Restoring the Republic with Truth and Fearlessness

Note: I recently attended the latest Future of Freedom Foundation‘s conference, examining the theme of restoring the republic. I got a chance to speak, and if you’d like to watch and listen to any of the 24 speeches, you can order them directly from the FFF, in DVD or CD. Robert Scheer’s speech about how Ike was right (find more by Bob Scheer at his award winning site Truthdig) and my speech were both covered by C-SPAN. These talks have been broadcast on C-SPAN 3, and if you’d like to see it again, call or email C-SPAN!

It is a great honor to be here, to be invited to say a few words, and to be in the company of what is really, fundamentally the vanguard of American freedom. If we indeed restore the Republic — in one form or another here in the United States — it will be directly due to the people sitting here today.

For Jacob Hornberger to have gotten everyone in the same room — to talk seriously about this topic — this close to Washington, DC — is remarkably visionary. Considering the very real threat the people in this conference pose to the political and economic status quo, it is also very courageous.

Two questions have to be asked, and answered, before I can share the "how," in my view, we are restoring the republic. And in spite of what I am about to say in the next few minutes, I usually believe in happy endings, so hold that thought, if you will.

First we must ask, what is, or was, the American republic?

Secondly, assuming we can define the American republic, can it really be restored?

The outline and definition of the American republic were put forth in clear terms by the Articles of Confederation. In 1777, this document created a limited and circumscribed government for the United States. The states themselves would be independent, peaceful, and would not conduct their own foreign policy, including the making of war. The eighth article of confederation called for the states to voluntarily fund the federal government, for the common defense and general welfare, and to pay recently incurred war debts. The means for assessing the "tax" reminds me a bit of Marx’s old ideal, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." But it was also fair. It is the way that churches, synagogues and mosques informally communicate to their congregations what should be offered for the common good. This voluntary method encourages individual generosity, as well as thrift and accountability in the recipient.

I’m not a constitutional scholar. I’m not a historian. But it seems to me that the agreement put forth in the Articles of Confederation established a classical and workable Republic. That is, a "mixed constitutional government which embodies civic duty, virtue, social cohesion and where there is a high devotion, fidelity and regard for the rule of law." One thing comes through for all types of republican forms of government. This is the idea of partnership — consenting, agreeable, aware and free partnerships, between large and small states, between those people and states with very different talents, skills, resources — but joined together for peacefulness and profitability. The Articles put forth such a partnership, with a presiding administrative president.

This worked well for the vast majority of Americans, who were extremely busy at the time. They were working hard, building farms, homes, families and industry, and learning how to be free. They were learning how not to be European peasants and serfs and, yes, how not to be nobles. But some Americans existed who, like modern neoconservatives, had a bit too much time on their hands, perhaps too much theoretical education and not enough humility. These Americans were beholden to grander, nobler ideas of government. They only needed a bit more governmental power to see their ideas implemented.

These were the Federalists. We can view the federalists as reactionaries, "those who seek to restore conditions to those of a previous era." They wanted the late 18th-century America to marshal her vast resources and potential under the guidance of a much stronger central state. These reactionaries, in many ways, wanted America to emulate the busy central decision-making bodies that ran the empires of Europe.

In this round, the federalists won. The Articles were abandoned, and we got a Constitution. The anti-federalists barely saved the republic with a slim and ultimately weak set of restraints on central government power.

We called it a republic. But like the transmogrified central state to which we all would later pledge allegiance, it did not exist for free enterprise, human partnerships, and individual liberty.

Most Americans are taught that the Articles of Confederation failed, specifically on issues of federal revenue shortfalls, currency controls, and interstate trade. Our ancestors were told that a strong federal government would solve all these problems. Who would question this today?

Well, let’s see: The federal revenue demands are fully and righteously met each year, with excess monies bountifully returned to the people. We certainly have no domestic or international concerns with our currency, a lovely paper dollar that — to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There — is worth exactly what the U.S. government bureaucrats say it is worth.

And lastly, interstate trade is so much better off as a result of a strong federal government. Everyone knows that, right? Well, the Cato Institute did a study back in 1987, examining the pervasive administrative restrictions regulating all aspects of commodities and services exchanged between American states. These administrative barriers are considered rent-seeking, and these behaviors have steadily proliferated over the past 200 years. Furthermore, adjudicating interstate trade restrictions has been the primary focus of the Supreme Court throughout its existence. This internal trade protectionism costs a lot of money, matching dollar for dollar the cost of trade protectionism at the national level. The authors of Cato’s 1987 study concluded that these costs are exactly what the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was designed to prevent. Twenty years ago, Cato called for this aspect of the Constitution to be repaired.

