(The following was originally submitted to the July 1-4 2008 Blogswarm against Theocracy. I have made some additions and revisions. Since my goal is always change in the real world, I urge you to take personal action to roll back religious bigotry and superstition. First Freedom First is a good place to start.)
“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1809
“This is the Fourth?”
Last words, July 4, 1826
“When in the Course of Human Events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political Bonds that have connected them with another…they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
Declaration of Indepependence
The Fourth of July, long before I was born, was not about mattress sales, backyard barbecues, and celebrating your independence by buying a Chevy. It was about the fact that America was a special place, with no monarch, with no state religion, and with government by the consent of the governed. It was a celebration of our liberty.
Think of it: for once, after millennia of despots, kings, dictators, Popes, czars, and other tyrants, a new concept was to be tried: liberty. It’s as if the Founders aspired to raise the level of human political consciousness overnight, to put into effect the natural rights that had only recently been developed by philosophers.
(Fascinating digression: recent research reveals that Jefferson smudged out “subjects” in the Declaration and replaced it with “citizens.” Apparently, liberty was a stretch, even for the Founders.)
Liberty, equality (of white men; they didn’t get it completely right at first), a government where there are no coups or Presidents-for-Life, where we hold elections no matter what, so that we could choose our own leaders, instead of being ruled by royal or theocratic idiots.
George W. Bush was both; he even said he approved of dictatorship, as long as he was the dictator. Perhaps the democratic process yields no better results than monarchic succession, but at least we’re responsible for electing them.
Liberty: the Founders were asking the best of us when they made that Declaration. And of themselves: They were taking on the most powerful empire and land army of the day. They risked their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” Many lost the first two, but never the third.
It was truly an assemblage of the best and the brightest, each making a distinctive contribution to the whole: the extraordinary character, patriotism, and probity of Washington, the intellectual brilliance of Jefferson, the economic genius of Hamilton, the fire of Paine and Sam Adams, the diplomacy (and schlong) of Franklin, the lawyerly John Adams.
Are we up to it?
Have we shown ourselves worthy of the Founders’ aspirations? Have we been able to add a new, refined level of consciousness to our aggressive, selfish chimp-brains: a respect for each other, and for the law? Can we develop a sense of live-and-let-live, a personal responsibility for our actions and lives (pursuit of happiness - what an idea!), when what most people want is to be led?
Very difficult concepts, which is why many Americans, without knowing the Bill of Rights, will disapprove of certain Amendments. Too much freedom. The herd instinct, the need to be led, remains strong.
After the Constitutional Convention, a citizen asked Ben Franklin, “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin? A monarchy or a republic?” Franklin’s answer: “A republic, Madam – if you can keep it.”
Have we kept it? The answer is obvious. Today there is no area of life that is off-limits to government intervention.
How free is America?
We don’t have the freedom to save for our retirement; instead, we have the mandatory Social Security scam. The middle class permanently wedded to politicians, and a lousy return on your money (they take 14% of it, counting your employer’s share, and it will only go up). I don’t remember signing any “intergenerational contract.” Do you?
We don’t have the freedom to educate our children as we see fit; instead, we have the government K-12 school monopoly, with un-fireable teachers and armies of administrators, and the Department of Education, which costs $40 billion a year and educates no one. Plus endless arguments over what should be taught.
We don’t have the freedom to decide what we can put into our own bodies; instead, we have the odious, endless drug war, which has wrecked many of our cities (and is responsible for 5,000-10,000 violent deaths a year), and the FDA (which could easily be replaced by a more efficient, more impartial, non-politicized, private institution like Underwriters Labs, to the benefit of consumers), which causes much suffering and unnecessary death because it both has the force of law AND is slow, political, and bureaucractic. Other countries are way ahead of us in taking dangerous drugs off the market and approving effective ones.
We don’t have the freedom to keep the money we earn; instead, we have the income tax and the intrusive, tyrannical IRS – in the words of Sheldon Richman, “vile institutions that have no place in a free society.” Taxes at all levels take close to half your income…and line the pockets of an army of political idiots and power-seekers. The sickness is in the system that puts hypocrites like these in office.
We aren’t free from the public intrusiveness of religion, with the blessings of the government – even though the Founders clearly intended to create a secular state. Some were outright atheists. Some believed in a Deity, but they sure as hell didn’t spend a lot of time in church. And they didn’t expect that prayer would get God to deliver them from the British; they’d have to do it themselves.
Secular government with limited powers
The Constitution creates a secular government with limited and enumerated powers. True, the Founders’ specific prohibition is only against the establishment of a state religion. But, apart from what they put on paper, what about the example they set?
It’s clear that they wanted a secular state, “bound by the chains of the Constitution,” as Jefferson put it. (What a dreamer!)
