We all do it. Take things for granted.
For more than two centuries we have taken something for granted in our national life. Now it is being threatened and the issue—like taking a loved one for granted—is rising up ugly, surprising us. We’ve all been there individually. Now we are facing it collectively, as a nation.
We have taken our independence for granted where freedom and liberty are paramount to maintaining our culture and way of life.
We are replacing individual freedom with the sense that government is the best arbiter and conductor of our individual and collective lives. We are, in a few words, giving up our freedom to the dictates of those who run the government.
You can call this substitution of freedom for government anything you want—tyranny, dictatorship, socialism, communism, Fascism, Marxism—but in the end someone else determines your life.
At the end of the eighteenth century, in 1776 to be precise, our forbearers threw off the English king and parliament and declared independence precisely because George III and Parliament were dictating how American colonials should behave. The principal issue was—no surprise here—taxes.
There were other serious issues. They have to be serious to declare oneself in rebellion against arguably the most powerful nation on earth at that time, although the French would probably argue with that opinion.
But at stake were not simply taxes, the issue at hand being pithily summarized by the saying “no taxation without representation. “ Just as important to the Jeffersons and Washingtons of the time were the incipient and insidious rise and practice of tyranny.
Englishmen, and transplanted Englishmen in the Americas, knew their rights, so well expressed by Thomas Jefferson when he penned the Declaration of Independence, the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These natural rights were ingrained into English law and practice and, in fact, were almost taken for granted by the colonials, transplanted Englishmen that they were.
When it appeared that they might lose these rights, and their freedom to determine their lives, to King and Parliament—perceived as tyrannical–, they took matters into their own hands and threw off the government of Great Britain. The rationale for doing this is important.
“To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This is pretty radical stuff. It fact it is revolutionary. And, it is part of our Declaration of Independence.
Government was always important to the new Americans, if for no other reason than to ensure and guard their freedoms, enshrined in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The freedom to determine one’s own life and destiny was not taken lightly by Americans. In the nineteenth century, we fought a great Civil War to determine if the equality of all people championed in the Declaration of Independence was indeed a central truth that was denied by the continuing existence of slavery.
How could some men be slaves, if all men were created equal?
Once it was determined that slavery was not consistent with our founding principles, the Civil War ground on to an inexorable conclusion and freedom and liberty were granted to all citizens.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries an explosion of inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit in industry and commerce drove the American experiment forward, from the age of the steam locomotive to the age of the computer, and beyond.
When it appeared that unbridled capitalism led to gross excesses in power, monopolies and wealth, reformers and progressives pushed government to arbitrate and regulate some areas of the marketplace to ensure all could compete freely and fairly.
We took the marketplace driven economy for granted until it almost collapsed in the Great Depression, kicked off by a wave of speculation and frenzy with getting wealth in the 1920s.
Something had gone badly wrong and, again, what Americans took for granted—jobs, growth, prosperity, progress, faith in science, rationality, practicality and industry—had seriously gone amiss. And, again, under the leadership of people such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president four times, a balance was sought between a free people and the need for government intervention to ensure a modicum of economic decency for all, marked by jobs, social security, and other acts to “prime the pump” and get the economy going again.
Today we face an ever increasing presence of the government in life, called for by people who value security above all else.
But, for more than two centuries, we have taken it for granted that it has not been security that created the railroads, the oil industry, the internal combustion revolution, the advances in modern medicine, the computer, the Internet (with apologies to Vice President Al Gore). They were all, in one form or another, the creation of individuals practicing the freedoms and liberties guaranteed to them by the Constitution, with apologies to President Obama.
Modern government has helped, with everything from “internal improvements” in the nineteenth century like canals and taking land from the Indians to give to whites, to twentieth century advancements like the atomic bomb and putting a man in space. It has been, as one can duly note, a mixed blessing. That the monster Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich were crushed by allied forces who were a direct expression of government in action is undeniable. I wave my flag too. George Washington’s Continental Army too was an expression of the revolutionary government.
The system of free enterprise, with some government intervention, produced excesses, fantastic successes and equally fantastic failures, but it was a system that put the individual at the center of life, free to rise or fall based on his/her will and determination. Jefferson wrote the “pursuit of happiness” as one of man’s legitimate motives for existence, an engine that drove economic and political balance and progress. He did not write, “to accomplish all this, we need big government.”
In fact, what he did write was “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” President Gerald Ford updated Jefferson a bit in 1974 in a joint address to Congress when he told them: “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.”
Liberty by the way does not produce equality. Nor is the leveling of society—making everyone equal—in any of the founding principles of the nation. All men are created equal, but what they do with this, in liberty, is up to them. Karl Marx, the founder of modern communism, on the other hand did lift up equality as the noblest goal of government, brought about in stages and by revolution if necessary to end ruthless capitalism and impose true communism, a government that controls all and takes care of all.
There are consequences for liberty, just as there is accountability—in this life and the next—for your actions, or inactions, for what you do or fail to do.
These are complex issues. In an election year, the complexity is sometimes abandoned for hot, and sometimes false, rhetoric.
However, one way to look at it all—books and blogs, tweets and other social media—is to determine what it is that you want in your personal “pursuit of happiness.”
Do you want to depend on someone else, or do you want to determine your own destiny? From your answer you can probe more deeply.
As for me, I like to align myself with Jefferson and his cohort, and take it from there, interpreting our modern world from some broad principles he made explicit in the Declaration of Independence. I think they are still valid, but we may have taken them for granted.
This column, with some editing, published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 9, 2012