What Price of Liberty?
seeking to understand the premises of the leftist-neocon consensus
that has taken up dominance in American centers of power need only
study E.J. Dionne Jr.’s latest
column on the "price of liberty." According to Dionne
the "price of liberty" is statism! He doesn’t, of course,
put it so forthrightly. He cites a work entitled The
Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes by two law
professors, Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein. That he would enlist
two members of today’s professorial class in support of his views
doesn’t surprise me at all.
point of departure is the looting of shops, government offices and
museums that has characterized post-Saddam Baghdad. He uses these
scenes to contrast the tyranny of Saddam and the brand of statism
favored by the current consensus. "The alternative to tyranny
is not the abolition of government," he writes. "Absent
a government committed to the protection of rights, there are no
you have it: the key to one of the fundamental premises of the post-9/11
world. A right is a fundamentally moral entity. Government,
a political one. Dionne has just reduced social morality to politics.
In this view, rights do not antecede institutions of government,
which indeed have as a function the protection of rights. According
to the current consensus, government creates rights. We would
have no rights without government to give them to us. Read
it again: "Absent a government … there are no rights."
Dionne might respond that this is a horribly unfair characterization
of his views. He might deny saying that, literally, human beings
have no rights independent of government, i.e., of military might,
political arrangements and police powers. Rather, he might say that
without government there are no mechanisms in place to see to it
that rights are respected and protected.
though, is not saying, "There are no rights." Dionne’s
statement above continues, "Without government, individuals
have no way to vindicate their rights to property, to personal liberty,
to life itself." This depends on the cash value of to vindicate.
see. First off, does it make sense to say that rights exist even
if a given power structure refuses to recognize them or, perhaps,
if there is no power structure at all? Of course it does. In the
first case, this was the working premise of the Declaration of Independence
and the U.S. Constitution, those mostly forgotten documents being
trampled underfoot in our march toward global empire. It was the
working premise of those who criticized the former Soviet Union
and other dictatorships the world over, including the fallen regime
of Saddam Hussein. In the second case, it is surely the premise
of those who see something wrong with the looting of Baghdad shopkeepers.
The demand that individual rights be respected is one of the moral
checks on political might no less than on low-level criminal gangs.
this light, let us look anew at those looters Dionne and others
have commented on. Let’s consider them in a larger context: that
of the worldview that dominates that part of the world and their
culture, Islam. Muslims are not exactly noted for their respect
for such things as individual liberty and property rights which
is one reason the dream of establishing Western-style "democracy"
in Iraq will probably remain just that: a dream. Islamic culture
never produced a John Locke or a Thomas Jefferson or a James Madison.
It certainly wasn’t going to produce a Ludwig von Mises or a Friedrich
A. Hayek. Unable to create or sustain the prosperity only freedom
can generate, in recent decades it has produced only theocratic
dictatorships like the one in Iran or their secular counterparts
such as that of Saddam Hussein.
such an environment, devoid of any longstanding individual-rights
tradition, strong government probably is the only defense against
chaos, at least in the short term. But it would be wrong to look
at post-Saddam Baghdad and insinuate that such would be the result
of a systematic dismantling of the choking government restrictions
and sprawling, bureaucratic federal agencies here. After all, our
history did produce a John Locke, a Thomas Jefferson and
a James Madison, and even if the government schools do not teach
them now, some Americans blessed with real patriotism are keeping
their ideas alive. One of the consequences of a long historical
memory is a deep and abiding resentment against our tyrannical tax
system, plundering the fruits of the labors of every productive
citizen. E.J. Dionne Jr. uses the Baghdad looters to rail against
anti-tax groups in the United States: "No government, no property,"
he scolds. "No government, no security from looting, theft
or violence. No government, no national defense. No government,
no social stability." Etc., etc.
as James Bovard has documented in books such as Lost
Rights with thousands of examples government routinely
violates property rights. Our legal system has virtually destroyed
the concept. If it had not, employers would not have to answer to
bureaucratic overseers regarding the "diversity" of their
workforces. We are not secure from "looting, theft or violence."
