March 6, 2011
The Fallacy of Tyranny
No matter how long a people may suffer under tyranny, their yearning to be free can never be permanently extinguished. That much should be obvious from the events we are now witnessing in the Middle East: a new generation of Iranians is defying the tyranny of the ayatollahs, and angry uprisings are taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. If the last hundred years have taught us anything, it is the fallacy that tyranny can succeed as a long-term social strategy.
But tyranny is not just about the iron-fisted rule of autocrats. It is about the arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power, even when that power is wielded in a society devoted to democratic self-rule. That is the kind of tyranny we see in our country today, and many Americans are deeply concerned about what it means for a nation whose highest ideals are epitomized in the expression "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave."
While the extension of federal control over health care sparked the Tea Party Movement, the flames of popular indignation are big enough to engulf a multitude of powers now claimed by the federal government. As the Canadian essayist David Solway recently said about the policies of the Obama administration:
... there can be little doubt that the attempt to impose an unpopular leftist program of Robin Hood economics, environmental thuggery, and transnational accommodation upon what is historically a free-market constitutional republic must release the demons of social dissension and cultural rupture.
But the aggrandizement of power by our national government is only part of the tyranny faced by Americans today. At every level of government, the expansion of bureaucratic power threatens people's personal freedom over how to live their lives. That expansion is taking place without the informed consent of the citizens. And for Americans who value freedom, it is important to understand why that is happening and what can be done about it.
In the broadest sense, the erosion of freedom in America is as much a result of ignorance and inattention as it is the product of cabal and conspiracy. A powerful few believe that limited government is too restrictive, and they are aided and abetted by an elite group who think that the constitutional limitations on government shouldn't be taken seriously. These people in power must work their will through a vast bureaucracy of government employees, and in order to do that, they must obtain the obedience of those bureaucrats. Of course, paychecks go a long way toward purchasing that obedience. But keeping the bureaucrats ignorant about the totalitarian nature of their activities is also important, for the elites know that it is easier to lead people out of error than confusion.
So, to ensure obedience, the cultural elites have deliberately mis-educated the last two generations of Americans to think that freedom in America is a fatuous narrative used to exploit unfortunate victim groups. Instead of teaching the value of self-reliance, personal initiative, and individual responsibility, the elites have propagated collectivist ideas that come right out of the cultural Marxist school of social engineering. Such notions reward conformity, not individual excellence, and their socio-political legitimacy depends upon the approval of little committees and groups of self-interested experts, not on the support of the people. Raised up in ignorance to unquestioningly accept elitist group thinking, it never occurs to today's bureaucrats that the activities of government must be rooted in the informed consent of the governed in order to be legitimate.
But the ignorance of government bureaucrats isn't the entire explanation for the loss of freedom in America today. The inattention of the people to the preservation of their own liberty has played a critical part as well. Although the desire for freedom is born in every human heart, political liberty can be lost in a single generation if the people don't prize it highly enough. As the noted Irish lawyer John Philpot Curran once said:
It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
So what does "eternal vigilance" consist of in a republic like the United States, where political institutions are rooted in a free and democratically self-governing society? Does it mean abdicating to politicians and bureaucrats the governance of one's life? Or does it mean taking an active part in deciding what politicians and bureaucrats can and cannot do as they wield the awesome power of government? These aren't just academic questions; they are practical questions of the utmost significance for every freedom-loving American citizen. After all, when the power of government is not restrained by vigilant citizen supervision, it will spread like a cancer and consume the liberties of the people.
To regain the liberty usurped by government officials in America today, the people must take affirmative action to reclaim the rights vouchsafed to them by the Founders of the Republic. First and foremost is the right to be left alone, for that is the principal limitation on the exercise of government power. In each city and suburb, in every town and rurality, the people must act to limit government involvement in their lives.
Instead of accepting bureaucratic regulation as legitimate and inevitable, the people must insist that bureaucrats meticulously justify every policy and procedure that they propose. Rather than assuming that bills passed into law are necessary and proper, the people must demand that the government prove by clear and convincing evidence that every law is essential to the preservation of public order, or that it reflects the will of a fully informed citizenry. Only by enforcing such strict scrutiny and high standards can the people win back their own freedom.