Forward to Freedom

2007-11-16

Bretigne Shaffer (whom I met at a Liberty Fund conference a few years ago) asks the question:

People are accustomed to voting for the lesser of two evils. What happens when someone who is not evil shows up?

Among other things, it forces a longtime non-voter like Bretigne to consider entering the voting booth for the first time in her life.

I'm not an unvoter, though I've considered it before. Typically I vote defensively, letting my one small voice be heard in favor of greater individual freedom and personal responsibility (or, at least, a balance of forces in perpetual gridlock). I don't pretend that voting is the most sacred right of the individual, that electoral politics is the salvation of the people, or that democracy is a beautiful thing (indeed, as Winston Churchill observed, it is the worst form of government on the planet -- except for all the other ones that have been tried). There are many tools for improving the world and strengthening the bonds of civil society. I don't think that electoral politics is the most significant of those tools, but I do think that when wielded with integrity it can help the cause of freedom.

Having read a great deal of history, I know that, as Bretigne argued in an earlier essay, the power of government is not selective. When we give the state greater power to tax and spend for domestic purposes, it will use those same powers to wage war (and vice-versa). In American history, the welfare state and the warfare state grew together in a kind of poisonous symbiosis.

Where does that power come from? It comes from the people. Those who framed the Constitution understood this well. Consider the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

For the last 200 or more years, we have been delegating progressively more and more power to our governments (yes I use the plural, because it's not just the federal government -- it's the states, the counties, the towns and cities, the special-purpose authorities, and all the rest). We have given up on self-government and personal responsibility. We have let governments make our decisions for us, rule over us, support us, protect us, and pay for almost our every need. The problem is, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

As Bretigne notes, "the more we ask from the state, the more power we grant it over our lives." And people have asked for more and more from the state because it's easier to let someone else take responsibility than to be personally responsible for your own life. Creating a more free society is not just a matter of going back to a healthy constitutionalism or rolling back the power of government, but building a stronger civil society and becoming more responsible as individuals, families, companies, associations, and other voluntary organizations. In large measure we get the government we deserve. If we abdicate responsibility and seek success (broadly defined) through goodies and handouts from the state, we grant the state ever more power.

To break that cycle will require myriad individuals and groups to say no to what the state has to offer, from schools to small business loans to grants to various benefits. I think it will also require those who renounce such goodies to morally judge those who do not. Yes, I know it's a radical thought in these days of cultural relativism that it may be appropriate to pass moral judgment on other people, but it seems to me that the time is fast approaching when people need to decide whether they will be part of the problem or part of the solution -- working for an ever more corrupt and powerful state or working for a more healthy and free society.

It won't be easy. But right now I don't see any other way forward to freedom.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal