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A Real Civics Lesson

Mises Daily: Wednesday, July 07, 1999 by

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THE ANIMATING CONTEST FOR FREEDOM

This July 4th we celebrate once again the beginning of an amazing venture--the American experiment in ordered liberty. In the conflict and tumult of politics today it is easy to forget the spirit of 1776 and the ideas on which this nation was founded. We must not.

Two revolutions contend for the American soul.

The first exploded onto the world stage when Thomas Jefferson's quill touched parchment. The American Revolution was already in motion, of course. But it soared to majestic heights when the men of the Continental Congress declared this country and its citizens capable of living in freedom under the rule of law by the consent of the governed.

But the thunderous boom of that revolution of freedom has been muffled by a counter-revolution --one that the Founding Fathers would abhor and in all likelihood take up arms against.

Since the progressive era and the New Deal, political leaders have been on a course to increase the size, power and intrusiveness of government--rejecting the founding principles--usually in the name of security or justice or rights.

We would do well to consider how the founders saw the world. The American revolutionary was different from the citizen of today. When he thought about government, he did so with a moral clarity that is sadly too often missing in today's political arena. Spin has replaced wisdom, and lies live long after they're exposed.

The "true American Whigs" - as they called themselves - were a skeptical lot. They didn't share today's trust of big government and good intentions.

Their words and warnings were fearsome and soulful. With explosive words such as "tyranny," "despotism," "conspiracy" and "slavery," the revolutionaries described government out of control.

Most of those ideas are dismissed today--archaic expressions of an ancient paranoia. But that most distinguished generation of American thinkers still has much to tell us.

They saw history as a long train of abuse, corruption and manipulation of the people. History, in fact, served as a warning to the founders that elite officials in all times and places seek to expand and use government to further their own aims and increase their power over others.

The revolution of 1776 turned against this idea. The founders believed that a virtuous and educated citizenry could govern itself under the dynamic spirit of liberty and equality under the law.

So through the late 18th century, the Founding Fathers feared what they saw in Great Britain's treatment of the colonies. They felt they were going down a path to slavery if they did not resist Parliament's efforts to tax the colonies.

Pamphleteer John Dickinson warned that small measures such as the Stamp Act's taxation of paper goods were actually more dangerous than any invasion or oppression because the temptation to give in was so great.

''Nothing is wanted at home but a precedent, the force of which shall be established by the tacit submission of the colonies. . . . If Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other duties . . . and thus the Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take without any other limitation than their pleasure,'' he wrote.

Today's tax code shows how tempting it's been to accept small measures.

As Alexander Hamilton admitted, the issue wasn't the cost of a paltry threepence duty on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party. It was the principle of unjust governance.

To the founders, such governance was found in London. It was dominated by ''corrupt boroughs'' - the special interests of their day. Parliament needed to feed the corruption of those special interests that gorged at the trough of a bigger and bigger government. And that government was turning its appetites toward America.

''Corruption, like a cancer . . . eats faster and faster every hour,'' John Adams wrote. ''The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.''

In short, England ''is loaded with debts and taxes, by the folly and iniquity of its ministers,'' he added.

Having lived under England's iniquity, the founders knew an unchecked government was dangerous. They agreed that the darker side of human nature - ambition and the lust for control - would degrade institutions and lead to corruption.

James Madison warned simply: "All men in power ought to be distrusted." Madison's friend Jefferson agreed. "History has informed us that bodies of men are susceptible to the spirit of tyranny," he said.

Human nature, therefore, argues for limits on government. As George Washington warned: "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master."

With these beliefs, it is no wonder Americans resisted England. They knew that promises of plenty come at the cost of freedom.

Benjamin Franklin summed this up beautifully: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Were these men wrong about the tendency of government to expand at the expense of liberty? One need only look at today's government for the answer.

Washington, D.C., takes and taxes ever more—and even in times of surplus the "folly and iniquity" of politicians will not let go of the people's money once they have their hands on it.

And when they do deign to send the people's money back to them, politicians ask for yet another sacrifice of freedom.

The American revolutionaries, of course, understood that England was the freest country on earth at that time. So they didn't take their actions lightly. But they knew they had to protect the ancient rights of representation and freedom.

"We have committed no crimes to forfeit (these freedoms)," wrote Pennsylvanian founder James Wilson. "We will leave our posterity as free as our ancestors left us."

Freedom's champions often stand alone. The founders did, against the mightiest country on earth then. And they had little time for small minds and timid souls.

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace," said Samuel Adams of Boston. "We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."

Leaders in Washington must learn to see government as the founders did. To them, a massive government led by special interests is a threat to individual liberty.

But leaders here still must heed the wishes of citizens. Therefore, as citizens, we too must recall the wisdom of the founders.

Posterity must never forget the amazing men, deeds and words of 1776. On this July 4th we would do well to remember that the blessings of wealth and prosperity are the fruits of the founders' spirit - the spirit of liberty and virtue.

(c) Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.