Steven Yates

What Price of Liberty?

Thu Apr 24 17:42:13 2003

What Price of Liberty?

by Steven Yates

Anyone seeking to understand the premises of the leftist-neocon consensus
that has taken up dominance in American centers of power need only study
E.J. Dionne Jr.’s latest column on the "price of liberty." According to
Dionne the "price of liberty" is statism! He doesn’t, of course, put it so
forthrightly. He cites a work entitled The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty
Depends on Taxes by two law professors, Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein.
That he would enlist two members of today’s professorial class in support of
his views doesn’t surprise me at all.

Dionne’s point of departure is the looting of shops, government offices and
museums that has characterized post-Saddam Baghdad. He uses these scenes to
contrast the tyranny of Saddam and the brand of statism favored by the
current consensus. "The alternative to tyranny is not the abolition of
government," he writes. "Absent a government committed to the protection of
rights, there are no rights."

There you have it: the key to one of the fundamental premises of the
post-9/11 world. A right is a fundamentally moral entity. Government, a
political one. Dionne has just reduced social morality to politics. In this
view, rights do not antecede institutions of government, which indeed have
as a function the protection of rights. According to the current consensus,
government creates rights. We would have no rights without government to
give them to us. Read it again: "Absent a government … there are no rights."

Now Dionne might respond that this is a horribly unfair characterization of
his views. He might deny saying that, literally, human beings have no rights
independent of government, i.e., of military might, political arrangements
and police powers. Rather, he might say that without government there are no
mechanisms in place to see to it that rights are respected and protected.

This, though, is not saying, "There are no rights." Dionne’s statement above
continues, "Without government, individuals have no way to vindicate their
rights to property, to personal liberty, to life itself." This depends on
the cash value of to vindicate.

Let’s see. First off, does it make sense to say that rights exist even if a
given power structure refuses to recognize them – or, perhaps, if there is
no power structure at all? Of course it does. In the first case, this was
the working premise of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.
Constitution, those mostly forgotten documents being trampled underfoot in
our march toward global empire. It was the working premise of those who
criticized the former Soviet Union and other dictatorships the world over,
including the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein. In the second case, it is
surely the premise of those who see something wrong with the looting of
Baghdad shopkeepers. The demand that individual rights be respected is one
of the moral checks on political might no less than on low-level criminal

In this light, let us look anew at those looters Dionne and others have
commented on. Let’s consider them in a larger context: that of the worldview
that dominates that part of the world and their culture, Islam. Muslims are
not exactly noted for their respect for such things as individual liberty
and property rights – which is one reason the dream of establishing
Western-style "democracy" in Iraq will probably remain just that: a dream.
Islamic culture never produced a John Locke or a Thomas Jefferson or a James
Madison. It certainly wasn’t going to produce a Ludwig von Mises or a
Friedrich A. Hayek. Unable to create or sustain the prosperity only freedom
can generate, in recent decades it has produced only theocratic
dictatorships like the one in Iran or their secular counterparts such as
that of Saddam Hussein.

In such an environment, devoid of any longstanding individual-rights
tradition, strong government probably is the only defense against chaos, at
least in the short term. But it would be wrong to look at post-Saddam
Baghdad and insinuate that such would be the result of a systematic
dismantling of the choking government restrictions and sprawling,
bureaucratic federal agencies here. After all, our history did produce a
John Locke, a Thomas Jefferson and a James Madison, and even if the
government schools do not teach them now, some Americans blessed with real
patriotism are keeping their ideas alive. One of the consequences of a long
historical memory is a deep and abiding resentment against our tyrannical
tax system, plundering the fruits of the labors of every productive citizen.
E.J. Dionne Jr. uses the Baghdad looters to rail against anti-tax groups in
the United States: "No government, no property," he scolds. "No government,
no security from looting, theft or violence. No government, no national
defense. No government, no social stability." Etc., etc.

