Back when I was growing up in Portugal, in the sixties and seventies, leftists were very fond of saying that America was a paper tiger. They were almost right.
America, more than any other country is founded on paper — on words. Oh, sure other countries have broken with established order, and other countries have founded their government on words.
But with us the seminal act, the one that brought us to life as a country started with words, in this case the words of the declaration of independence.
Before those words echoed, we were just British subjects, albeit in a far flung territory. And there were those among us who were loyal to other countries, too, the ones they’d come from.
Heinlein captures this beautifully in The Moon is A Harsh Mistress with (I’m paraphrasing from memory) “… and there was many a Frenchman among us whose heart belonged to la belle patrie. But patriotism to Luna? The moon was rock, was place of punishment.”
While the territory of the US was not a place of punishment, not a prison colony, it partook somewhat of that. [And it wasn’t totally NOT a place of punishment. Before/beyond Australia, the British always had the charming habit of exporting their trouble makers. (I do mean that and not ironically. Beat hanging them by the neck.) The US got a lot of indigents and petty criminals. (If some of the histories are true, so did my region of Portugal, before Britain had an empire. It explains much.)]
I come from a country of emigrants, and I know how emigrants are viewed, and the lands to which they go. They go over there to make their fortune or to achieve what, for whatever reason (Monetary or social) is denied to them in their own lands. And they long to come back “home” and to come back wealthy.
Of course, most people living in the Americas of the time didn’t intend to go back (though the wealthy sent their children back, sometimes, for education or social exposure) but they were still mentally Englishmen. They aped English fashions, they bought English furniture and the motherland was the heart of the far flung empire, without which the distant parts would perish.
Then came the rolling language of the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
And the list of their endurance, their just grievances.
Was it achieved with those words, that separation? Their Safety and Happiness? Of course not. There was war and a butcher’s bill, and there was quibbling too, and internal fighting.
But that was the moment, just as the creation of the world is supposed to have started with “Let there be light” before the seven days of creation.
We were born in words and we were founded in words. In blood we parted from the parent entity, and somehow we became one: this new thing “Americans.”
Then came the constitution which united us into a single national entity. That made us the United States. Our constitution established a wall of words between us and would be tyrants. A wall that kept government small, starved and quibbling internally. Our separation of powers, our tripartite system is supposed to harness the very ambition of those who would rule us so they spend themselves in fighting each other.
But more importantly, most important, are those powers that are reserved to the states and to the people.
Since the civil war it has become unfashionable to talk to state rights. Maybe it was a stalking horse under which to hide the repulsive institution of slavery. I don’t know. I came afterwards. Smarter people than I have argued it back and forth.
But it seems to me that we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Perhaps the civil war was a high price to pay for those state rights, but perhaps also making the states utterly subjected to the federal government wasn’t the brightest of ideas – because we are a very large country and what does DC know of my life? Or care for that matter? I have lived in four states in this great country and I can assure you that the culture in each of them is as different, as strange to each other as the culture of any two European countries. (And thinking about it, there’s more commonality than that between Spain and Portugal.)
Government works best when it’s small and local. Oh, yes, there will be blinkered abuses locally. We have only to think of Detroit and Chicago, and for that matter, California. But those abuses affect only the locals who, last I checked, were to glued to the spot, and could fly, ride, or run away from intolerable abuses.
When the intolerable abuses come from the federal government though there is nowhere to run. And by its very nature, being very large, it attracts more of the people who live for power only. People who will act only in the interest of extending their power.
The “commerce clause” has been used to render state powers meaningless for at least seventy five years.
But that is not enough. People on the left, and our president among them, want to ditch the constitution altogether. Tattered and bloodied though its, and as much as our president ignores all portions of it, that document bothers them.
They know many of us believe in it, and in the oaths we swore to protect it against all enemies foreign and domestic.
They ridicule it as “old” as though, somehow, being newer were a virtue in and of itself. (Which one would you prefer, tovarish? The Three Musketeers or Fifty Shades of Gray? Remember, The Three Musketeers is OLD.)
More importantly they compare it to other countries’ constitutions and they come away disappointed. You see, our constitution, they say, is a list of “negative liberties.” It is a list of everything that the government can’t do to you. It can’t establish a state religion, it can’t take away your guns, it can’t quarter troops in your property, it can’t enslave you…
Of course not all of these people are well intentioned. I’m not stupid enough to pretend they are – and neither should you be. The twentieth century filled mass graves with millions of people who followed pied pipers singing that song “we want to take care of you. We’re doing it all for the people.” – but even if they were well intentioned and honest, and really wanted to make sure that everyone under their administration had the “basics” from which they could struggle forth or not. Let’s suppose they wanted to make sure that everyone had enough to eat and a good place to sleep, and medical care when they needed it.
