Developments at home and abroad are forcing Americans to think anew about the meaning of liberty and the proper nature and function of government. What is important to us, and what must we do to keep it? How do we change the things that manifestly aren’t working, and are in fact doing us daily harm?
Liberty 101 is a series devoted to discussing these topics. And the subject for today is what I call the principle of establishment. Very simply, the principle of establishment recognizes that liberty and the protection of natural rights don’t just happen. They are not the end-point of unguided trends in human life. They cannot be claimed as entitlements, on the basis that someone else must then bestir himself to “provide” them to us. They are elements in a moral, sociopolitical code, which we must actively establish, and which we must arrange, through our own efforts, to protect.
The only reason America started out with our unique Constitution and polity is that we established them. We took what had been, and deliberately established something new. To get to the point of having options in that regard, we had to fight a war. It was by no means “settled” political theory, in anyone’s philosophy, that we had any “right” to do this – i.e., a right that should have bound Great Britain to accede to our wishes.
In the Declaration of Independence, the signers appealed to natural rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – as the citizen’s moral basis for challenging and limiting government. But the Declaration is not a statement that these God-given rights confer a “right” to “dissolve the political bonds which have connected” one people with another. Dissolving our political bonds with Britain was a necessary but essentially mechanical step in the process of establishment. The Declaration makes it clear that doing that is a choice, one for which the signers and the Continental Congress proposed to take responsibility.
Our Founders had spent at least a decade appealing to king and parliament. In this process, they suggested that their rights should be binding on the governmental decisions emanating from London. It didn’t work.
After that, the Founders decided; committed; fought; won; and then established. The God-given rights enumerated in the Declaration were to be the guiding premise for establishing a new order in the former colonies.
The significance of the establishment principle cannot be overstated. It is necessary to the installation and preservation of liberty. If we lose sight of its necessity, we will lose the prospect of liberty. Liberty is not what our fellows on this earth have the natural urge to accord us. It is certainly not what government of any kind naturally respects. It is antithetical to all schemes for collective salvation, whether we are to be saved from sin, inequality, or climate change. Liberty interferes terribly with ideological messianism, just as it does with the unfettered collection of revenues for complacent governments.
Liberty always – always – has to be deliberately established and hedged about with protections. It never just emerges, through a process of defensive horse-trading, from anyone’s current arrangements. Defending liberty is hard enough; establishing it requires being prepared to say “No” at least as much as “Yes,” and even being prepared to kill, where necessary, as much as to die. It is something we must want badly to win, in the only way that can be effective: that is, over the objections of the enemy who wants to deny it to us.
The urge to deny liberty to others comes in many forms. All three of the great monotheistic religions have gone, to differing degrees, through periods in which denial of liberty to others of their faith was a key feature of temporal administration. (To differing degrees, all three have also identified doctrinal reasons to change course or shift emphasis on this. Judaism and Christianity, in particular, provided the core of the West’s moral thinking about God-given rights and man’s rights against the state.)
The monotheistic faiths are by no means unique in this regard; the pagan religions of the ancient empires, in the Americas as well as the Eastern hemisphere, were used robustly as a means of subjugating populations.
Up until the last two centuries, governments were almost universally engaged in subjugating their people. There has been no such pattern as that of government defending the people against the encroachments of religion; governments are invariably, and by nature, the worst offenders. Indeed, it was precisely through using the powers of government to enforce religious orthodoxies that denial of liberties became institutionalized in, for example, the Christianity of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
We fool ourselves badly, meanwhile, if we think modern collectivist ideologies represent a change from that pattern. Rather, they are simply the continuation of it: imperial statism and religious authoritarianism in post-Enlightenment clothing. Jacobinism, Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, progressivism, radical “environmentalism”: all have had their essential features in common with the dark spirit of ancient imperialism, the perverted, politicized Christianity of religious wars and Inquisitions, and the radical Islamism of today. In dismissing or even promoting the loss of life and liberty as a virtual sacrament, moreover, the modern collectivist –isms complete the circle of ancient human-sacrifice religions.
On a more local and pragmatic level, we are all familiar with the “creeping statism” endemic in government of any kind. Give government a charter to manage something for us, and its portfolio will do nothing but grow. There is no such thing as a naturally quiescent state of liberty. Someone always has an idea, not just for a better mousetrap, but for a scheme to require us to purchase and use it.
Unless he is actively stopped, by convention and expectation, underlaid with shared values but also with implied force, at least one of our neighbors is always one sign of weakness away from telling us what size we can make our house, whether we can hold Bible studies there, and how much of our income we have to spend on medical services. This, and not an Eden of self-effacing tolerance, is the reality of human life. Liberty requires establishment and protection, because in every generation, there is a thriving industry in grievances, social prophylaxis, and knowing better than others do how they should live.
If you want liberty, you can’t wait for others to recognize your right to it. You must establish it and protect it. This is actually true of all good things in our common life on this earth. None of them just happen. They require establishment and protection. Establishment and protection are accomplished in different ways; in today’s consciously-stabilized geopolitical environment, they occur almost entirely within existing borders, as when colonies became new nations after World War II, or autocratic regimes were changed after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But America is the chief and most singular example in our modern era (indeed, in all history) of the establishment principle. Only one other nation shares the principle of radical establishment that ours represents, and that is Israel. Both nations were established for unique, historic purposes, in the teeth of opposition, with a specific moral and political commitment as the premise of their self-proclaimed charters. Both invoked the God Jehovah in their establishing premise; both intended to found a unique project in which there would be irreducible liberties, and priorities that would overrule, in perpetuity, the importunings and temptations of a given generation.
Both nations took it as a given that the ordinary course of human affairs wasn’t good enough: that paying tribute and living at the sufferance of “empires” was a sure path to servitude, extortion, and death. It is a point for another day that the nation-state is the only viable entity for acting on this proposition; suffice it to say here that establishing liberty and a principle of nationhood require holding and living independently on territory. Someone will always object to that. Someone will always object to the establishment of liberty, which always and everywhere means that the territory in question cannot be held for slavery and tribute.
The question is not whether liberty will ever cease to be obnoxious to mankind’s oldest patterns and urges. It won’t. The question is what choices we will make, knowing that liberty must be established and protected, and that that will inevitably be considered offensive by noisy and determined enemies. He who insists on establishing liberty will always encounter opposition. But there is no other way to have it.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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