Our Heritage of Freedom Must Be Maintained
By Michael Krull
Last week I accompanied my daughter’s Fourth Grade class on their Virginia History field trip to Jamestown Settlement and the Yorktown battlefield. For those who are a little foggy on why these sound familiar – or for those who are certain that the time they last took a history course was in an historical period now actually in history books – let me refresh your memory: Jamestown was established in 1607 as the first permanent English settlement in the New World (13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts). Yorktown is where in 1781 British General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, thus ending the American Revolutionary War. Jamestown is also where the first legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, the Virginia House of Burgesses, first met in 1619.
Apart from the interest I had in viewing the reconstructed fort at Jamestown, replicas of the ships used for the voyage, as well as the museums and galleries at each location, I was struck by the close proximity of the two – roughly thirty miles apart. Think of it: The first English settlement and democratic legislative body in North America being located so close to where the British surrendered the American Colonies some 174 years later. As an aside, it is also interesting that the British moved the capital of Virginia from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699 – Williamsburg is located about halfway between the two sites (to round this out, the capital moved to Richmond in 1780 at the urging of Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson).
This day-long immersion in the early history of our country got me thinking about the founding of our government certainly, but also the traditions we have inherited from not only our English ancestors, but from all who have come to these shores. I starting asking questions about and reflecting on what they established here in the New World – a world they could make for themselves. What is the nature of the American culture that they worked to establish: the civic culture, morality, politics, the economic system? Big questions. Important questions. Questions we should still be asking in 2012.
Soon after they arrived and established Jamestown, there was a big problem. The Virginia Company of London, a for-profit outfit, arranged for the ships, the crew, the provisions, the settlement, the crops that were to be produced and the exploration of the region – it was a commercial venture and they wanted to make money. The nobles and gentlemen who paid their way across the Atlantic didn’t want to work. Those who exchanged their passage for labor once they arrived didn’t have a choice. However, since there were so few men to do the required work of building the settlement’s fortifications, houses and other structures (104 men and boys landed in 1607; women arrived the following year), Captain John Smith decreed that, “He who does not work, will not eat.” After a few days, everyone finally gave in and contributed toward the success of the colony. Rights and responsibilities were beginning to be codified and our American culture starting to take shape.
As he explored the rivers and coastline of the Mid-Atlantic and New England, Captain Smith had news to share with his fellow Englishmen contemplating a move to North America: "Here every man may be master and owner of his own labour and land...If he have nothing but his hands, he may...by industry quickly grow rich."
In other words, here in America, even if you have nothing, you are free to work hard at what you love and earn your own success. You have the freedom to make your dreams come true and to be rewarded for your achievements.
Imbued by this spirit, Thomas Jefferson succinctly and eloquently captured the idea of America in the Declaration of Independence in 1776: “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…” (I note here that when Jefferson used the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” he borrowed it from the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, and in their usage happiness meant wisdom and virtue, not hedonism and acquisition.)
We see these words so often – especially in an election year – that we should slow down, read them again and think about what they really mean: 1) All people are equal; 2) Individuals possess natural rights simply by virtue of their being human because these rights have been given to us by our Creator (God); 3) Three of these many rights are Life (which, because it is God-given, is sacred), Liberty (freedom) and the pursuit of Happiness (we pursue it – an active verb – it doesn’t mean we will achieve it); 4) Individuals come together to create governments and give them only the powers they agree to surrender and delegate – government does not give power to people, but rather has only the specific powers given to it by the individuals who form it. Because they have formed governments, individuals have responsibilities toward it – namely participation.
From this American Creed has sprung the most wealthy, powerful and generous nation the world has ever known.
Throughout our history, however, we have had a continual tension between maintaining a limited government with restricted power, and the urge to grow an ever-expanding centralized government with nearly unlimited power. Generally, I classify these two ends of the spectrum freedom (liberty) and statism (subservience, dependence). In my view, we want more freedom and less statism.
Statism is when government accumulates power and tells you what to do. It certainly is easier than freedom. No big decisions for you to make. Instead, unelected bureaucrats are empowered to make decisions for you, and their decisions beget more regulations and more bureaucrats making decisions and issuing regulations, and they perpetuate the system by replacing your freedom with their rules. We become a nation of rule-followers; trapped by the precarious rigidity of definitional tyranny. We are bent over with our noses in rulebooks rather than standing tall looking toward opportunities on the horizon. Even though these rules may be well-intentioned, they are not your own and you necessarily surrender freedom. Your overall happiness ebbs.
In a recent speech, former President Bill Clinton echoed this. He said that, "Whenever a country gets wealthy their systems get rigid. People running things are benefiting and are more committed to keeping them than losing or taking risk. That's what's happening now."
On the other hand, an optimum amount of freedom allows you to make almost all of the decisions that affect your life. Like the immigrants that came here before us who tamed the continent, freedom allows each of us to build our own success and achieve our individual potential. It is an expression of our American culture and I would argue that it is by far the more moral option, because we get to pursue our individual happiness – not what the government views as happiness.
Is statism really happening in America? If we look at how much of our money government spends to make, enforce and perpetuate their rules, we get an idea. Just before World War II, government at all levels took 15% of GDP. By 1980, that had doubled to 30%. Today it is 36%. By 2040 it is expected to be 50% of GDP. We are clearly losing our God-given freedoms and the trend is accelerating.