Looting is done here quietly and oh, so legally. And while it is
true that rampaging gangs usually do not run through the streets
of American cities smashing windows (although occasionally they
do just that), the difference is a matter of degree, not kind. Most
Americans are afraid to walk down the streets of major cities at
night and sometimes even in broad daylight. Our government
secures neither property nor safety nor social stability. In fact,
there was much more of each when government was smaller and less
government, no national defense, Dionne tells us. With our government’s
program of open borders and unlimited immigration possibly allowing
would-be terrorists onto our soil to harm our native-born citizens we
do not have strong national defense. Homeland security could easily
turn out to be a joke that is not the least bit funny if one of
the long-term consequences of the Bush Administration’s war of aggression
in Iraq is another deadly terrorist attack here. There are some
warped writers usually neocons who say that we "paleos"
secretly wish for something like this. Rubbish! While there
may be some leftist Democrats who cynically wish any number of such
things that would harm the Bush Administration just so they can
get one of their own back in the White House, what we wish for is
a return to a political order that honors and respects its Constitution and
the moral framework that underwrites Constitutional government.
means asking questions like: do such things as freedom from violence,
national security, social stability, and so on, come from government?
Or do they have some other source with government, at the very best,
as a mediator we dare not allow off a very short leash?
come from our tradition of individual rights and moral responsibilities
as inhering in individuals (not groups or group identity), as cornerstones
of the respect for the rule of law. This tradition is embodied in
our founding documents. It may be argued that the embodiment is
not perfect. It is true enough that neither the Declaration of Independence
nor the U.S. Constitution could deliver a perfect social order.
But this is just to observe that no document penned by human hands
can overcome the lasting effects of original sin. Our tradition rooted
ultimately in a Christian view of things was an attempt at a balancing
act: balancing of powers within government, the concept of dual
sovereignty, and so on, under the hope that the people’s religiosity
and knack for enterprise and entrepreneurship would help control
their vices. These balancing acts were always uneasy. Freedom is
actually very fragile.
what freedom we secured with Constitutionally limited government
did unleash prosperity. We established a spontaneous order and unleashed
the power of the market which, carried forward by its own tremendous
momentum, built the most prosperous civilization ever. Unfortunately,
what we did not do is solve the most important problem of any political
order how to control those in its midst who want power, and who
either become politicians or behind-the-scenes operatives. As the
latter slowly commandeered our financial system, our media and our
educational system, our civilization has more and more turned its
back on its founding traditions. Our "intellectuals" have
forsaken Christianity and embraced various forms of materialism
and nihilism. Our political "leadership" has forgotten
the idea that rights and other moral entities antecede government
and when they talk about such things at all blithely assuming either
that government creates them, or that they are meaningless
abstractions without the heavy hand of government. Such views more
and more control the thoughts of a public educated for job skills
but not life a free society.
is right when he says that "freedom isn’t free." But its
price is different from what he says. We should not have to pay
through the nose in taxes, controlled by a constantly shifting penumbra
of laws that no one except tax lawyers and preparers can understand.
We should not have to live in fear of an IRS audit. The price-tag
of freedom is a moral populace, coupled with the vigilance Thomas
Jefferson mentioned and an idea I am sure will be as repugnant to
Dionne as with everyone in the leftist-neocon consensus: that if
we the people are sufficiently dissatisfied with our government
we have the right to alter it, or abolish it, or organize and secede
from it. Such ideas were there in the Declaration of Independence,
and were implied in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
They are implied if rights pre-exist government, and are
not created out of thin air by government.
track record of the American federal government in protecting rights
has been rather shaky of late to say the least! In the absence of
a moral order with the above-named components, I wouldn’t count
on it for protection in these troubled times. Centralization simply
cannot deliver the goods, and can only subsist by plundering the
good works of the many productive citizens who sustain it involuntarily.
Many of those in the anti-tax groups Dionne rails against realize
this. They realize, that is, that the many unconstitutional programs
and agendas pursued by bloated federal agencies really amount to
nothing more than a very sophisticated and legally backed form of
least Baghdad’s looters are honest about it.
Yates [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A professional
writer and editor with a PhD in philosophy, he is the author of
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). His latest book manuscript, In
Defense of Logic,
is undergoing revisions. He works out of Columbia, South Carolina.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com