Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
We are celebrating this Independence Day in the midst of a conflict over what freedom really means. Whatever the crisis du jour that dominates the news cycle, whatever the conflicting policies and clashing ideologies, look deep enough and you’ll find the ancient war between those who believe in true freedom and citizen autonomy, and those who have reduced it to just doing what one wants subject to the intrusive power of Big Government guardians.
Start with the origins of today’s holiday, which were the American Colonists’ desire for political freedom and autonomy. The thirteen colonies, their customary rights for self-rule violated by England, took the momentous step of creating an independent state that empowered citizens to debate and decide how they would collectively chart its course and pursue its aims. This political community would be free and sovereign because it would not be subjected to any earthly power beyond the collective consent of the citizens as expressed through laws and political institutions to which politicians could be held accountable.
Yet this idea of freedom was dependent on citizens’ knowing how to use this freedom responsibly and for the proper aims. For freedom is not “doing as one likes,” which is not true freedom, but what the 18th century called license, a selfish indulgence that cares nothing for the good of the state as a whole, but everything for the needs and ambitions of one faction or ideology. This selfishness breeds tyranny and the loss of freedom, for to act on whatever selfish appetites and passions that arise in one, is to enslave the soul to them and subject the self and the political community to their destructive effects. As Russell Kirk wrote, “The worst enemies of enduring freedom for all may be certain folk who demand incessantly more liberty for themselves.”
Genuine freedom, then, is defined by restraints and limits on human nature’s destructive “passions and interests,” as James Madison called them. And the most dangerous passion is the lust for power. These limits on power’s “encroaching nature” were formally built into the structure of the Constitution in its separation and balance of powers, and in a federalism that checks the centralized, concentrated federal power and leaves the political decisions directly affecting people’s lives as close as possible to those who will have to live with the outcome. Both these structures protect freedom by limiting the ability of the ambitious or tyrannical to amass too much power at the expense of the citizens’ liberty.
And most important, government is limited by the notion of “unalienable rights” that are bestowed by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” rather than being the gift of any earthly and temporal power subject to the flaws and passions of human nature, and the vicissitudes of time and chance. These ideas, of course, are famously expressed in the Declaration’s second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ––That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Ordered liberty is what we call political freedom as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution––the divided and balanced political order that creates, in the words of Orestes Brownson, “The sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.” But also necessary to true freedom are the “habits of virtue,” the individual’s power to do what is right rather than what is desired that is necessary for Americans “to reconcile the enjoyment of their natural rights, with the peace and tranquility of their country,” in the words of James Madison. The seldom sung verse of “America the Beautiful,” published as a poem in 1895 to commemorate the Fourth of July, confirms the foundational place of virtue in sustaining America’s political order:
God mend thy ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy Liberty in Law
Look around at our cultural and political scene and we rarely hear freedom talked about as ordered liberty dependent on limits and virtue. Freedom today is “license,” doing what we want either to fulfill an appetite or gratify an ideological passion. And we have seen the political consequences of this degradation of freedom––the despotism of the few. Plato observed this link between license and despotism nearly 2400 years ago in the Republic. Socrates scorns the “city full of freedom and frankness,” where “a man may say and do what he likes,” and everyone “is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases.” The result of this state is “variety and disorder,” as each man is given over to “the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.” Eventually, drunk on the “strong wine of freedom,” these citizens will sell their political freedom to any tyrant who promises to allow them to continue indulging those selfish pleasures.
A few hundred years later, Polybius connected such a tyranny to the attack on property needed to fund entitlement payments to the masses. Grown dependent on the gifts of the tyrant, Polybius writes, “the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors; then as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring … they will introduce a regime based on violence.” Social and political order will deteriorate until the people “degenerate into a state of bestiality, after which they once more find a master and a despot.”
Nearly two millennia later, in 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville prophesized the modern version of this tyranny–– “soft despotism,” which “would be more extensive and more mild,” and “would degrade men without tormenting them.” Instead it would reduce the people to “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.” And watching over the people would not be a tyrannical “regime of violence,” but “an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications,” a power “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.” As the agent of this control, this power “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules.” Through these regulations this power seeks to “keep [the people] in perpetual childhood,” and it is “well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors,” but it chooses “to be their sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness,” and strives “to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”
Our modern tyrants, the big-government progressives, have created Tocqueville’s soft despotism, which has been as effective as violence in destroying true freedom. Ordered liberty has indeed been reduced to mere license, as the ancients predicted. The first step in this process in our time has been secularization, the driving of religion from the public square and the reduction of it to a private lifestyle choice. In this way the moral order sanctioned by “Nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration describes the divine order, that once enforced limits on license and self-indulgence, now can be marginalized and bereft of its power to sanction destructive behavior. This leaves the state as the only authority for regulating people’s lives.
Next, as Polybius says, the redistribution of property through taxation and entitlement spending also erodes the autonomy of the citizens by fostering dependence, at the same time the state has to grow ever more powerful and intrude ever more intimately into private life in order to manage and control this distribution. The citizens gradually become more and more hooked on various transfers and subsidies from the state, even as they surrender more and more autonomy over their lives to ensure that the state-funded benefits keep coming.
Meanwhile, this erosion of their freedom is masked by the short-term pleasure of getting something for nothing. Virtues like self-reliance and self-responsibility, vital for political freedom, weaken, even as the Constitution’s balance of powers is disrupted by an activist judiciary and an overweening executive branch and its massive and minutely intrusive federal bureaucracy. The traditional limits on license thus disappear, paving the way for governmental tyranny and the decay of freedom.
But on this Fourth of July, there is some hope that this degradation of freedom perhaps has been slowed. Out of the cunning of history has appeared the most unlikely leader to restore that old freedom, at least at the level of the federal government. This brash, vulgar, thrice-married reality-television star and tabloid celebrity has somehow understood or intuited what most of our credentialed and degreed pundits and politicians seemingly had not seen, or had seen and accepted: that an overweening federal bureaucracy had evolved into the soft despotism Tocqueville predicted, its growth coming at the expense of our freedom and property. And Donald Trump is fighting back. He has cut back on regulations, returned money to the people, taken on the lickspittle media that shills for Leviathan, appointed Constitutionalist judges to the courts, is poised to add another to the Supreme Court, and daily scourged and scorned the corrupt deep-state functionaries who have perpetuated one of the most dangerous usurpations of federal power in recent history.
As a result, Trump has taken the first steps necessary for restoring our freedom and autonomy: fighting the federal government and attacking its hubristic powers. Whether he and we the people can continue the fight for freedom, not just in our politics but in our daily lives, remains to be seen. But this Fourth of July let’s take a moment to appreciate that we now have the best chance since Ronald Reagan to achieve that aim.