, clothe and care for us-- if we only give up on that dangerous idea of liberty.

The best way to commemorate the Fourth of July is to do exactly what they don't want us to do. To think. To reread the original Declaration and the Constitution. To familiarize ourselves with what has happened since then. And to recognize that liberty will never come from politicians, only from ourselves. Government cannot give the people freedom, as it is a tool whose use diminishes freedom. Liberty can only come from men and women who choose to be free.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The weakest link in our current regime is the primary election system where the government institutions supply the means and places to elect party nominees for public office. I don't know how many times I have confused a primary election for the actual election for some office. And I've seen other people do it too.

All that is necessary to get rid of the primary system is to correctly conclude that the government has no business keeping record of some registered voter's political party. The only reason that some voter's political party is on record is for purposes of the primary elections. There is no other reason. We should make it against the law for the government to keep such a record. That would get rid of the primary elections and it would also get rid of the "two party system" which is the backbone of the technocracy that runs our government.

Lemon said...

We can pray for the day when everyone ascribes to dangerous ideas like Liberty!

Keli Ata said...

I agree with anonymous. The primary system is flawed.

Keli Ata said...

I pray to G-d Americans don't confuse liberalism with true liberty. Or have many already confused the two?

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