Last week I posted the results of a recent poll, asking: What is the proper role of government? As it turns out, this is a hotly debated question, and one that, at least in the U.S., most people don’t at all understand. In fact, one reader’s misunderstanding was so thorough that I couldn’t possibly address it in a single comment, or even a single post.
Welcome to the first post in the Liberty 101 series.
Much of the fault with my reader’s misunderstanding lies with his education, and education too will be addressed in this series. But first, the most important issue of all.
What is liberty?
I’m not going to bore you with theoretical philosophy. If you are looking for an extended treatise on John Locke or someone like that, you’ll be disappointed. You may hear a lot of Thomas Paine, though, as I like things plain and simple. So here’s some plain and simple for you.
The great, mostly great, somewhat decent, and downright despicable people who managed against all odds to found the United States of America largely believed that government was far too intrusive in people’s lives — both in their coin purses and in their bedrooms. “That government is best which governs least,” thought Thomas Paine. The quotation has also been attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Who really said it? Doesn’t matter. What matters is the message itself: the less government, the better off we all are.
But they also believed that some minimal form of government was required in order to protect the common interests of all. In a vast land to be made of sovereign people, it seemed to be of little good to have each of them making his own foreign policy, declaring his own wars, printing money, and so forth. So these functions were delegated, via the Constitution, to the federal government. The powers of the government were spelled out, and were supposed to be strictly limited to those functions, not only implicitly by the fact that the powers were enumerated, but explicitly, by the Tenth Amendment.
Unfortunately for us, some humans crave power, and will do anything to gain it, keep it and expand it. So it was with the United States, even before the Constitution was written.
Take these powermongers, for example. One of the great debates of the Constitutional Convention was how to balance power between the states and the federal government. Those who argued that states should have greater power than the federal government were known as federalists, while those who argued that the federal government should have greater power were known as nationalists. I’ve oversimplified things here to show in one paragraph what would usually take several pages: The Federalist Papers were written by the nationalists.
Like the bunch of greedy, power-hungry politicians they were, they misappropriated the term in order to reframe the debate. And by and large they won the debate.
For both sides of the story, be sure to read The Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalist Papers, many written under pseudonyms, warned us that the Constitution was not sufficient to protect the people from tyranny, and gave dire warnings of the threats We the People would face as a result. The Bill of Rights partially addressed some of the issues that these people brought up, but not nearly all of them.
Consider this gem, all too relevant today:
If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design; and, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely — and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion — have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete with such insupportable evils. If we make a king, we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the President, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke. I cannot with patience think of this idea. If ever he violates the laws, one of two things will happen: he will come at the head of his army, to carry every thing before him; or he will give bail, or do what Mr. Chief Justice will order him. If he be guilty, will not the recollection of his crimes teach him to make one bold push for the American throne? Will not the immense difference between being master of every thing, and being ignominiously tried and punished, powerfully excite him to make this bold push? But, sir, where is the existing force to punish him? Can he not, at the head of his army, beat down every opposition? Away with your President! we shall have a king: the army will salute him monarch: your militia will leave you, and assist in making him king, and fight against you: and what have you to oppose this force? What will then become of you and your rights? Will not absolute despotism ensue? — Patrick Henry
Yes, that is the same Patrick Henry who said, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” He believed the checks on the President’s power were clearly insufficient, among many other defects in the Constitution. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether that’s the case; I have a lot more fish to fry.
What is liberty? Put simply, it is the opportunity to do as you please without interference from the government, so long as you did not interfere with anyone else’s right to do as they please. Thanks to the loving, watchful eyes of Big Brother, Washington, DC 20500, there isn’t a whole lot of that left. (Mail to that address is delivered to the White House.)
In this series I will cover a wide range of issues facing us today, showing how government has completely boiled us all like frogs, and how it has introduced an “absolute despotism” beyond anything the founders ever imagined. I’ll also show how the American spirit Henry and others spoke about not only didn’t protect us from this despotism, it was corraled, subverted and transformed into something else entirely. Stay tuned.