WASHINGTON, September 11, 2014 – There are now, as there have always been, serious threats to American freedom. It is often believed that such threats come primarily from enemies abroad, as in the case of the Nazis and the Japanese during World War II, or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Even today there are concerns about threats to our security from such terrorist groups as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. These threats are real and must be defeated, and it is true that America’s leadership role in the world has diminished under the current administration.
In the end, however, groups like these are a challenge, not a long-term threat to our freedom.
What does threaten our freedom, in part, is how we respond to such international turmoil. During World War I, we curtailed freedom of speech. During World War II, we interred Japanese-Americans.
During the Cold War, we launched governmental investigations into the private political philosophies of countless Americans.
Now, in the name of the war on terrorism, we are tapping the phones and reviewing the e-mails of millions of our citizens. John Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., even admits spying on members of Congress, including Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
When non-elected government bureaucrats are able to spy on the elected representatives of the people, our constitutional system of government is in trouble.
We would do well to consider the predictions that have been made about how American freedom might be lost. In most cases, it is Americans themselves who have been viewed as the likely culprits, wanting something else more than freedom, and being prepared to trade that freedom for their desired objects.
In “On Power,” the French political philosopher, Bertrand De Jouvenel 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 its 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 really desired by but few human beings and not even by them until their primary needs have been amply provided for. It is from this point of view that liberty needs to be looked at—the will to be free is in time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction. Liberty is in fact only a secondary need; the primary need is security.”
From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that democratic government would produce this result. Plato, Aristotle, and more recently De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macaulay predicted that men would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.
De Jouvenel 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 Babbington 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 of 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 Americs, declared that, “Either some Caesar or Napolean will seize the reigns of government with a strong hand; or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the Fifth, with this difference, that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
Today, more and more Americans depend upon the government for their support. This includes not only the poor recipients of welfare, but the wealthy ones as well. American taxpayers subsidize a host of special interests, through what has come to be known as crony capitalism. This includes farmers, companies such as Boeing through the Export-Import Bank, and Wall Street, where firms that went bankrupt in the marketplace were bailed out by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
Our huge unbalanced budgets and deficits are one result of the politicized economy in which all of us now live.
Voters say they are against big government and oppose deficit spending, but when it comes to their own particular share, they act in a different manner entirely.
Former Minnesota Congressman Walter Judd recalls that a Republican businessman from his district “who normally decried deficit spending berated me for voting against a bill which would have brought several million federal dollars into our city.
My answer was, ‘Where do you think federal funds for Minneapolis come from? People in St. Paul?’…
My years in public life have taught me that politicians and citizens alike invariably claim that government spending should be restrained –except where the restraints cut off federal dollars flowing into their cities, their businesses, or their pocketbooks.”
If each group curbed its demands upon government, it would be easy to balance the budget and restore health to the economy. Human nature, however, leads to the unfortunate situation in which, under representative government, people have learned that through political pressure they can vote funds for themselves that have, in fact, been earned by the hard work of others.
This point was made more than 200 years ago by the British historian Alexander Tytler:
“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.”
Too many have believed that, somehow, “democracy” was an end in itself. Democracy, however, is a process and not a value. It only means that the government is selected by the people, rather than through heredity or by some other means. If the people have good values, democracy will produce a good and virtuous society.
If their values degenerate, however, so will other aspects of society.
Professor Samuel Huntington notes that,
“The Greek philosophers argued that the best practical state, the ‘mixed regime,’ would combine several principles of government in its constitution. The Constitution of 1787 was drafted with this insight very much in mind. Over the years, however, the American political system has emerged as a distinctive case of extraordinarily democratic institutions joined to an exclusively democratic value system. Democracy, as a result, can very easily become a threat to itself in the United States…The vulnerability of democratic government in the United States thus comes from the internal dynamics of democracy itself.”
At the beginning of the Republic this idea was very much on the minds of the Founding Fathers.
“Democracy never lasts long,” John Adams observed. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Similarly, Professor Martin Diamond argued that,
“…the crucial point…is the priority of liberty as the end of government, the merely instrumental status of all forms of government, and the peculiarly questionable status of the popular form–democracy–up to the time of the American Founding.”
Many contemporary Americans have not only turned away from the Founding Fathers’ fear of government power, but gave also rejected two of their other important convictions. One is that equality and liberty are inherently contradictory and that the only kind of equality which is consistent with liberty is equality under the law.
The second is that free enterprise and other freedoms are intrinsically linked and if one is destroyed the others will cease to exist. They did not anticipate that enemies of free enterprise would come from the business community, the advocates of crony capitalism, as well as from other sectors of society.
In the larger world, some in the political arena, particularly so-called neo-conservatives, have urged the U.S. to spread democracy around the world, particularly in the Middle East. They seem to have forgotten that democracy simply means that the values of the people will be represented. They seemed surprised when Egypt elected the Muslim Brotherhood and the people of Gaza selected Hamas.
The U.S. rejected the results of these free elections . What were we thinking?
None of this is to say that current threats to our country, whether from the Islamic State or an increasingly aggressive Russia must not be properly addressed. Nor is it to be complacent about the lack of leadership in today’s Washington which makes the world an increasingly dangerous place.
It is, however, to remember that the greatest threat to the future of our free society is to be found within our own society. Democracy means our values will be reflected in our government.
When we look at contemporary Washington, it is those values we see on display. We are looking in a mirror, and, more and more, Americans don’t like what we see on display.