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History and Self-Evaluation

Over the last few weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking… deep thinking.  Thoughts drifting from what it means to be an American, to broader questions about what it means to be “free”.

We, as a nation, have always had conflicting ideas of “freedom”. 

During the American Revolution, there were the New Englanders who defined freedom as freedom of a collective, freedom of their tribe to be free from the repression of others outside the tribe.  They had no issue in limiting individual freedom of action and behavior to comport with the societal objectives of the collective.

The aristocracy of Virginia (Washington and Jefferson fell into this lot) saw freedom in a more stoic ideal.  To them, “freedom” was the ability to transcend the lower instincts and desires of the individual.  They saw passions as being fundamentally antagonistic to freedom.  For how could individuals be “free” if they were enslaved by their own passions and desires. 

The frontiersmen had their own definition of freedom.  They looked at the demands and behavioral expectations of organized society and saw an existential threat to their ideal of “freedom”.  Freedom for those on the frontier and beyond meant freedom to choose the very course of their existence, freedom to reap the rewards of meritorious action and, to an extent, the chance for freedom to fail in their attempts.  Theirs was a belief that we are the freest when we are the closest to the state of nature. 

From this cauldron of ideas came the American classical idea of freedom, a belief that we are born with rights, endowed by our Creator, and we freely choose to become a part of society for our collective benefit.  Or we don’t… we go it alone… that is perfectly acceptable too.  As part of this society, we create a government for a singular purpose:  the protection of the rights of its citizens.  These protections may be necessary against external aggression… they may also be necessary for the orderly commercial interactions of its members. 

From order we achieve predictability.  Predictability allows for future planning.  Future planning allows for rapid economic development.

We have heralded “freedom” as our moniker.  We are the “Land of the Free”.  But, in using the word, what do we really mean?

Years ago in law school, I was having coffee with a Communist.  (I don’t use that term in hyperbole… she was a legitimate Communist.  Her graduate degree was in Economics and her outlook on societal relations always drifted towards exploitive economic principles to explain all social ills from disparity of income, to race relations, to crab grass in your lawn.)  I asked her what “freedom” means to a communist.  She paused, thought, and said two things that have always stuck with me.  Her answer was bifurcated:  “Freedom for the individual means not having to worry about life with economic constraints… if we must work for our food who amongst us is really free.  Freedom can only be achieved when the State is free from individual thought.”

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When the State is free from individual thought…

That missive scared the absolute hell out of me then, and it still does today.  She held a belief (as many do today) that the State is an organic creature, a physical embodiment of the collective will of its individual parts… and we are those individual parts.

Like an organic creature, it has cells and a brain.  The more enlightened cells, the more intellectual among us… well, they are the brain and they sit in the halls of power.  For it is through their ability to see the future and manage the present that the rest of the body politic relies.  The rest of us represent the more mundane cells of the creature.  Some of us perform essential functions, others are… shall we say… disposable, useful for a particular purpose and time, but easily replaceable.

When the spleen starts acting on its own without specific direction from the control centers, chaos is soon to follow!  Those independent-minded cells must be healed or removed from the equation.

So, this is, for many, what has become of our American classical idea of freedom.  Collectivism has replaced individualism.  Our rights may have come from the Creator, but the Creator necessarily must be marginalized, or at the very least take a back seat to the State.  Let Him be your guidance for a more transcendent imagined experience… in the meantime, the Father State must be obeyed. 

As you probably know, I reject this belief system completely.

The end result ultimately is human misery.  We do not yearn to be slaves.  Quite the opposite. 

These times of Covid exacerbate and accelerate the passions of the State.  People must be controlled lest infection rages through the collective!  Stay at home!  Report on your neighbor’s evil transgressions of playing ball in the park!  Constitutional restraint is a nicety that we allow you to believe exists when it is convenient for us to do so… now shut up and do what you are told!  If our message of persuasion is not clear enough for you, be advised that uniformed people with guns are prepared to enforce our will against yours!

If the purpose of our experiment in limited government was to expand the American classical idea of freedom… what is the philosophical justification for America now?