Yet as James Bovard has documented – in books such as Lost Rights with
thousands of examples – government routinely violates property rights. Our
legal system has virtually destroyed the concept. If it had not, employers
would not have to answer to bureaucratic overseers regarding the "diversity"
of their workforces. We are not secure from "looting, theft or violence."
Looting is done here quietly and oh, so legally. And while it is true that
rampaging gangs usually do not run through the streets of American cities
smashing windows (although occasionally they do just that), the difference
is a matter of degree, not kind. Most Americans are afraid to walk down the
streets of major cities at night – and sometimes even in broad daylight. Our
government secures neither property nor safety nor social stability. In
fact, there was much more of each when government was smaller and less

No government, no national defense, Dionne tells us. With our government’s
program of open borders and unlimited immigration – possibly allowing
would-be terrorists onto our soil to harm our native-born citizens – we do
not have strong national defense. Homeland security could easily turn out to
be a joke that is not the least bit funny if one of the long-term
consequences of the Bush Administration’s war of aggression in Iraq is
another deadly terrorist attack here. There are some warped writers –
usually neocons – who say that we "paleos" secretly wish for something like
this. Rubbish! While there may be some leftist Democrats who cynically wish
any number of such things that would harm the Bush Administration just so
they can get one of their own back in the White House, what we wish for is a
return to a political order that honors and respects its Constitution – and
the moral framework that underwrites Constitutional government.

That means asking questions like: do such things as freedom from violence,
national security, social stability, and so on, come from government? Or do
they have some other source – with government, at the very best, as a
mediator we dare not allow off a very short leash?

They come from our tradition of individual rights and moral responsibilities
as inhering in individuals (not groups or group identity), as cornerstones
of the respect for the rule of law. This tradition is embodied in our
founding documents. It may be argued that the embodiment is not perfect. It
is true enough that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S.
Constitution could deliver a perfect social order. But this is just to
observe that no document penned by human hands can overcome the lasting
effects of original sin. Our tradition – rooted ultimately in a Christian
view of things – was an attempt at a balancing act: balancing of powers
within government, the concept of dual sovereignty, and so on, under the
hope that the people’s religiosity and knack for enterprise and
entrepreneurship would help control their vices. These balancing acts were
always uneasy. Freedom is actually very fragile.

But what freedom we secured with Constitutionally limited government did
unleash prosperity. We established a spontaneous order and unleashed the
power of the market which, carried forward by its own tremendous momentum,
built the most prosperous civilization ever. Unfortunately, what we did not
do is solve the most important problem of any political order – how to
control those in its midst who want power, and who either become politicians
or behind-the-scenes operatives. As the latter slowly commandeered our
financial system, our media and our educational system, our civilization has
more and more turned its back on its founding traditions. Our
"intellectuals" have forsaken Christianity and embraced various forms of
materialism and nihilism. Our political "leadership" has forgotten the idea
that rights and other moral entities antecede government and – when they
talk about such things at all – blithely assuming either that government
creates them, or that they are meaningless abstractions without the heavy
hand of government. Such views more and more control the thoughts of a
public educated for job skills but not life a free society.

Dionne is right when he says that "freedom isn’t free." But its price is
different from what he says. We should not have to pay through the nose in
taxes, controlled by a constantly shifting penumbra of laws that no one
except tax lawyers and preparers can understand. We should not have to live
in fear of an IRS audit. The price-tag of freedom is a moral populace,
coupled with the vigilance Thomas Jefferson mentioned – and an idea I am
sure will be as repugnant to Dionne as with everyone in the leftist-neocon
consensus: that if we the people are sufficiently dissatisfied with our
government we have the right to alter it, or abolish it, or organize and
secede from it. Such ideas were there in the Declaration of Independence,
and were implied in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
They are implied if rights pre-exist government, and are not created out of
thin air by government.

The track record of the American federal government in protecting rights has
been rather shaky of late – to say the least! In the absence of a moral
order with the above-named components, I wouldn’t count on it for protection
in these troubled times. Centralization simply cannot deliver the goods, and
can only subsist by plundering the good works of the many productive
citizens who sustain it involuntarily. Many of those in the anti-tax groups
Dionne rails against realize this. They realize, that is, that the many
unconstitutional programs and agendas pursued by bloated federal agencies
really amount to nothing more than a very sophisticated and legally backed
form of looting.

At least Baghdad’s looters are honest about it.

April 24, 2003

Steven Yates [send him mail] is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises
Institute. A professional writer and editor with a PhD in philosophy, he is
the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San
Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). His latest book manuscript, In Defense of
Logic, is undergoing revisions. He works out of Columbia, South Carolina.

Copyright © 2003
"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority.
It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the
people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who
mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good
masters, but they mean to be masters." -- Daniel Webster


"We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force." [Ayn Rand, The Nature of Government]

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