Naturally, it was not. Today, with the rise of the internet as a new marketplace, states are even more interested in manipulating and restricting interstate trade, not less.

To answer the first question, we did have a radically fresh republic under the Articles. But with the constitution, we received a new roadmap, one that in the mind of Jefferson and others, would not stand beyond a generation or so. With the discard of the Articles, and the independent libertarian thinking that was their underpinning, this country would be placed on a path to a place noted for its lack of civic duty, virtue, and social cohesion. A place where politicians balance their cravenness with arrogance, and are wholly contemptuous of the rule of law. In other words, it would bring us to Washington, D.C. today.

The second question is about the possibility of restoring the American republic. Just as the federalists argued in the 1780’s, many today argue that it would be impossible — and inadvisable — to recreate or rejuvenate a Confederation form of government — that original style of American self-government. But would it really be folly to have a country of our size and wealth to embody real freedom? Would it really be folly to establish a strictly legitimate and strictly limited federal state? Would it really be folly to restore the style of justice that existed before the establishment of a Supreme Court?

It is possible that a loose confederacy of variously governed states may actually be the best match for the 21st century — with our instantaneous global communications, our extensive and productive communities enhanced and supplemented by extensive and rich virtual networks. Even as libertarians and others rightfully rue the leviathan, we live in a world where — in real terms — we are today better equipped and more capable of decentralized self-government than at any previous time in human history.

Today, in the United States, unlimited information is instantly available to old and young, to the formally educated and the illiterate, to the fact finder and the politician, the entrepreneur, the scientist, the worker, and the business mogul. This wonderful 21st century may be exactly what the anti-federalists envisioned.

I am often reminded of the famous quote from the 1992 movie remake of the Last of the Mohicans. A Loyalist commander asks, "And who empowered these colonials to pass judgment on England’s policies, and to come and go without so much as a “by your leave”? Cora Munro answers, "They do not live their lives ‘by your leave’! They hack it out of the wilderness with their own two hands, bearing their children along the way!"

Mostly due to modern technologies, we have today outstanding decentralization, mobility, unleashed human creativity, and if we need it, anonymity. We have the wilderness. We have, or can get, what we need to live our lives, and control our destinies. We can "hack" out our own lives. We may be taught to live our lives at the direction, and by the permission, of government, but in fact, we don’t have to.

The business world has streamlined. Businesses have energetically embraced continuous learning, instant information, and constant competition. They have decentralized, as they have focused simultaneously on both the individual worker and individual customer. But our government presumes no competition, ignores or denies the availability of instant and rich information, and the truth behind it. Our government resists continuous learning, and resents such learning by its subjects. The American government, for all it reinvention and customer service mantras, remains antiquated, slow, third rate in everything it does. This is true even where it spends most of its time and resources. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as bloody testaments to this abject mediocrity. In contrast to the world of business and invention, the U.S. government is becoming more intensely stupid, more remarkably incompetent, and more of a problem for all that suffer it.

So then, is it possible to restore the republic, to go back to a former model or perhaps create a new model of an American republic? Yes, it is. Governments are made of people, and people ultimately shape, or abandon, their governments.

I don’t know what form a restored republic would take. How small could Washington, D.C. get, and what would it take to shrink it down? When the small government republicans to whom Reagan gave voice and imagination (although little else) got to Congress, they found that instead of shrinking government, all they could do is make it even more massive. We now recognize that’s all they truly wanted to do. Bob Higgs has written extensively on the process by which this occurs. The nature of the state is to grow, to cultivate events and activities that ensure its continued growth, and to grow even more, even as it strangles and starves its erstwhile host.

And yet, as Lew Rockwell has written most eloquently, the miracle of freedom is that even as our own government has grown beyond all expectations, the level of free enterprise and productivity, the inventiveness and exuberance of mankind has outpaced that government growth by leaps and bounds.

Thus, I believe America was once a republic, can be again, albeit in various forms. How might we get there? First of all, I don’t exactly know. But here are several ways to consider.

One way would be to do as the federalists did 230 years ago. They believed that the confederation had failed. They convened, ostensibly to restore the confederation, and make it better. Then, by dark of night, these leaders threw away the Articles and started fresh, with a new document, a more executive presidency, a different Congress and the Supreme Court. Absent the mild restraint offered by the first ten amendments, these leaders had created a nascent European kingdom, complete with an adoring court and agreeable jesters.

