The Idea of Freedom
Joel Bowman writing on freedom…
When British armed forces surrendered to the American revolutionaries after the Battle of Saratoga, in 1777, Sir John Sinclair is said to have commented to the moral philosopher, Adam Smith, “If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined.”
Smith, knowing a thing or two about the wealth of nations, replied calmly,
“Be assured young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
The British defeat at Saratoga notwithstanding, Smith was, in some sense, proven right. It would be six long years before the Americans won their independence from British imperial rule – six years that saw the deaths of tens of thousands of men on both sides of the conflict.
Certainly, the Old Empire had a lot of ruin in her still…
When we think about the quest for independence and the wars fought over it, in the United States and elsewhere, we bring to mind an impulse rooted in a desire for basic freedom. It is the thread of Patrick Henry’s notion, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Although the proximate cause of the American Revolutionary War is often attributed to “taxation without representation,” particularly as it was embodied in the infamous Stamp Act, the rebellion reflected something much deeper than mere nickel-and-diming at the post office.
Rather, it was the sentiments behind language such as was found in the Declaratory Act that really set the colonists against their British overlords…
“…the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain.”
The Declaration of Independence itself was not an anti-tax document as much as it was an anti-authoritarian document. It was drafted in protest against a “long train of abuses and usurpations” that had resulted in “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
The colonists saw taxes as just one part of a much larger machine, an entire system that trespassed overtly on their “unalienable” right to self-rule.
The Declaration was in fact a resolute withdrawal of the “consent of the governed” and a determination of a people to engage in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” on their own terms and under their own conditions.
It was at once an admirable stand against tyranny and an honorable experiment in self-governance, the first of its kind in history.
And yet, even in the noblest of political experiments there lies the seed of ruin…
Eight years, four months, and 15 days after it began, King George III ended the American Revolutionary War when he signed his name to the Treaty of Paris. In doing so, his government recognized the United States’ sovereignty over a territory bound roughly by what is now Canada to the north, Florida to the south, and the great Mississippi River to the west.
It was the first time a former colony had triumphed over its European master and won freedom for its people.
Of course, that original territory would expand greatly over the ensuing years, partly through purchase, as was the case with Louisiana (from France, 1803) and Alaska (from Russia, 1867), and partly through acts of aggression against the native Americans – otherwise known as the “Indian Wars.”
Whether by blood or by bill, come 1848, the population of the United States of America found itself spread from “sea to shining sea.” And the individuals who called that country home — from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes, the Rockies to the Prairies, the wetlands to the badlands — were as varied as the landscapes around them.
They came from all corners of the world to seek a better, freer life. To escape persecution – religious, political, social or other – at home…and to realize individual dreams of freedom and liberty. These were people claiming their own independence…in the land built on a declaration thereof.
But just as the size of the territory grew, and its people to multiply and thrive, so too did the seed of ruin buried deep in a nation’s heart. Left unguarded, the very ideals for which the revolutionaries fought began to lose prominence in the public’s mind…and in their place lesser, baser notions took root.
Over time, men came to trade their liberty for security, honest work for political expedience, rugged individualism for rank and file obedience.
Benjamin Franklin warned against as much when he remarked…
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Today, Modern Man is bound to submit to a degree of tyranny such as would make the Founding Fathers turn in their graves.
The revolutionaries complained about “taxation without representation.” They were right, of course. But what is to be the cost of such “representation?” Under British rule, taxation levied against the colonists averaged just 3%. Now, two and one third centuries after the last musket shot of the Revolutionary War, taxes average more than ten times that amount for ordinary American citizens.
The tax code itself is so complicated and convoluted that the common man can’t possibly hope to understand even a fraction of it. At almost 75,000 pages, the federal tax code alone is three times the length it was in in 1984…and an eye-watering 187 times longer than it was a century ago.
Moreover, today, the United States of America remains one of only two governments in the world that enforces so-called “universal taxation.” That is to say, as an American citizen, it matters not where you live, nor where your property is located on God’s green earth, the U.S. government claims the right to tax you on your income regardless. The only other country on the planet that supposes ownership over its subjects in this way is the tiny African dictatorship of Eritrea.
The United States used to be the destination to which persecuted individuals fled. Increasingly, it is becoming the place from which extorted individuals cannot escape.
Taxation, as previously mentioned, was but a single expression of a far more sinister idea against which the Founding Fathers revolted. Far more egregious was the notion that a distant head of state would enact (or ignore) laws at his own pleasing and in direct opposition to the interest of the citizenry, in order that the crown may “subordinate” them. It was the claim over their interest in self-determination that had the Americans sharpening their bayonets.
Indeed, in perusing the itemized protestations in the Declaration of Independence, the casual reader may be tempted to view the tyranny under which his ancestors labored as a relatively paradisiacal setting compared to the system that enslaves him presently.
Consider the criticism of a monarch, to take but one example, who had “…erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
The word “multitude” seems hardly fit for the task of describing the legions of snoops, snitches, and stoolies currently on the state’s payroll.
At this very moment, more than 60,000 Transport Security Agency employees stand at the ready to prod, poke, taze, cuff, invade, pat, feel, badger and otherwise “eat out the substance” of anyone who steps out of line on the nation’s transport systems. And it’s not just airports either. In 2013, the TSA expanded its reach to include sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations, and train terminals.
Likewise, the National Security Agency routinely snoops on private conversations and communications to an extent that most people simply accept they are being watched, monitored, and surveilled around the clock. Rather than challenge the system, they are content to meekly change their behavior instead.
The “temporary Safety” that Franklin foresaw is invariably invoked to justify the ever-expanding reach of the government’s offices and officers. Of course, the state’s mission creep is not confined to merely increasing its abuse of power at home.
Again, Jefferson was one of the most ardent critics of a standing army and complained about it on many an occasion, including in his (1789) letter to David Humphreys…
“There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation, and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors, that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot, but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.”
Today, the United States boasts a rather immodest 1.3 million active military personnel…with another 800,000 or so “on reserve.” The combined armed forces’ operating budget weighs in at around $580 billion annually, equal to roughly 40% of total global military expenditure. How much more is spent outside official channels and programs is impossible to know.
Bit by bit, America’s “temporary Safety” has become a vast, costly, and invasive Hydra. Each of its heads has two snooping eyes trained on some facet of American life. So the average American citizen is left to wonder at what true independence even looks like.
His life is micro-managed by the state in virtually every way imaginable…and in some unimaginable ways, too.
Regulations regarding the kind of home he chooses to live in…the type of investments he wants to make…the countries he’d like one day to visit…the parties with whom he’d care to contract…even the cheese he is allowed to eat (and not)…all determined by people he has never met and whom he never elected.
Were those misfit revolutionaries to catch a glimpse Modern Man’s life, they might well see in it their noble experiment in ruin…
But they would be missing the point.
Freedom is not an institution. It has no GPS coordinates. It is not a congress or a parliament or a governing body of any description known to man. Nor can it ever be, by definition, contained within the political boundaries of one or another nation state.
True independence is achieved in small and daily acts of peaceful rebellion…in the impulse to opt out of a given system…to raise a seed from farm to table…to ask a question where another would propose an answer…to find a creative workaround that renders an unjust law obsolete.
Independence is first and foremost an idea, a concept that resides not in the wooden speeches of politicians but in the hearts of those who strive to realize it for themselves and for those they love.