Some may argue that government is needed to control, limit or offset what corporations or powerful individuals can do and the potential negative effects they may have on others who have less power. I am not arguing that government should be virtually non-existent. The legal system (government) should referee and balance competing interests and there is a proper, limited, role for government to play, but the corrosive effects of government and regulations taint even this.
When private businesses get too close to government, it ceases to be private enterprise and becomes a hybrid – some have coined the term crony capitalism. Private businesses use government regulations to gain a competitive advantage by asking their political friends to add bits of regulatory language or tax laws to inhibit their competitors. Why does this happen? Because we have allowed government to accumulate too much power, its tentacles have found their way into too many corners of the life of the nation, and it is tempting for private players to engage in these games rather than to compete in the fair and open marketplace. Government is then in the position to pick winners and losers in a system that is supposed to foster freedom of exchange – the free enterprise system which helped to build our wealth as a nation. Again, freedom is sacrificed, our political and economic system is polluted and the state gains power.
In short, when Washington, DC or Des Moines gains more power, it can only be at the expense of individual freedom. This encroachment happens slowly, so we don’t notice as much as if it were a blatant power grab. Even worse, the farther away from the individual that government decisions are made, the worse the decision because those making the law or regulation have no idea their impact in a certain region, state, county or municipality. The decision might help some, but on balance be harmful to the whole.
Think of it this way: If you own a piece of property or a farm and want to make certain improvements or land-use changes, why must you submit plans to a government agency (local, state or national) for approval? Isn’t it your property? What does ownership mean? Do you really own it if they can dictate what you can and cannot do on your land? Isn’t that the same as renting? If they can dictate, why must you pay for the improvement or any change that they want you to make? Why doesn’t the government agency that mandates certain changes have to pay for the change (after you have approved their suggested change, of course)? If they can mandate what you do on your property, why must you pay full ownership tax on the property? I’m certain that if you stop paying tax on the property a government agency will then be very explicit in their view that you own the property and are solely responsible for it.
To add an historical illustration: Thomas Jefferson was building and rebuilding his home at Monticello for more than 40 years. Do you think he would have tolerated some unelected bureaucrat telling him how he could use his land? Jefferson knew a fair amount about the philosophical underpinnings of our form of government (ha!) and I suspect the bureaucrat would have been asked to leave – and would have received an unpleasant welcome if he came back with the same demands. How did we get to this point?
Perhaps we’re too close to these sorts of examples. Let’s look at the power of freedom in the global sense, because freedom is a universal concept. Since the end of World War II and the expansion of global free trade in the 1970s, the global poverty rate has fallen 80%. Billions of people around the world have been lifted from poverty. In China alone the number is 600 million people raised from poverty in the past forty years.
The American concept of freedom, private property rights and the free enterprise system has done far more than government programs to expand wealth and save lives. The spread of free markets and global trade has spawned not only innovation and entrepreneurship worldwide, but also political freedom that has liberated people from oppression. Hearts, minds and markets have all been freed and wealth has been created.
This is the power that was first harnessed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
As a practical matter, then, how do we in 21st Century America seize our heritage of freedom and counter the encroachment of statism? We each have the responsibility to become an active citizen and participate fully in the civic and political life of our town, county, state and nation in order to shape a future aligned with freedom rather than dependence. We must hold our elected representatives to account for what they do – and we must ensure that they properly exercise their oversight responsibilities. If they fail to protect our interests and freedoms, we have the responsibility to vote them out of office.
It will be a fight. We increasingly see political leaders trying to divide rather than unite us. A Balkanized America cannot be a strong and free America. Instead of pigeonholing us by which tax bracket we’re in, our elected representatives should be working to improve economic mobility for all through education reform, promoting policies and regulations that foster economic growth so more and more people can take advantage of their God-given talents – and thus pursue their happiness.
Here is one legislative suggestion on the road to recovering the freedoms we have lost: All government agencies and programs should have sunset clauses and performance metrics written into them. In other words, after a set period of time, the agency or regulation should disappear if it is not specifically reauthorized by the committee of the legislative body that oversees the agency or the legislative body that has passed the program.
My modest proposal is for a ten-year lifespan for all new agencies and programs, and existing ones can be staggered, similar to terms in the state and national senate when only one-third of members are up for reelection at any one time. After ten years, we should know whether or not the program is working or the agency is doing its job. This period of time also has the virtue of diffusing the power of a legislator or governor. It allows time for a constituency apart from the legislative or executive champion to form in support – or opposition from citizens at large to abolish it. Finally, if agencies and programs specifically need to be reauthorized every decade, there can be whole revisions made to it/them that will ensure that it/they are not mired in the past – they can change with the times if they are still needed.
As Americans we know that our individual freedom is far superior to state subservience and dependence. Freedom is right. Freedom is moral. Freedom is strength. Freedom is America. We each must fight the good fight to preserve it for future generations.
Michael Krull is a graduate of Luther College and Iowa State University. He has worked on disaster relief for the State Department, a major Washington, DC public relations and political consulting firm, and is currently working for American Solutions for Winning the Future. He is a member of the Council on Emerging National Security Affairs.