Written by Daniel Greenfield
The word "freedom" nowadays often has a hollow sound because so many people have forgotten what it means. And the worst misconception that people have about freedom is that it is something that they receive from the government.
The Declaration of Independence states that governments were created in order to "secure rights", which represents a subtle but important difference, from the modern liberal idea that governments exist to supply rights and responsibilities through an ongoing process of national reform. The view of the Declaration was not that governments exist to provide rights, but that they were created as a means of providing sufficient security so that those rights may be freely exercised. Rather than providing rights, governments were meant to serve as fences to keep out those enemies foreign and domestic, as well as more inanimate threats, that would deprive Americans of their rights.
However the turmoil of the 20th Century, the long struggles against Nazism and Communism and the social trials of the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement, caused Americans to think of government as a source of rights, rather than a defender of rights. This reconfiguratiom of government was in tune with the liberal vision of government as a unifying and redemptive national force, rather than a functional tool of the people. And the resulting change was a subtle but profound one, as Americans came to expect government to supply their rights for them, rather than protecting them from outside enemies and from itself.
Power in human institutions naturally increases rather than decreases. Unlike money, which goes back and forth as it's spent, power can both hoarded and spent at the same time. This naturally results in both the centralization of power in institutions, accompanied by the economic bankruptcy of those institutions. But not before those institutions, which may be either governments or corporations, exhaust whatever resources, natural, commercial and human, under their control.
The Founders understood all this. The American Revolution had been partly caused by the economic problems of two monarchies, England and France, the former of which began squeezing the Colonies in order to balance its own books, and the latter which bankrupted itself by backing the revolution. The British monarchy became a shell after centuries of internal conflicts caused in part by its constant need for new sources of revenue. The French Revolution was in turn caused more by a demand for financial accountability from a free spending monarchy, than by the grand ideas like Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite. Meanwhile America's own earliest conflicts between individual rights and the Federal government, such as the Whiskey Rebellion, were caused by the government's need for revenue.
With a massive rising national debt that threatens to consume the entire productive capacity of the United States, modern day America is going down the very same road as the Kings of France. And the process has been radically accelerated by the transformation of the role of government, from that of the "fence" around our rights, to the "provider" of rights, and beyond that government had also redefined rights as services. And just as it costs more to put a nanny in every home, than to hire a watchman for a single block, providing services takes government to a whole new spending level.
Government health care is an excellent example both of government redefining rights as services, and the enormous expenditures involved in trying to supply a service to every individual. But by redefining services as rights, the government also avoided the two pronged trap set for it by the Constitution. The Constitution's two pronged trap for government was the Bill of Rights to protect the freedom of the people to be able to serve as a check on the rising power of government. This of course depended on the wisdom of the people to use those rights to prevent the overreach of government power.
But by redefining rights as services, the government did not begin by attacking the rights of the people directly, as the Bill of Rights had anticipated they would, by restricting Freedom of Speech or Freedom of Assembly, instead they redefined rights in a way that would make the exercise of government power more appealing. More appealing than actual rights. And even when they did tackle the Second Amendment, they did it from the standpoint of arguing that they were acting to provide security to the people, rather than the government.
Imagine if you will, parents telling a child not to talk to any strange men. Now when a strange man comes along, the child refuses to speak to him. Understanding the parameters of the parents' instructions, the strange man instead says that he only needs to talk to the child in order to find out where his parents are, so he can take him to them. Much the same thing happened to America. The government said it was not interested in gathering power in order violate our rights. It wanted power only in order to better implement them. But power is accumulative. And government power naturally usurps rights.
The Declaration of Independence envisioned government as a means of providing the security under which rights can be exercised, a premise that at the same time viewed any growth of government that destroyed those rights themselves as parasitic and illegitimate.A government whose power prevents rights from being exercised, is much like a house which is toxic to its residents. It has no purpose for being. A house's only reason for being is so that people can live in it. A government's only purpose for being is to allow people to live unmolested and exercise their rights.
Yet the modern liberal definition of government is not one that defends rights by protecting people externally and leaving them alone internally. Instead it is of a government that creates rights by failing to protect people externally (as this would violate the international rights of their enemies) and by constantly monitoring and controlling them internally. Such a government is the natural product of the undue accumulation and centralization of power in one place. Because when government begins centralizing and accumulating power, it develops a monopoly on power, and becomes increasingly threatened by anything that impedes that monopoly.
Such a government is less concerned about foreign threats than it is about domestic threats, because when foreign threats have no ability to conquer it, it does not view them as threatening its domestic monopoly on power. Instead it is wholly concerned with limiting the autonomy of its subjects in order to maintain its absolute monopoly on power.
The process of centralizing power undoes representative government over time by shifting the base of power into urban environments with their own culture. But while the urban environments may be more culturally vibrant, the frontier is more morally vibrant. The culture clash that results from this can easily spill into revolutions. Such a revolution created the United States of America. But America remained subject even then to the same processes, with too much power becoming localized in a handful of cities. And that process has only continued to accelerate since then.
The urban environment shapes government centralization in particular ways, because urban environments are more interdependent, and in them the demand for government services can quickly outpace the need for maintaining individual rights. The larger the city, the easier it is for its rulers to see individuals as members of collective groups, as cogs in a vast machine-- not as the true rulers, but as the ruled. Thus government centralization is likeliest to take place in an urban environment, which is also the environment that is culturally most conducive to that centralization. This Catch 22 is the natural outcome of the accumulation of power by an government.
The idea that only the government can set you free is an ideal one for government, because it allows it to define the people's rights on its own terms. And so the servants of the people become their masters. The former rulers give up their powers and become the ruled. The ruled become the rulers. Not so much as at the point of a gun, but through the promise that they will be taken care of. But rights are the royal scepter of the people through which they rule the government. When they pass that scepter to the government, they also pass the power that comes with it.
From NY to Jerusalem , Daniel Greenfield Covers the Stories Behind the News. Daniel Greenfield is a blogger, author and columnists covering international affairs, the rising threat of terrorism and the growing problems of socialism. His daily blog can be viewed at Sultan Knish.