These are anxious times, teetering on a proverbial edge towards dreamlike fall to something and somewhere else. President Obama has frequently characterized this as a “critical moment,” and I do tend to agree. The difference is that I do not want to teeter us off into an abyss of socialism, but rather to roll us back gently from it. American history hasn’t been so bad after all, and freemen and free markets have never substantially failed and have certainly never quit this country, no matter what else may have gone wrong. On the contrary, it is the country’s Government that appears ready to quit on itself, but this would be a singular tragedy with irreversible consequences for the world.
According to Professor Donald Kagan of Yale, historian and subject matter expert on Western Civilization, all law and indeed every constitution rests ultimately on force. If the citizen will pause to think about it, he knows it is true even for ours. It is only by granting a monopoly or near monopoly on the use of force, normally through the aegis of government, that civilized and orderly, and indeed modern life is made possible. That’s what the president and congressmen, policemen and soldiers in our system, are all about. Nevertheless from the standpoint of justice not all regimes are alike or equal.
A tyrant will make laws, maybe even some good ones. He will induce stability and room perhaps for the favored few or favored class to thrive. The majority who mind their corners may even find in them a modicum of freedom, or at least comfort there.
“Stay out of politics” is a wise saying in many parts of the world where strong leaders rule and a single party controls things. If one does this, he may live longer and prosper more on crumbs. In general, however, based on the most ancient American criterion of freedom, only those constitutions that rest on the freely expressed consent of the people, responsibly its citizens are legitimate.
Today as in the time of Socrates in Athens, citizens are free to question the law and to try and change it by legal means, free indeed to leave their country without penalty if they find it offensive. In the meantime we have a moral obligation to peace and to obey the law, however little we may like it. To the point, at least, according to the Declaration of Independence, when Government becomes destructive of the ends to which it has been justly established. This is the point at which the Government quits itself, and the people in order to remain free must alter or abolish their Government and institute a new one.
It is similar to the idea of changing political affiliations when and if the party you belonged to radically changes its platform in key respects. You didn’t leave that party, but rather the party left you; and likewise, it is possible though more difficult and rare for the Government to so debase the Constitution and its founding traditions that it may no longer be truly called the Government of the United States of America.
There will be turbulent markets. That being said, Government as such ought to remain consistent to its purpose and its core animating principles. The same rights it secures according to the Constitution are the rights that must be secured in good times and in bad. Indeed, the stronger the challenge facing us, the more have the people counted on leaders in the Government to serve with integrity and be that steady anchor and not to throw everything to the whirlwind. That’s why we have elections as scheduled, in peace and in war. That’s why taxation without representation is never allowed and always a call to arms.
If King George III in effect justified the American Revolution for having “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation…” then presumably the Chief Executive who does the same today runs the same risk. Borrowing terminology Star Parker has used, president Obama seems intent on moving everyone onto Uncle Sam’s Plantation. I’m sure Uncle Sam will be a benevolent master, but while we have the choice we may think twice. Parker writes, “Americans can accept Barack Obama’s invitation to move onto the plantation. Or they can choose personal responsibility and freedom.”
In point of fact, the American people can choose much else besides—and they have the political tradition of doing so whenever the Government quits on itself. Yet citizens shouldn’t have to, when as Kagan explains, they want and “they need leaders who understand that individual freedom, self-government, and equality before the law are of the highest value…. And they especially need leaders with the talents to persuade their impatient citizens that these political institutions are the necessary first foundation for a decent regime and a good life for all.” The exigency of the moment, critical or otherwise, demands no less.