The View From 1776

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§ Decline of Western Civilization: a Snapshot

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

What is Freedom?

President Bush has given freedom great prominence in his Middle Eastern foreign policy.  Let’s not forget that the impetus that gave birth to this nation was, not freedom, but liberty.

Liberal-socialists like Senator Teddy Kennedy and socialist intellectuals like Michael Walzer have a very different definition of freedom and liberty from the one understood by American colonists in 1776. 

Michael Walzer is a self-described liberal who identifies with socialism.  He is co-editor of Dissent, the journal founded by the late Irving Howe, the dean of Manhattan?s post-World-War-II socialist intellectuals.  And one of his essays is included in Mr. Howe?s Essential Works of Socialism.

In an article rebutting neo-conservative Irving Kristol, Professor Walzer asserts that there can be no freedom in a society that permits private ownership of property, because such a society inevitably will make some people richer than others.  Freedom, as liberal-socialists envision it, is implicitly what Lenin and Stalin called dictatorship of the proletariat: tight control of every aspect of society by a ruling intellectual clique, enforced if necessary by a state terrorism apparatus prepared to liquidate millions of dissidents.  Not that Senator Kennedy demands anything more than the right to name all Cabinet officers and Federal judges; it’s just that to go the last mile to egalitarian distribution of property necessitates a populace willing to accept 90+ percent marginal tax rates, or the use of police force to compel acceptance.

Possession of money, Professor Walzer says, amounts to power, and such power is both unjust and unjustly used.  It enables the rich to purchase every sort of social good.  Why should these goods be distributed to people who have a talent for making money?  In the socialists? view, all that should count is need.  This is what is meant by social justice.  Whenever equality in this sense does not exist, we have a kind of tyranny in which the strong, the well-born, and the wealthy get social goods that have nothing to do with their personal qualities.

The core of this critique is the issue of power.  Walzer sees money as power to control ?the people,? power that is unjustly held and unjustly exercised.  This formulation, by the way, is straight out of Karl Marx?s Communist Manifesto:

?The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital?To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production.  Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.  Capital is, therefore, not a personal, it [should be] a social power.? 

Like Marx, Walzer prefers to concentrate power in the hands of state-planners who will manage the economy and distribute goods and services using guidelines of social justice.  He replaces individual choice with collectivism.

Matters were starkly different in 1776 and in 1787, when the Constitution was written.  People used the word liberty, not freedom.

Under our original Constitution and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, the people?s understanding of liberty was crystal clear: the Federal government was to confine itself to areas of responsibility that affected the nation as a whole.  And the list of such matters was small, including regulation of currency, insuring that no state discriminated unfairly against trade from other states, maintaining an army and a navy, and defending the nation from foreign aggressors.  Having recently fought the War of Independence to forestall arbitrary confiscation of private property by George III?s administration, Americans were in no mood to create an all-powerful Federal government.

In an individualistic society like the United States in 1791, the arbitrary power of government was curbed by unwritten tradition, by the Constitution and its new Bill of Rights, and by the common law.  Taken together, these protected individuals? inalienable rights to life, liberty, and private property.  But in a planned economy, there are no inalienable individual rights, because collectivized planning takes priority.  Social justice necessitates sacrificing the Declaration of Independence?s inalienable individual rights if they conflict with planners? decisions about the common good.

In the final analysis, the social justice and ?freedom? aspired to by liberal-socialists like Professor Michael Walzer amount to condemning as evil those who work harder than their fellows, those who exercise greater prudence, foresight, and forbearance than their fellows, because these qualities result in some people having more wealth and income than others.  Only the arbitrary and crushing force of government can create and maintain a society in which everyone has equal income and wealth, regardless of talent, energy, and hard work.

In the vast middle ground, between the extreme socialism of Senator Kennedy and Professor Walzer on the one hand and the colonial views of 1776 on the other hand, lies a very muddled bundle of half-baked ideas about freedom.  The kindest description is to say that public opinion is uninformed, largely because our Progressive educational system has made it that way since the 1920s. 

Let’s review some misperceptions:

First, the French Revolution’s declaration of universal rights of man and the citizen had nothing whatever to do with our War of Independence.  The French declaration, issued thirteen years after our Declaration of Independence, was nothing more than an intellectual abstraction emanating from a society that had never had so much as five minutes’ experience in self-government.  Analogously, it was as if a group of kindergarten pupils had taken over an atomic energy plant and claimed the prerogative to issue new management regulations.

