The Politics of Freedom

The following text is a segment of the adaptation of a speech delivered on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner on June 30, 2023, during a Hillsdale College educational cruise from Istanbul to Athens by the author, President of Hillsdale College, and originally published in the College's newsletter "Imprimis". The full text published in "Imprimis" can be read HERE


America’s Founders set out to build a government entirely upon the will of the great body of the people. This had never been done before. And they set out to accomplish this across a great continent —George Washington’s army was strikingly called the Continental Army— despite the prevailing idea at the time that popular governments could only work in small areas. They succeeded in doing both these things, and the way they succeeded is contained in the American Constitution, the longest-living and the greatest constitution ever written.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution contains 18 paragraphs that enumerate the powers of Congress. Seven of these have to do with national defense, and one with piracy. The rest, save one, mostly have to do with commerce—weights and measures, currency, unimpeded trade between the states, post offices, and post roads. The last power has to do with the federal government’s authority over the District of Columbia. Other powers were reserved for the states and localities.

Centralization of PoawerIn Federalist 63, James Madison writes proudly of the fact that ours will be the first purely representative government. This doesn’t just mean that instead of a king being sovereign, as in England, we would elect our rulers. It means that no one inside the government—none of the people carrying on the activities of the government—would be sovereign. The sovereign would be located outside the government. As Abraham Lincoln would later put it, the constitutional majority is the only true sovereign of a free people. All powers are to be delegated from the society to the government.

A diagram of this system would consist of a large circle representing American society. Inside that large circle, government at all levels would be represented by a much smaller circle, about one-tenth the size in terms of gross domestic product. This smaller circle would be divided then into parts. It would be divided vertically with the federal government on one side and states on the other—that’s federalism—and the federal side would be divided horizontally into the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. It was a brilliant and novel system for gathering authority to a national center for limited national purposes and distributing all other authority outwards. And it worked for a very long time.

Our system today looks radically different. The circle representing the public sector has grown at an increasing rate for many decades, and in terms of gross domestic product, it now takes up over half the space in the larger circle. The divisions in the smaller circle, designed to keep it from growing, have been largely erased. In particular, the separation of powers has been neutralized by the rise of a fourth branch of government, the permanent and unelected bureaucracy or administrative state, which tends to subsume all three powers. This is not to say that the people who work in this administrative state are worse people than the ordinary. Probably they are not. But they are actuated by a common interest, and their accountability to the people for whom they make rules is so indirect as to be almost nonexistent. In any case, the resulting centralization of comprehensive power, all at the expense of the private sector, poses a serious threat to the sovereignty of the people.

To see how serious the threat is, consider an important fact about our Constitution that calls increasingly for our attention—the fact that the electoral process is the sole constitutional means by which the American people can control the government. To protect the electoral process, the Founders set it up in a decentralized way. Regarding the election of the president, for instance, the Constitution says that state legislatures—not Congress, and not judges or governors—will devise the manner of choosing the electors for president in each state. This is at the heart of the controversy over the last presidential election, in which several governors and judges, using Covid as their justification, changed election laws and processes without consulting the state legislatures. It is impossible, in this light, to swallow whole the claim that the 2020 election was perfectly fair and aboveboard, although the establishment media is entirely untroubled by it.

Friends of popular government, of whatever party, should all be very troubled. Winston Churchill spoke beautifully of the greatness of Britain residing in “the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper” to decide the fate of the nation. Increasingly in America today, the man in the booth is no longer alone. It is not even any longer his initiative that causes him to vote. In many select areas, more often than not, somebody he doesn’t know mails him a ballot or knocks on his door with a ballot. That in itself is an important step toward the centralization and corruption of a process we simply cannot allow to be lost.

One of the most beautiful laws ever passed was the Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862. It consisted of only 1,400 words, and it gave away ten percent of the land area of the United States to unknown people who would never be entitled to vote for anybody serving in the Congress that passed the law. Is it imaginable that the Russian Czar at the time, who in principle owned every inch of Russia, would have acted in such a way? Or the King of England, who in principle had approval power even over private lands in his realm? No. But it is hardly more imaginable that Congress or most of our state legislatures would act in such a way today. The force of centralization has come to seem inexorable. But it should be our highest political priority to reverse it.

Two Philosophic Ideas

What underlies the movement toward centralization and away from the constitutional system that placed sovereignty in the hands of the people and left them free to live their lives? It is the rise to dominance of a new philosophic idea.

The older philosophic idea, the idea that informs the Constitution, was described beautifully by Aristotle. It is the idea that human beings are fallen creatures, and yet partake of the divine. Human passions are strong and can lead us astray, but we are also capable of reason. We are born with a knowledge of the good and the capacity to make choices or judgments for good or ill. We feel the pressures of our needs, of pains and pleasures, yet something outside these pressures in the human soul—some call it conscience—asks us if our intentions or actions are right or wrong. And it is through this process that each of us makes ourselves into what we are.

The new philosophic idea, introduced by Machiavelli and others, rejected the older idea of unchanging human nature and even nature in general. It denied the existence of What is liberty?objective truth and posited that everything is malleable. If something doesn’t seem good and yet you want to do it, you should do it and call it good. If something causes you pain, it can be fixed. Working hard enough, we can change anything and everything. There are no natural limits or boundaries. The central question in the older philosophic tradition is, “What is the good?” The central question in modern philosophy is, “How do you get it done?” And if you ask, “Get what done?” the answer is, “Whatever you want.”

This new philosophic idea becomes especially dangerous when combined with the power of modern technology. The word “science” comes from a Latin word meaning to see or gaze upon. The word “technology” comes from a Greek word meaning art. Technology means making something, as opposed to seeing something. It gives man the ability to get things done, even if it requires overcoming nature. Think of the limitation imposed by the fact that God created human beings male and female, and of the current technological, pharmaceutical, and surgical attempts to overcome biology and create new genders. Or think of the power to manipulate our thoughts and actions wielded today by the large technology companies collectively known as Big Tech. The closer we look at what these companies are doing—think of the “Twitter Files” released over the past year—the more it is clear that they are not using their power on behalf of human freedom, but on behalf of the centralized administrative state.

We live in serious times. It is not unthinkable that a totalitarian force could descend on us—that the world we know could collapse, never to return, as it did for so many in the last century during the period of the two world wars. What might it look like if that happens? In the course I teach on the literature of totalitarianism, two of the books we read are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s book is about the cruel side of totalitarianism—its most famous line conjures the image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever. We see hints of this today. Have you noticed how the FBI has taken to arresting people who are not dangerous and have no criminal record in the middle of the night and with the same force as if its agents were assaulting a heavily armed compound? Huxley, by contrast, presents a kinder and gentler version of totalitarianism—one in which technology and drugs are used to give enslaved people the illusion of happiness. In a letter to Orwell, Huxley predicted that

the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.

We see hints of this today as well. In many areas of the country there seem to be more cannabis stores than stores of any other kind. In many places where churches were shuttered during the pandemic, these cannabis stores were allowed to conduct business as usual.

The good news is that human beings, by their nature, don’t like tyranny. 

The main reason we can be sure that totalitarian control cannot be successful in the end is that it would violate a fact that undergirds the entire universe. Mankind will never have it within his power to make an algorithm that emulates the knowledge of God. It won’t work...

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