I think it is clearer and clearer each decade, and each day, that the Constitution has failed to give us a republic. Or as Ben Franklin suggested, maybe it did, but we failed to keep it. Certainly, the constitution as a document has failed to deliver government that "embodies civic duty, virtue, social cohesion and where there is a high devotion, fidelity and regard for the rule of law."

The idea of an organized revolutionary change, formulated through meetings of wealthy, powerful men — a new constitutional convention perhaps — may at first glance, seem somewhat absurd. Yet, when you think about it — this is exactly how our government operates every day of the week, in every administration. We speak of a neoconservative hijack. We bemoan the long-term directions for our national and international policies put forth by the "establishment." In fact — from the beginning, the making of national policy has been done — and is always done — through secretive conventions of wealthy, elitist, and well-placed men.

This is also how our nation decides to go to war, as George Tenet’s new memoirs and his recent interviews confirm. A decision to invade and occupy Iraq was made, in secret and unaccountably, by powerful people who are themselves unaccountable to either government agencies, the law, the facts, or the people of the United States. And as George W. Bush himself noted a few years ago, "Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation." Miraculously, George captured the failure of the Republic in one easy-to-understand sentence.

Could a new kind of constitutional convention, for a new republic, be organized by freedom lovers, or classical liberals, or libertarians? Just as the federalists locked the doors and changed the agenda, so might we. Ah, to have the power to do just that — and to save the world.

But we don’t have that power, nor should we want it. As Lord Acton observed, that kind of centralized power is never what it seems.

Another way to restore the republic is more painful and more cruel, and not just to government bureaucrats and the subsidy-dependent population. This way requires nothing more of us than to simply stand aside and watch as the American experiment collapses. To do nothing as republic turns to democracy and then to tyranny. If we survive that last horrific phase with sanity and health intact, we can promote ideas and republican forms of self-government for whatever remains. We could find ourselves in a New Athens, meeting with our neighbors to decide everything. Or we could find ourselves on a New Crete, obeying natural law and honoring moderation in all things, or perhaps in a militaristic oligarchy called New Sparta. Or we could find ourselves slaves and helots, without a hope in the world.

A front-page headline a few weeks ago read, "Americans feeling low." Burdened by an inability to live as we desire, to produce and to benefit from that production as we want, and beaten down by taxes, regulation, and inflation, many Americans already feel like slaves and helots in a tyranny beyond their control.

But I think we are not helots and slaves, not yet. And that American government that seems so overwhelming and tyrannical, so powerful, is actually as weak here at home as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is another way we can restore the republic. We don’t have to wait. We don’t have to organize or enter into an armed revolution, and we don’t even have to formally design a plan of attack. It won’t be easy, but on the other hand, it won’t be difficult! We are doing it now.

I want to share something that jumped out at me, again from a recent newspaper article. An 86-year-old Belgian schoolteacher was recognized by Israel for saving 300 children from the Nazis. In 1942, Andree Geulen-Herscovici, witnessed a Gestapo raid on the school. She then joined an underground rescue organization, and for more than two years, she quietly worked with other likeminded people to save these Jewish children from an evil state that would have seen their lives destroyed.

During the ceremony, she said, "What I did was merely my duty. Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do."

This would be the first step in restoring a republic — which is after all, simply government by the people — and we are those people. Our government’s authority is fundamentally constrained by us. By how we choose to submit to its orders, by how completely we embrace its narrative, by how easily we are convinced of its often-perverted logic.

America has a long and vibrant history of ignoring government mandates in favor of justice and harmony and righteousness. I think this is due, in part, to our Christian heritage where one humbly renders under Caesar his, but unto God, Hers.

I was just checking to see if you were still listening!

Seriously, the idea that men (and women) can choose their path, and that goodness and mercy are not owned or even understood by the state, are powerful foundations of republicanism.

The American immigration debate provides a way to think about the current generation of Andree Herscovicis. In some border states, churches are creating a kind of underground railroad for mothers and fathers about to be separated from their U.S. born children due to our government’s interest in being seen as tough on illegal immigration. At the same time and in the same places, we have the Minutemen, who voluntarily patrol private and public property along the southern border, raising awareness of laws that the US government has made, but for whatever reason, refuses to enforce.

The Minutemen and the safe haven churches disagree on each other’s mission. But because they represent people acting without government mandate, they are held in equally high contempt by the US government.

What does this have to do with a restored Republic? Here we have simple, principled people, who recognize their government is wrong or unwise on this issue or that. Then simply, often secretly, they take positive action to do the right thing. Usually, they don’t act alone, and they don’t have to. That’s the funny thing about righteous ideas — they have a vibrancy and shine we don’t find in government legislation or leadership.

