Tag: American Revolution

Vive La Revolution?

Today is the 222nd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. I’ll be speaking this weekend at FreedomFest on the topic, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Libertarian Version.” I previewed part of my talk at this week’s Britannica Blog column. So what should libertarians think about the French Revolution? The great Henny Youngman, when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?”

Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it….

Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds….

The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals….

Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty

is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.

Read the whole thing.

Celebrating James Madison

Two hundred and sixty years ago, James Madison was born in Virginia. His life was long and eventful, comprising the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the founding of political parties, the War of 1812, and the rise of Andrew Jackson. The struggles that would culminate in the Civil War were evident in the last years of his life.

Along with his political career, Madison proved to be one of this nation’s most insightful and certainly its most influential political theorist. He is often accorded the twin titles of Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No doubt those titles claim too much for him or any other mortal. But according him those titles is not far from the truth.

What would surprise Madison about our current constitutional and political arrangements?

He would be surprised and, I think, displeased by the size and scope of the federal government. Madison was a limited government man. He thought the general welfare clause in Article I of the Constitution was simply a shorthand way of mentioning other enumerated powers, not a general grant of power for Congress to pursue whatever it might think served the general welfare. As he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.” Of course, for some decades now, the courts have permitted Congress broad powers under the general welfare clause.

He would also be taken aback by the all but plenary power accorded to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article I. How could (can) a limited government be reconciled to such plenary power? Moreover, as he said in Congress, “if industry and labour are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”

I think Madison would also be surprised by how far the executive has taken on the prerogatives of an English king, in fact if not in law. Like many republicans of the founding era, he worried that the legislature would dominate the executive. We live in a time where Congress happily delegates its power to the executive branch and awaits the executive’s budget agenda. At the same time, Madison worried that executives, presidents and kings, had every reason to declare and make war, the latter being the most dreaded of “all enemies to public liberty.”  As he wrote in 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

In this light, it is perhaps inevitable that the authors of The Executive Unbound dismiss Madison in favor of Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political and from 1933 onward, Preußischer Staatsrat and President of the Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen.

For Madison, the whole point was to bind government through a Constitution, enumerated powers, and ambition pitted against ambition. His was a noble vision of politics in service to individual liberty. Let us hope that we are not living “after the Madisonian Republic.”

Mega-Consumers against Consumerism

Adjacent articles in the latest New Yorker deplore “consumerism” among the American revolutionaries and the modern Chinese. You wonder how a magazine so concerned about manifestations of consumer desire would support itself. Surely it struggles along on a shoestring, preaching the message of austerity and simplicity to sincere but poor readers. In fact, however, these laments about consumerism in societies vastly poorer than our own are sandwiched between lush full-page advertisements for Chanel watches, Samsung home entertainment centers, single malt Scotch, Grey Goose vodka, Cristal champagne, David Yurman jewelry, German automobiles, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. The articles themselves appear on pages lined with small, elegant ads for Jay-Z’s book-ebook-app, tours of Wales, monogram rings, Aeron chairs, European berets, cashmere caps, and a remarkable number of expensive psychiatric facilities, perhaps specializing in the treatment of cognitive dissonance.

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

A Government of Laws, Not Men

In the government of this commonwealth… the executive shall never exercise the legislative [or] judicial powers… to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men. – The Constitution of Massachusetts, 1780, drafted by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin

In contrast, consider today’s news:

The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

Americans, this is what arbitrary government looks like. As a simple matter of fact, even George III was never this arbitrary. Even he didn’t make individual colonists’ lives depend merely on an act of his own will.

Indeed, if I wanted a perfect example of what a government of men, not laws, looked like, I could just glance at the newspapers today and see what our government is doing right at this moment.

Do not respond that this power will only be used wisely and sparingly. Doing so just admits my basic point, namely that we now depend purely on the wisdom and restraint of our individual leaders. We depend on their wisdom and restraint – to check their own worst impulses. All power, both for and against, is contained in one individual. No legal processes, and no guarantees, separate us from them. And the stakes are life or death.

Likewise, do not respond that this power will only be used against very bad people. Again, doing so just admits that we now depend on an unreviewable judgment of character, not on a legal system with formal procedures and safeguards. Even in the dark days of the Cold War – even during the Revolution itself – we never ceded so much power to so few.

To those who think our leaders’ prudence is a sufficient check on their own power, consider this. Let’s both grant that Barack Obama is basically a decent, well-meaning guy (apart from the fact that a decent, well-meaning guy would never want a power like this). If he’s a decent guy, then perhaps he’ll use his newly claimed power wisely, insofar as such an atrocious power can be used wisely. But on the other hand, if I were truly evil, and if I wanted to assassinate with impunity all the people I hated… Suddenly now I’d be very interested in running for president.

Glenn Greenwald has a lot more on the issue, including evidence that Barack Obama was apparently against this power… before he was for it.