Our Declaration of Independence echoed the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which was the product of more than a thousand years of local self-government in the British isles.  Underlying this thousand year history was the stubborn resistance of Englishmen, here as well as in England, to arbitrary confiscation of their private property by the monarch.  Out of this grew Parliament and the doctrine of no taxation without representation.  In short, English and American liberty was founded on the rights of private property.

Nevertheless, American educators in the early 20th century denigrated the concept of private property, in line with socialist doctrine, as selfish greed.  Students were taught that the essential nature of American society was a striving for “democracy” in the sense of universal suffrage.  Ultimately this implies the socialist doctrine that every individual, regardless of his contribution to society, should have an equal claim on the hard work of others.  Hence the welfare state created by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

Because Thomas Jefferson, before the excesses of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror, had favored the French over the English, he became the patron saint of liberalism.  Looking at the facts of his writings and later presidential policies, however, it’s clear that he understood that the United States should disavow all connections with France, beyond ordinary diplomatic ones.  In fact, during the period of John Adams’s presidency and later, France was our open military enemy, confiscating American ships on the high seas, and England was our ally and defender against the Revolutionary, socialist French government.

Second, out of this intellectual conflation of liberty with universal voting rights has come the purely mechanical version of “democracy” peddled by Peanut Carter in his global tours to “authenticate” election processes in foreign countries.  Sublimely indifferent to, if not also ignorant of, the necessity for well-established traditions of law and property rights, Mr. Carter and his ilk see “democracy” as nothing more than the mechanical act of dropping a ballot into a ballot box. All we need to know is whether every person performed that act.  It’s like presuming that draping Sea Biscuit’s saddle blanket over a donkey would transform the donkey into an all-time racing champion.

The absence of traditions of law and property rights doesn’t mean that self-government can’t be established, but it does make the task harder.

Third, democracy was not, and should not be, the objective of our constitutional government.  As James Madison wrote in The Federalist papers, and many delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 observed, democracy was the least stable and the worst imaginable form of government.  As Madison put it, the life span of pure democracies was as short as their demise was violent.

Democracy’s weakness was most glaringly revealed in the history of classical Athens, a pure democracy in which the ruling assembly of 501 men were selected by lot.  Its susceptibility to manipulation by volatile public opinion was memorialized in Plato’s dialog “The Apology.”  Coincidentally, “The Apology” is usually the only one of Plato’s dialogs that college students ever read, for two reasons. First, it is much shorter and less complex than other dialogs, and, second, liberals misuse it to teach that Plato advocated destructive attacks on tradition. 

Plato, to begin with, was writing shortly after Athens had been militarily and economically destroyed by Sparta in the twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War.  As Thucydides explained in his history of the war, the Athenian assembly had rashly rejected wise counsel to deal effectively with Sparta’s real grievances and brashly jumped into the war.  During the war, the ebb and flow of public opinion was insufficient to counter the iron discipline of the Spartans, rather as in the liberals’ propaganda to manipulate public opinion during the Vietnam War and their so far ineffective efforts regarding Iraq.

In “The Apology” Socrates is addressing the Athenian assembly, which already had convicted him of defaming the gods and corrupting the city’s youth with his questions and arguments.  The issue before the assembly was whether to execute or to exile Socrates.  In Plato’s dialog, Socrates says about his questioning prevalent assumptions that the untested life is not worth living.  Liberals leap upon this and extract it in isolation from the main thrust of the dialog, proclaiming that the lesson for students is to “change society.”  The context, in fact, in which Socrates makes that statement is to show that his conviction rested, not upon tradition, but entirely upon the mob passion of public opinion, stirred up by five individuals whom Socrates names.  The singular point of “The Apology” is that public opinion is not a good basis for government.  A sick man would seek counsel of a physician; a man needing a pair of shoes wouldn’t go to a carpenter; nor would a man needing a house built go to a shoemaker.  No rational person would employ a random sample of pedestrians in the streets to do things requiring real knowledge, yet liberal-socialists arrogantly demand that criminals, illegal aliens, and dead people have their votes counted.

Knowledge and understanding, not “every vote must be counted,” should be the foundation of a constitutional republic like the United States.  And, without a stringent reform of our educational system, the American public will become less well informed each passing year.