Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Liberty versus Comfort"

                                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
Liberty versus Comfort”
August 7, 2014

There is a battle waging in Washington, the outcome of which may be far more consequential than the media and most Americans realize. On one side are those that see government as a guarantor of our God-given rights to life, liberty and property. The other side sees government as the provider of comforts and happiness of its citizens.

The first favor a government limited in its authority by the checks and balances that were integral to the founding of the federal government, and by the federalist nature of its structure which assigns power to state and local authorities. The second believe that government is Darwinian; that it must adapt to cultural and societal changes, in a compassionate way. The latter has a political philosophy that reaches back at least as far as the late 19th Century when the Progressive movement began – a movement popularized by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and was manifested in the adoption in 1913 of the 16th and 17th Amendments. The first gave Congress the power to levy and collect taxes on income and the other called for the direct election of U.S. Senators. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society strengthened the bonds of centralized government. Mr. Obama is intent on furthering that legacy. But compassion increases dependency and it costs money. Half of all Americans today are dependent in some form on government assistance. Taxes and debt have risen. The paying for promised entitlements will fall on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.

Progressives have been successful, in large part, because their job is more pleasant. It is easier to play Santa Claus than to teach dialectics. A government that takes from the few and gives to the many will generally win the support of the majority. A new study recently released by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) looked at tax returns for 2010. The study found that the top 40% of households in 2010 paid 106.2% of federal income taxes. The bottom 40% paid -9.1%. The latter number is negative because on average those households received $18,950 in myriad government transfer payments.

Bruce Thornton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, recently published a book, Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents, in which he warns against “moral busybodies.” He writes: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” It is the gradual but insidious assumption of responsibility for the well-being of its citizens that increases dependency of the people, while strengthening the hand of government.

From our perspective, as citizens of a country that has been free for more than 200 years, it is difficult to imagine what life would be like without liberty. Technology has brought improved conditions to millions of people, and government has played a role in broadening the reach of that largesse. But human nature does not change. Power is an aphrodisiac to those who exercise it. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 48, power is “of an encroaching nature.” Ambition, not patriotism or altruism, is what drives most people to seek office. The great lesson from our Founders is that they understood the corruption that power brings to those who exercise it. They were victims of the imperial British crown; thus they revolted. England wanted the colonists to pay for those hired to repress them. The motive of the Founders “was not,” as Bruce Thornton wrote, “to create utopia, but to protect the freedom of all from the dangers of concentrated power, whether embodied in the majority or a minority.”

Society today has little interest in the larger philosophical issues we should be addressing. Instant and constant connectivity mean that we live mainly in the present, with little knowledge of the past and less concern for the future. On the most recent release of high school civic and history tests conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 22% of high school seniors scored at a proficient level or above on the civics test and a mere 18% were proficient in U.S. history. These are scary statistics for a nation that relies on knowledgeable voters. “The cornerstone of democracy,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.”

“Selfies” define our time. The “me” generation has come of age. Hollywood sets a moral standard that is adopted by our youth with no regard to the consequences. A highly paid star decides to become a single Mom; so imitators, without her financial means, follow suit. We have lost our moral sense. There are no standards. Single mothers with dependent children have the highest rates of poverty in the nation. Yet we never hear Progressives call out this unfortunate and unnecessary circumstance. A woman’s right to her body is defended (as it should be), but what about her role as a wife, mother, daughter or sister? And what about men? Should they be absolved of responsibility in the bearing and rearing of a child? We are all individuals, but we are also integral cogs in the wheel of the societies in which we live. When people become self-absorbed they lose a sense of their role in the broader community. Society suffers.

Acknowledging that man was imperfect, the Founders chose to create a government in which the assumption of power by an individual or a party would be difficult to attain. So they instituted a system of checks and balances. Further, they created a federalist form of government by giving authority to state and local governments – institutions that were closest to the people. The Founders understood that limited government (though they didn’t use the term) is based on the principle of self-government – that individuals are responsible and self-reliant. They wanted a federal government to be just and serve to protect the rights of its people. They had no interest in efficiency. A “do-nothing” Congress would not have been seen as necessarily a bad Congress.

Progressives see checks and balances as unnecessary drags on the efficiency of government. Charles Blow, writing in Monday’s New York Times, laments the fact that the 113th Congress has enacted only 108 “substantive” laws, as though quantity of bills passed was more important than quality. President Obama commonly harangues Congress for failing to do “the people’s business,” ignoring the fact that the purpose of government is to ensure that the people can fairly, legally and fearlessly pursue their own self-interests, including business interests.

While the trend is ominous for freedom, we should take some comfort that there are those who are manning the barricades to prevent this descent into centralized authoritarianism. Whether one approves of their tactics or not, the rise of the Tea Party is indicative that millions of Americans sense the country is moving in the wrong direction. Teachers’ unions have come under pressure to put the students ahead of teachers. While President Obama is using executive orders to assert Executive authority, Republican governors like Jan Brewer, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christy, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Sam Brownback, Nikki Haley, Susanna Martinez and others have been working to reassert states’ rights.

Nevertheless, it has been the gradual concentration of power in Washington and especially by the Executive branch that is concerning. Of the fifteen Executive branch cabinet departments, six have been added in my lifetime – HHS, HUD, Transportation, Energy, Education and Homeland Security – and three additional ones during the course of the 20th Century – Commerce, Labor and Veterans Affairs. While cabinet heads must be confirmed by the Senate, they report to the President. The IRS, which has become a political tool of the Administration, is not an independent agency. It is part of the Department of the Treasury. Additionally, there are another thirty or so supposedly “independent agencies,” including the CIA, SEC and the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), whose heads are nominated by the President.

Adding to the ideological battle are the opposing views toward achieving fair and robust economic growth. On one side are the believers in decentralized capitalism, and on the other, those who consider authoritarian, centralized capitalism the best antidote. The former proved successful for 200 years, but has been blamed for the financial crisis of 2008, and are said to be responsible for widening inequality in incomes and assets. Statism is praised by Progressives as being more egalitarian and better suited for the challenges of the 21st Century, often citing China as an example of success. While Mr. Obama does not espouse a centralized economy, his policies lead in that direction, as does his rhetoric, with its denunciations of the one percent – we versus them. He singles out the Koch brothers as evil incarnate, despite their out-sized philanthropy toward education, hospitals and the arts. Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that the Soviet Union (and China pre-1989) incorporated central planning to disastrous results. Also left unsaid is the fact that the policies pursued by the Administration have led to widening income and wealth gaps. Any student of history knows that there is no question but that it has been decentralized, democratic capitalism that has been responsible for raising living standards around the world. Plutocracy is the inevitable consequence of statism.

Progressives have advanced their agenda by appealing to our emotions. Their tactics are not unlike those used by the dictators from the Left and the Right who used sycophants to canonize their leaders. Mark Morford, a columnist for SF Gate and who has drunk the kool-aid, referred to Barack Obama as a rare “Lightworker.” It is not his policies or speeches; “it is his presence,” he wrote. “Lightworkers,” Mr. Morford added “are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.” Mr. Morford’s deification goes on in a frightening manner, reminding one of the Apostles of Christ. Can readers imagine the hue and cry if a columnist had elevated “W” to such glorified heights? Once we begin thinking of our leaders as immortal our nation is doomed.


“Beware bearers of false gifts and their broken promises,” was a warning about extraterrestrials from the Planet Maldek, but it is one that would apply today to those from the Planet Washington.  The state can become omnipotent, but it is not omniscient. Comfort is for the moment; liberty is for the ages.

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