We all can’t run underground railroads or guard the borders in such a direct and immediate way. But more of us can speak out — and I don’t mean in front of large groups or at rallies, not that there is anything wrong with that. We can speak out in ways that matter in our own lives and livelihoods. When we have extremely bad federal policy, we see people in every generation doing just that.

The Pentagon Papers were released in early 1971 by Daniel Ellsburg (incidentally, with the help of his friend Tony Russo). These 7,000 pages of incriminating government information, given to a media willing, at that time, to do its job, were instrumental in eventually ending the American part of the carnage in Vietnam. Ellsberg’s life was made a living hell, his professional reputation ruined, and he and Tony were charged with espionage, theft, and conspiracy.

Think about the more current example of the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo whistleblowers. Because of their courage, the whole country knows what we did and are still doing in our international prison camps to innocent and uncharged people. Former Army Staff Sergeant Samuel Provance was instrumental in exposing the torture that was going on in Abu Ghraib. As a result of his efforts, he writes,

The Army then demoted me, suspended my Top Secret clearance, and threatened me with ten years in a military prison if I asked for a court martial. I was even given a gag order.

Former General Janis Karpinski experienced much the same treatment. So did Army Reserve Specialist Joe Darby and Marine Staff Sergeant Jim Massey. Telling the truth about government abuses and illegalities saves lives, but it can be a real career-killer.

Think about Navy Lt. Commander Matthew Diaz, a modern echo of Daniel Ellsberg. His truth-telling was on a topic, that three years into the Iraq war and the so-called war on terror, the media was finally ready to use. Commander Diaz, a lawyer posted for six months in Guantanamo, Cuba, spent a few minutes at his government computer on a Sunday night in January 2005. He printed off a list of 550 detainees, including their nationalities, and other information. He sent this information in the mail to an organization that was, at the time, unsuccessfully suing the federal government for this information. For releasing the names of uncharged and unrepresented detainees held by United States government at Gitmo, Diaz was charged with failing to obey a lawful regulation, conduct unbecoming an officer, and wrongfully transmitting classified information. His courts-martial began a few weeks ago and needless to say, his career as a military lawyer is over.

In government service, telling the truth is a rare luxury. It is never the norm. There is always a price paid by the honorable people who follow their conscience and upbringing. Most government employees follow a "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. For every concern about dishonesty and unconstitutional behavior I had in my final tour in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2002 and 2003, I heard men and women of insightfulness and patriotism voice twice as many complaints. So where are all these people?

They are preserving their careers. And this is done for many reasons, but mainly because they choose to put their lives above the lives of people they don’t know and will never meet. And such self-interest is not only understandable, it is fundamental to freedom.

But when this self-interest is exercised within the fraudulent economy of government employees and beneficiaries, it becomes the key to tyranny.

Here’s how it works. George Tenet has recently told us all in effect that "I would have liked to prevent the slaughter of innocent people, ours and theirs. But no one would listen to me anyway, so what would be the point?" Another rube of tyranny is Congressman Dick Durbin recently came clean about 2002 and 2003:

"The information we had in the intelligence committee was not the same information being given to the American people. I couldn’t believe it…" "I was angry about it. [But] frankly, I couldn’t do much about it because, in the intelligence committee, we are sworn to secrecy. We can’t walk outside the door and say the statement made yesterday by the White House is in direct contradiction to classified information that is being given to this Congress."

Well, at least he was "angry" about it.

George Tenet and Dick Durbin are typical of literally thousands of people in all parts of the Pentagon, and in the State Department, in the Department of Energy, in the mainstream media, and in the rest of the US Congress and its extensive staff. Few if any stood up with information, in time, that could have saved lives and prevent a major war and the destruction of a country.

The sad thing is — all of these "Don’t ask, don’t tell" folks actually thought the only country being destroyed by their inaction was Iraq.

Was it a law or regulation that reined them in? Fear of retribution? No other possible way of making a living? I think not. I’ve given it some thought, and from my own experience, the only thing stopping folks from speaking the truth — when it would do some good — is a cherished personal belief that they have no right to do so. Like ancient Greek slaves, they are not separate in race or creed, in form or intelligence from their masters, or any other citizen. Then as now, the masters encourage submission, and these employees willingly agree to be enslaved.

In retrospect, what possible harm would have been caused if Durbin or Tenet, or Colin Powell had freely acted on the information they had? Think about it! No harm at all, only good, and they would have had their honor and their legacies intact.

If government bureaucrats and political appointees were only robots obeying laws 1, 2 and 3 — we would not have had this illegal war in Iraq! These laws, paraphrased…. First, do no harm through action or inaction, obey orders only if they do no harm through action or inaction, and protect oneself if possible, only if still obeying laws 1 and 2!

Perhaps a few simple rules for individual behavior would be far more useful in restoring the republic than grand governmental models, and long, detailed constitutions that few understand or care about.

Beyond doing the right thing, and speaking the truth early and often, with a confident disregard for the immediate consequences, is there anything else we can do to restore the republic, to contain or destroy the leviathan?

I think there is one more thing we can all do — and this is at once the most difficult and yet, also the easiest. We must separate ourselves from this non-republican government. If you cannot live your values and do your government job at the same time, leave the job. If you wish to pay fewer taxes, then find a way to pay fewer taxes, and keep more of your own earnings. This may mean earning less rather than more, living well rather than high on the hog. It means turning away from government service, and from the seduction of so-called government benefits of education, welfare, government lotteries and even government booze and drugs. If you must interface with government, do so as a master, not a slave, and encourage everyone you know to do the same. When opportunities to parent come along — when we see opportunities to provide guidance, wisdom, reflection and assistance to others— we must guide and assist with the underlying goal of restoring the republic.

The Census Bureau will count us again in 2010. It is already complaining that people live in strange household combinations, with many addresses, or none, with many phone numbers or the 15% with only a cell phone number. Even with its record-shattering budget for 2010, the Census Bureau doubts they’ll know much more about the public part of the Republic than they know now. As technology allows government to be more intrusive, it also allows individuals to become ever more nimble, anonymous, and flexible — at least if we are not willingly cultivating our own slavery.

Not cultivating our own slavery. It is possible, and we are increasingly seeing evidence this phenomenon, even in Washington. George W. Bush, facing a disastrously failed campaign of occupation in Iraq, asked for a so-called War Czar. Many private phone calls were made, in hopes of getting a volunteer front man for America’s micromanagement of neocolonialism. Not a soul would sign up to serve the President. A few weeks ago, an active duty three-star general agreed to be tasked, meaning only that he hasn’t quit yet.

Many of the Bush Cheney national security team have become casualties of investigations, criminal trials, personal scandals and less publicly, their loss of faith in the king. We hear that Cheney himself was recently overruled by a four-star admiral on strategies for a hot war with Iran. Bureaucrats and cowards like to say — if I quit, some other yes man will rise up to take my place. This is true, up to a point. But the power of government is inversely proportional to the number of people saying simply, "No thanks." It is happening as we speak.

A quiet refusal to take orders, a refusal to "serve" the government, is not just for generals and admirals. In an age of expensive higher education, ROTC scholarships are going unfilled. Recruiters work overtime to bring in fewer and fewer young people. American mothers and fathers — whether evangelical or agnostic, Republican or Democrat — are telling their children to wait before signing up for the military — to stop and think before throwing their life into the empty, soul-destroying bloody gristmill of imperialism.

They may not use these words, but the sentiments are the same. Like the sheep Americans are often accused of being, they are beginning to sense that their children are the targets of a hungry government wolf.

Do I have any more substantial ideas for restoring the republic — beyond doing the right thing, speaking out against tyranny, and living our lives by no one’s leave, as free men? It is possible, that in doing these things, we could be charged and imprisoned as are many of our military truth-tellers. We could be vilified and maligned. In living our lives as free men, we may risk temporary difficulties from our shaking, tremulous, fearful government. But, if we live free, we will have a republic — even if it may seem to be, at times, a republic of one.

A revolution or a collapse, some cosmic act that rips Washington, DC from its moorings and sends it swirling off into the Atlantic — each of these would be exciting, no doubt. But to passively wait a month, a year, or a lifetime for what may happen in the larger human organization is not a productive way to live.

We are already restoring the Republic — if we live, work and play as if we have one. We restore the republic by living free.

Those here today are already doing this — our example, our existence in many ways, restores the Republic, every minute of every day. Earlier I mentioned the Lewis Carroll story Through the Looking Glass, referring to words that mean whatever we say they mean. In this context, Humpty Dumpty goes on. The question, he says, "is which is to be master — that’s all."

Let us be outraged when our republican freedoms are infringed upon. Let us be righteously angry when some government entity presumes that we are the slave in the relationship. Let us be that nobility to whom the king genuflects, and of whom he is afraid. If we live free — even as we hack that life out of a political wilderness — we will restore the republic, and usher in the next big thing — a peaceful, honorable, and enviable Republic that we will be proud to call home.