The Lost Meaning of Independence Day

by Bruce S. Thornton

Front Page Magazine

362px-Fourth_of_July_fireworks_behind_the_Washington_Monument,_1986Independence Day is a time of backyard barbeques and fireworks, department-store sales and blockbuster movies, patriotic bunting and flying the flag––in short, a time of leisure and consumption, with a few obligatory nods to the momentous event that July 4 is supposed to celebrate. But as the years go by we have lost the significance of the Declaration of Independence, and that amnesia has made it easier for the progressive leviathan state to encroach upon our freedom.

Political freedom, after all, was the point of declaring independence. The thirteen colonies, having been denied their political freedom and citizen rights by England, announced the creation of an independent political community that reserved to its citizens the autonomy to chart its course and pursue its aims. This “state” would be free because it would not be subjected to any earthly power beyond the collective consent of the citizens as expressed through laws and political institutions to which politicians could be held accountable.

Bound up in this idea of freedom, however, was its dependence on the virtues citizens had to possess in order to use this freedom responsibly and for the proper aims. For freedom was not “doing as one likes,” which is not true freedom, but what the 18th century called license, a selfish indulgence that cares nothing for the state as a whole either now or in the future. To act on whatever appetites and passions arise in one is to enslave the soul to them and subject the self and the state to their destructive effects. As Russell Kirk wrote, “The worst enemies of enduring freedom for all may be certain folk who demand incessantly more liberty for themselves.”

True freedom, on the other hand, is defined by restraints and limits on destructive “passions and interests,” as James Madison called them. These limits were formally built into the government in the separation and balance of powers, and in a federalism that checked the centralized federal power and left the decisions directly affecting people’s lives as close as possible to those who would have to live with the outcome. Both these structures limited the ability of the ambitious or tyrannical to amass too much power at the expense of liberty.

And most important, government was limited by the notion of “unalienable rights” that were the gift of “nature and nature’s God,” rather than a privilege bestowed by earthly power.  These ideas, of course, were famously expressed in the Declaration’s second paragraph: “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.”

Ordered liberty, then, depended on the limited powers of government accountable to the consent of the citizens, and on the Classical and Christian virtues, particularly prudence and self-control. The political balance of powers and the personal practice of virtue make possible the “ordered liberty” the American political structure was designed to foster and protect––in the words of Orestes Brownson, “the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.” And “freedom from anarchy” required personal virtue: “Happy, thrice happy,” Madison wrote, “the people of America! Whose gentleness of manners and habits of virtue are still sufficient to reconcile the enjoyment of their natural rights, with the peace and tranquility of their country.”

Sadly, today such sentiments in our public culture are as quaint as powdered periwigs and silk knee breeches. Rarely do we hear about freedom and independence in the context of limits and virtue. Freedom means what horrified the Founders: doing what we want and indulging our appetites, regardless of the larger consequences for the whole political community. The transformation of political freedom into license has degraded our politics and paved the way for the “soft despotism,” as Tocqueville called it, of the progressive bureaucratic leviathan.

Plato observed this link between license and despotism nearly 2400 years ago in the Republic. Socrates scorns the “city full of freedom and frankness,” where “a man may say and do what he likes,” and everyone “is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases.” The result of this state is “variety and disorder,” as each man is given over to “the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.” Eventually, drunk on the “strong wine of freedom,” these citizens will sell their political birthright to any tyrant who promises to allow them to continue indulging those selfish pleasures.

A few hundred years later Polybius carried this analysis further, connecting such tyranny to the attack on property needed to fund entitlement payments to the masses. Grown dependent on the gifts of the tyrant, Polybius writes, “the people have become accustomed to feed at the expense of others, and their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors; then as soon as they find a leader who is sufficiently ambitious and daring . . . they will introduce a regime based on violence.” Social and political order will deteriorate until the people “degenerate into a state of bestiality, after which they once more find a master and a despot.”

Our modern tyrants, the big-government progressives, have become much more sophisticated and insidious than the tyrants of old, their “totalitarianism with a human face” as effective as violence in destroying true freedom. Ordered liberty has indeed been reduced to mere license, as the ancients predicted. The first step in this process in our time has been secularization, the driving of religion from the public square and the reduction of it to a private lifestyle choice. In this way the moral order sanctioned by “nature’s God” and the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration describes the divine order, that enforced limits on license and self-indulgence can be marginalized and bereft of its power to sanction destructive behavior, leaving the state as the only authority for regulating people’s lives.

Moreover, the modern tyrants have understood that sexual license is the most effective appetite to exploit in order to distract people from their loss of autonomy. Hence the sexual revolution of the Sixties––with its cheap contraception, destruction of sexual taboos, pornography, and at-will abortion––legitimized sexual indulgence and eroded the classical political virtues of self-control and restraint. At the same time, by separating sex from procreation, it weakened the family as an intermediary authority between the individual and the state. Worse yet, government has encouraged this license with state-funded birth control and abortions, and with school curricula that legitimize and encourage it. Sexual freedom––which is in fact what the ancients would have called the enslavement of the mind to the body’s pleasures––has now replaced political freedom and autonomy as the highest expression of liberty.

Next, as Polybius says, the redistribution of property through taxation and entitlement spending also erodes the autonomy of the citizens by fostering dependence, at the same time the state has to grow ever more powerful and intrude ever more intimately into private life in order to manage and control this distribution. The citizens gradually become more and more hooked on various transfers from the state, even as they surrender more and more autonomy over their lives to ensure that the state-funded benefits keep coming. Thus the erosion of their freedom is masked by the short-term pleasure of getting something for nothing. Virtues like self-reliance and self-responsibility, vital for political freedom, disappear, even as the Constitution’s balance of powers is disrupted by an activist judiciary and by an overweening executive branch and its massive and minutely intrusive federal bureaucracy. The traditional limits on license thus disappear, paving the way for governmental tyranny and the decay of freedom.

This process has obviously accelerated under Obama and his bureaucratic minions in the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and the other unelected, unaccountable factotums of the federal behemoth. His administration has attacked religion by forcing churches to fund abortions. He has “evolved” his position on same-sex marriage, contributing to its legitimation at the expense of the traditional limits on sexuality. He has accelerated the redistribution of property through a war on wealth, higher taxes, and multi-trillion dollar increases in entitlement spending, from Obamacare to the stimulus. He has fostered a new, punitive regulatory regime, from the 848-page Dodd-Frank bill to the EPA’s war against carbon. And he and his bureaucratic henchmen have, like a classical tyrant, abused this expanded power by targeting political enemies through the IRS and the DOJ, unleashing the EPA to stifle energy development, and spying on the press. Meanwhile half the citizenry is distracted by hedonistic license and the promise of even more entitlement transfers.

In short, the current administration has grown the state at the expense of economic growth and, more important, to the detriment of the ordered liberty and autonomy we are supposed to commemorate on July 4. That’s the sober lesson we should all contemplate as we munch our burgers, ogle the fireworks, and head for the Cineplex.

Copyright © 2009 FrontPage Magazine. All rights reserved.

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