Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Threats to Liberalism”
June 27, 2016
“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.”
H. L. Mencken (!880-1956)
Liberty is more easily lost than discovered. It is not generally lost in revolutions. Its demise more typically resembles the ancient method of Chinese torture and death by a thousand cuts. Like boiling a lobster, liberty’s death comes slowly, subtly, almost invisibly – unfelt by the victim. The autocracies of Lenin and Stalin arose from revolution, but Hitler emerged from a democratic election. Read Victor Klemperer’s diaries (I Shall Bear Witness and To The Bitter End) to understand the insidious nature of a country’s transformation into authoritarianism, and the helplessness of those who realized their predicament too late.
In the West, the threat to liberty is not another Hitler. Today, liberty is imperiled by the rise of the administrative state and the bureaucracy of elites that populate it. For fear of offending other cultures (and to our shame), we have stopped promoting democracies. According to Freedom House’s 2015 survey almost twice as many countries saw freedom decline as saw freedom increase in 2014 – the ninth year of such trends. Concern about the loss of liberty, however, is not new. The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798. Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus in 1861. Wilson suppressed free speech during World War I, and FDR interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. In July 1914, when prohibition was being discussed in the United States, the Virginia Law Register included the headline: “The Decline in Personal Liberty in America.” In the body of the report were written words that sounded remarkably modern, if not in tone, at least in meaning: “Today…liberty is the right of part of the people to compel the other part to do what the first part thinks the latter ought to do for its own benefit.” The words ‘elitism’ or ‘establishment’ were not used, but the message is familiar. These are but a few examples of how our freedoms have been curtailed during extraordinary times; they should make us more vigilant today.
This is why last week’s election in Britain was important, that a free people will resist efforts to cauterize liberty. While the favored narrative of supercilious “Remains” was that Brexit was driven by xenophobia, nativism and hate, the truth was that the 52% of the electorate who democratically voted to leave were concerned that the EU had become undemocratic, creeping toward socialism. Keep in mind, the turnout at 72% was the highest in years. Immigration, no doubt, played a role, but this vote was more significant than the establishment would like to admit. Like millions of dissatisfied Americans who see their lives managed by an elite cadre of bureaucrats in Washington, millions in England saw Brussels dictating rules by which they must abide. Sixty percent of the UK’s laws, including for example the curvature of bananas, are now created by unaccountable mandarins working out of Brussels. Those who wanted to maintain the status quo are a cadre of politicians, academics, lawyers, bankers, big business leaders, most in the media, as well as an increasing number of people grown dependent on the largesse of government. The existing system has served them well – ignored have been the middle classes and small businesses.
In Washington, it was Congress that passed the Affordable Care Act without one vote from the opposition – a Congress that then, in a spate of hubris, exempted themselves from its provisions. It has been the expansion of the EPA, Department of Energy, Homeland Security and the IRS where bureaucrats without accountability to the people affect lives, either in mandates enacted (bankrupting the coal industry), or intimidating political opponents (singling out conservative groups for special IRS attention).
The birth of the liberal state involved a long and difficult gestation, from a meadow at Runnymede in 1215 to the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1776. It evolved out of the natural pressure that exists between governed and governors. At its essence is the admission that the governed had certain natural and inalienable rights, including the right to determine leaders and to enact laws that apply equally to all citizens. As we wallow in political correctness, we should not forget – and it should not go unnoticed in Europe’s capitals – that liberalism’s foundations are based on a Christian-Judeo ethos, and they are Anglo Saxon in their heritage. The bulwarks of our democracy incorporate representative government, separation of powers, rule of law, equality under the law and property rights. To survive, democracies require civility, tolerance and respect – all alien to Sharia law and to most Muslim countries.
The rise of the administrative state has been accompanied by a decline in community organizations, as chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Its provocateur is political correctness. It has been the cause of a shutting down of free speech on our campuses. It can be seen in the modification of the traditional American family, with an increase in out-of-wedlock births and one-parent households. While wealthy Hollywood-types can afford cavalier attitudes toward such iconoclastic social conduct, such behavior for most people increases poverty and dependency on the state.
While not as terrifying as autocracies, tension is common within democracies. We may all want the same thing – a fair chance, respect, a happy life, financial success, recognition – but your aspirations may conflict with mine. For students, it is seen in the college admissions process. MacDonald’s competes with Burger King. Uber threatens yellow cabs. Religions compete for souls. If you are a businessman and I am a laborer, your desire for profit may clash with my want of higher wages. In free market economies, these strains tend to benefit the majority and, therefore, society. Our political system is designed to produce disputes, but ones that can be settled civilly – though never happily for all. The brightest students go to the best colleges. Competition improves the quality of products and prices for consumers. Negotiations between labor and management, while not always optimum, tend to benefit both. And while we do not always select wisely, our political battlefields provide opportunities for voters to consider options. These tensions reflect Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which, left unmolested by government, guides us toward improved living standards.
Nothing is permanent. Individually, we are not. As a species, we will die off. Governments are no different. At some point our democratic-republican form of government will collapse. If we come to rely on it too much, if we allow political correctness to substitute for a culture that has provided us the wherewithal to live freely, if we fail to appreciate the rarity of what we have, it will morph, at some point, into a less liberal state. That is why I applaud the vote last week in Great Britain. It took elites by surprise. The voters ignored economic threats by David Cameron, George Osborne and Barack Obama, and they rejected the condescending, gratuitous op-eds in The London Times, The New York Times and The Financial Times and on the BBC. Knowingly or unknowingly – and I believe it was the former – they realized that liberty is too valuable to be bought off cheaply. Theirs was a leap into the unknown, but it was done with knowledge that the path they had been on was leading to a darker place.
As citizens of democratic nations, our job is to sustain life – our own, our species, our planet and the special, but endangered, form of government we have inherited, which we now enjoy and that we should want to pass on, as intact as possible, to those who come next.