Early America – and even then the America-as-Christian-Nation folks were around, and making mischief – had a secular government in which any attempts to get the state to champion Biblical teachings or otherwise intrude on people’s moral choices were UNCONSTITUTIONAL, as were any other attempts to get the government to do anything not in the Constitution.
That was then. This is now. What about all the stuff the government does that isn’t in the Constitution? Is it allowable?
It is not. Generations of politicians, abetted by the courts, have spun (deliberately misinterpreted) the Constitution and betrayed the Founders’ dream of a truly free country.
There is no question that in a document that received this much intellectual input, what was not said…was omitted DELIBERATELY, especially since the writers underscored their omissions with not one but two Amendments to that effect.
It’s not as if they composed it on the fly, like a last-minute term paper, and they kinda “forgot about” the importance of the government’s overseeing education, agriculture, retirement pensions, health care, drug policy, or any of the hundreds of things it does now, let alone wasting our money on golf courses and country clubs for its employees. Only Congress has the power to declare war - a provision ignored by over a century of foreign interventions that were supposedly defending our freedom.
What the government cannot do
How many Americans know what the all-important Ninth and Tenth Amendments say?
Some of the Founders argued that the Bill of Rights wasn’t necessary – that the government’s limitations would be evident from the foregoing enumeration of its powers. Others said no, we’ve got to really make the point. There are certain areas where government must not go. Hence the Bill of Rights.
The Ninth Amendment says: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This says: There may be rights that we haven’t mentioned. The fact that we didn’t mention them does not deny them to people.
The Tenth: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.” In other words: We give the States the power to do anything we didn’t specifically say that the Federal government is supposed to do. And if we don’t prohibit the States from doing a particular thing, then it’s up to the people.
That gives the States and people a lot of leeway, wouldn’t you say?
America: a perfect balance
The Founders were trying to achieve what was potentially a perfect balance. The broad sweep of history suggests that China is backward (though catching up fast) because it was too centralized.
One decision could be made for a vast nation – even a disastrous one like abandoning the magnificent Treasure Ships that sailed to Africa in the 15th century and helped put China within range of an Industrial Revolution.
Instead, the West caught up with and surpassed the East, partly because of its diversity. Different nations, economies, societies, always in competition – often violent – with each other. Competition is conductive to innovation.
But Europe is too fragmented, as evidenced by its still-unsuccessful efforts to surmount cultural and linguistic barriers and create a unified economic entity.
The US is just right – potentially. We have one language (mostly), one market, one currency, one culture (sort of). We have a fifty-state federal system. The idea was that the federal government would do a few things well – defense, judiciary, protecting our freedom here and abroad, keeping the nation’s finances sound – while EVERYTHING ELSE GOES TO THE STATES AND THE PEOPLE.
So potentially, we have 50 different solutions to the problems of local crime, poverty, education, drug policy, abortion, and many others. But no. Politicians have frightened and sweet-talked voters out of giving up precious rights in exchange for government protection or other goodies. In 1957, the USSR launched a tiny satellite, which threw our government into such a panic that it federalized education, even though we soon surpassed the Soviets in space, with the same people who were in school when the government took over education. And forty years later, we still lag behind other industrialized countries.
The monster in DC
The federal government now takes one-sixth of our national wealth – and redistributes it, wasting huge sums in the process. It’s little more than a huge clearing-house for transferring money into the pockets of its clients and contributors (and that includes defense contractors – war is good business!).
In the last century — and especially in the last 50 years – government has ignored the Ninth and Tenth Amendments and grown into a monster that invades every area of our lives. They steal our money (taxes) to buy our votes (favors and subsidies once they’re in office).
Generations of Americans accept the American welfare state, with the government in charge of education, health care, drug policy, business hiring practices, licensing…the list goes on and on. They don’t know of anything else.
Why is there not outrage on college campuses because students can lose their loans and scholarships for a drug conviction – and they can’t even be asked about any other crime, including murder! Everybody’s plugged into their iPods, and the drug war is now just background noise – at $40 billion a year.
July 4 saddens me because it used to be about how America was a free country. But perhaps real liberty is too much for people. The Founders expected too much.
We do have the freedom to criticize the government in print and other media (which it controls through licensing and other regulations), rather like chimps shrieking in their cages.
With The Daily Show and Colbert Report, we become smarter chimps, laughing at the joke that is on us. But nothing will change.
And we have the freedom to shop til we drop. So who cares what the government does? Indeed, mindless consumerism and 24/7 Internet/entertainment have allowed a level of political complacency and obedience that Hitler or Stalin could never have achieved through force.
Liberty – a word you don’t hear much in today’s political rhetoric. For me and for all who love liberty, the 4th is a bittersweet holiday indeed. The essence of America is not World Empire (those people have been around for a long time too). It is not Government-as-Grandparent (Al Gore). It is not Christian Nation.
It is Land of the Free.