It would still be foolish to put that in a document that encodes the powers of government. Because government CAN’T provide any of those things to anyone. Government produces nothing. It doesn’t grow food, it doesn’t keep houses, and it certainly doesn’t provide you health care. And when it tries to do any of those things, we’re treated to wretched crosses between the DMV and public schools. Because government has to compel the services of people who know how to do things — and one thing we’ve learned is that slave labor is never efficient. And bureaucrats and functionaries can push paper, but not do anything that needs done. TRUST me, you don’t want the health care government functionaries can provide. It is not their job to be innovative, or to take risks. Their job is to fill forms and cover their asses, with a side excursion into empire building which happens in the bowels of any large bureaucracy. (Corporate bureaucracy as well.)
Government can do only one thing and do it well. Government is force. Whether it’s an elected government ruling minimally and justly, and therefore requiring minimal force because it has the consent of the governed; or a dictatorial power ruling with a rod of iron – government makes laws and trusts them to be obeyed, because if they’re not, they’ll send their police; their army; their occupying force to stop you disobeying.
When their enforcement arm stops working, governments fall. The end of the USSR came when the soldiers sent to pacify Moscow accepted flowers and apples from the old women instead of firing on them. The rest was prologue. That was the point when the wheels came off.
Any food, any health care, any living space – ANYTHING – the government “gives” is exacted from your fellow citizens by force.
The question is not “do you want a minimum guaranteed income?” (Who doesn’t? I’m a freelancer scratching next month’s livelihood from uncertainty every day. My husband is an employee and in these uncertain times, the continued survival of his employer is always a question. Guaranteed would be nice.) The question is “do you want a minimum guaranteed income that’s secured for you by stealing it from other people?” More poignantly it’s “from other people who might need it more?” (No tax code can take in account the fine gradations of human need/obligations. I have friends who make far less than we do but have more disposable income.) and “from other people who might have used it to start a new enterprise that would make your entire region prosperous?”
The question is – always – not “what do you want the government to do for you?” but “what do you want the government to do TO you?” Because one can’t exist without the other.
If the government does something FOR you, it does it by doing something TO someone else. And tomorrow it could be you who gets your religious observance curtailed, your food shorted, or your health care terminated “for the good of all.”
The question is – do you want the decision to be yours, or that of some faceless bureaucrat in the bowels of an inexorable bureaucracy?
Oh, sure, the free market for all these goods isn’t perfect. For years now, for instance, “hunger” statistics in America have been compiled by asking people (particularly children) whether they’d eaten everything they wanted to, and the kinds of things they wanted to on any given day. Unsurprisingly this yields very high results. Even if you exclude the dieters, how many of us eat as much and the kinds of things we want to every day? Even from a monetary point of view. I know I spent five years living on rice and vegetables. When there was money, it went to buy meat for the kids. (Yes, we gained weight. Rice.)
And of course people can’t have all the health care they wish. Let alone money and, yes, that limits things, there is location. I can’t – if I get sick – go to the top specialist in my field, even if I could pay for it. He’s likely to be in the East or West coast.
So, yes, there will be injustices.
It’s just that the injustices of freedom are the result of a broken human nature. They’re not systematic. And usually they can be got around. I have friends who have got top care, with no insurance and not much money. Heck, I did. (Okay, not top. In fact, we probably had reason for a lawsuit, but hey the kid and I are here and alive.) And paid for it over those five years. (If you’re going to have a complicated birth, chilluns, don’t have it on COBRA.) You figure out what you can do. You do it. And you work towards it. Success is not guaranteed – you won’t necessarily eat the finest foods, or have the finest care, or live in a million dollar home – but you can try. You have the right to pursue your happiness.
Meanwhile when it’s guaranteed… someone who doesn’t know you decides what your happiness is. Or if you’re likely to survive. Or, more insidious of all, whether your “value” to society is enough to justify the expense. In fact, when government guarantees your basic needs, it has the right to determine what you’re worth. You become a thing. A figure in a spreadsheet.
I don’t know about you – your mileage may vary, and if it does, man, are there countries in the world you should live in – but I’d rather fail under my own power and still trying to claw my way to where I THINK I should be, than “succeed” at receiving what the government thinks someone like me “deserves.”
That is the difference between the negative liberties our constitution enshrines – the government shouldn’t have the right to do much to you – and the positive liberties of other governmental organizations… those same organizations that filled mass graves and sent people to Siberia.
It doesn’t matter if our particular proponents of governmental power THINK they’re doing it for our own good and to “take care” of us.
He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the tune called by central governments run by the numbers and “efficiently” always ends up being a sort of Danse Macabre.
The people who are doing their best to tear through the wall of paper that protects American rights and liberties, might be well-intentioned. They might think they want to establish utopia.
We must protect and restore our constitution, because it stands between us and a chase for “Utopia”.
As we all know, utopia is a Greek word. It means “no place.”