WASHINGTON: The 4th of July is worthy of celebration. The government our Founding Fathers established has maintained the free society they created. The Constitution reflects their political philosophy. Fear of excessive government power. The need to limit power it through the division of powers and a series of checks and balances. While we view America as a young country, the form of government they established is now the world’s oldest. (The Founding Father’s fear of Executive Power out of control)
While the celebration is important, so is a serious reflection on the fragility of free societies throughout history. The Founding Fathers hoped that the system of government they established in 1789 would survive into the future.
However, many were fearful that it might not.
Asked what sort of government the Founders were creating, Benjamin Franklin response was, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
For too long, we have believed that freedom would be taken from us by demagogues at home or tyrants abroad. These dangers do, of course, exist. The more pressing problem, however, maybe the willingness of the majority of citizens to give their freedom away for something they want even more.
Give me liberty, or give me death
In his book “On Power,” the French political philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenal points out that we frequently say, “Liberty is the most precious of all goods,” without noticing what this concept implies.
“A good thing which is of great price is not one of the primary necessities. Water costs nothing at all, and bread very little. What costs much is something like a Rembrandt, which though the price is above rubies, is wanted by very few people and by none who have not, as it happens, a sufficiency of bread and water. Precious things, therefore, are desired by but few human beings. It is from this point of view that liberty must be seen. The will to be free is in a time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction.
Liberty is only a secondary need; the primary need is security.”
From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that a democratic government would produce this result. Plato, Aristotle and, more recently, De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macaulay predicted that people would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.
De Jouvenal concludes:
“The state, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”
In a similar vein, Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing to Henry Randall in 1857, lamented,
“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous. Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government and liberty would perish.”
Macaulay, looking to America, declared that,
“Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reigns of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be so fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians …as the Roman Empire was …with this difference—-that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
More than 200 years ago, the British historian Alexander Tytler wrote that,
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”
Such prophecies did not foresee other challenges to democratic government, such as the influence of money in politics.
Candidates for public office spend much of their time raising money from special interest groups. In return, they reward these groups when they are elected.
Wall Street is a contributor to political campaigns. When our financial institutions failed, the members of Congress bailed them out with taxpayer money.
Washington is home to an army of lobbyists who seek subsidies of various kinds.
This is the “swamp.” It thrives whichever party is in power. And it is alive and well today.
The Founding Fathers created a form of free and limited government which, so far, is surviving. Defying Franklin’s predictions of its demise. However, the system of our Founders, our constitutional government, is under assault by both parties.
The unfettering of Executive Power
The Framers of the Constitution gave the power to go to war to the Congress, fearing an all-powerful executive. (Obama: “We’re Not Going To Be Waiting For Legislation… I Can Use That Pen To Sign Executive Orders”) For the United States, Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution says “Congress shall have power to … declare War.”
Nonetheless, since the end of World War ll, we have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The sitting President made the decision to enter these conflicts. Each executive ignoring Congress and their approval power.
The executive, whether Democrat or Republican, is expanding its’ power. While Congress is abdicating its authority. Now, as we hear talk of war with Iran, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are speaking of restoring the role given to them by the Constitution.
Late in June, the Senate voted down a proposal that would have required the president to get congressional approval before any attack on Iran. Republicans such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) supported this legislation.
The legislation fell short with 50-40 majority vote. The Founding Fathers, while being disappointed, would not be surprised.
From the very beginning, the founders foresaw that limits on executive power would be breached.
I have personally witnessed a dramatic decline in our political life. Many decades ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I worked for members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as a legislative aide. In one position, I served as assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference.
Those leading this group included two future presidents: George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford.
We met each week to discuss our legislative plans. I do not remember any denunciations of the Democrats, let alone the kind of name-calling we hear today. It was not just a matter of civility, which both parties respected.
Our goal was to convince the Democrats of the merits of the proposals we were presenting and show them that they served the best interests of the country. We regularly formed coalitions with members of the other party. No one viewed them as “enemies.” Our two-party system can’t work if you do.
Today, it isn’t working. During the years of the Cold War, when I worked in Congress, we all—-Republicans and Democrats—knew who our enemies were. Now some in our political life identify our fellow Americans in this way.
Commemorating July 4 requires more than parades and fireworks.
It needs serious reflection about how rare and fragile free societies are. That despite the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, there is no guarantee that it will endure into the future.
Whether it does or not is entirely up to us.
Preserving our free society and not constant jockeying for partisan advantage is what should motivate those in public life. There was a time in our early history when it did. Sadly, a time long gone.
The men declaring independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, were risking their lives and their property to do so. They were challenging the most powerful empire in the world. The likelihood is that they would suffer defeat. If they did, they faced execution and the loss of everything they had.
Mt. Vernon and Monticello would be gone.
Contrast what they were willing to sacrifice to establish a free society with what characterizes our political life today. Today, people enter public life, risking nothing. It is a job, not a calling. The result far too often is the accumulation of wealth, now knowledge.
The Founding Fathers were uniquely America’s greatest generation.
To honor them and the free society they did establish the privileges and honors we enjoy, and which still endure. However, we should do so with the understanding of the challenge to our free society. As in the time of our founding, men and women of similar dedication need to defend our republic.