To understand the compelling appeal of Dave Brat’s message in his primary campaign against Eric Cantor, we need to go back to the founding of America as a nation.
When Thomas Jefferson first saw the Constitution of the United States he was said to have been utterly dismayed. But it was not because of the separation of powers or the reservation of important powers to the States that concerned him. He supported those constitutional protections. What dismayed him was that the Constitution had not been subordinated to a Declaration of Rights.
And the rights he had in mind were those he set out in the Declaration of Independence – principally the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson better described these rights as principles when he explained his purpose for the Declaration of Independence: “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of …; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent …”
John Adams wrote to Jefferson asking, “Should not [a Declaration of Rights] have preceded the [Constitution]?”
The whole purpose of a Bill of Rights was to set out the principles which define what government can do. Any breach of the principles would be an abuse of power. The Constitution proper should be the procedural safeguards which limit government to operating only in accordance with the principles enunciated in the Bill of Rights.
So after much cajoling by Jefferson and his supporters, a Bill of Rights was attached to the Constitution as the first Ten Amendments. Jefferson had persuaded Madison that a Bill of Rights with at least some basic rights was better than nothing. As he said, “half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.”
But almost from that moment on, the debates began concerning interpretation of the Constitution. On the one hand were the likes of Alexander Hamilton who believed in centralized powerful government, and on the other Jefferson. Jefferson feared that Hamilton wanted a strong alliance between government and wealthy financial institutions based on the British model of debt and corruption. He saw that as a grave threat to personal liberty.
In a letter to John Taylor in 1816, Jefferson wrote, “And I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous [to liberty] than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”
Hamilton had no faith in the ability of the people to govern themselves. He wanted government to work hand-in-glove with powerful financial institutions. The people should be nothing more than a cash crop to be harvested for the benefit of government and financial institutions.
Such conflicting views of the role of government came to a head when Hamilton wanted to establish a National Bank for America. Hamilton adopted the broad brush approach that unless something was specifically prohibited by the Constitution, it was in the government’s power to do it. Jefferson argued that government only had the power to do those things specified in the Constitution.
In short, Hamilton saw interpretation of the Constitution in terms of manipulation to achieve the aims of government. Jefferson believed in a strict interpretation, because he saw the Constitution as a charter to protect the people from government, not a charter for the government to control the people.
Although the debate about a National Bank did not touch directly on the question of the Bill of Rights, it did expose the danger of a Constitution not subordinated to a Bill of Rights. It also exposed a further weakness in the Bill of Rights which has been exploited to this very day – the rights enumerated were insufficiently explicit. By getting only “half a loaf”, rights could be used as a Trojan Horse to subvert the people to the authority of government.
And it is these weaknesses that have been exploited over the last centuries by those who consider their ‘superior intellects’, and more refined sense of ‘compassion’, vests in them some natural authority to dictate to the rest of us. They believe they are vested with an ‘inalienable right’ to control what they see as ‘populists’, and to suppress what they regard as ‘populist’ opinions – that is, opinions contrary to their own.
They subscribe to the Thomas Hobbes version of government: “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions that proceed from those passions till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.”
The only difference is that they don’t see any alternative but that they be the people “that shall make” the ‘law’ – ‘law’ in their ‘image and likeness’. These are the Liberal Fundamentalists of today – in the United States, the United Kingdom, and especially epitomized in the den of corruption and authoritarianism that is the European Union.
Their method is not complicated, although it is devious. It is in their interest that a large proportion of the people be reduced to a barely livable wage, or be without any means to support themselves at all. And the financial institutions are happy to oblige that objective. The Great Recession, and the dire state of the people of Europe, are evidence enough of that. Small and medium size businesses are anathema to the Liberal Fundamentalists, because they are a hindrance and obstacle to government control. They give people independence.
The reason that poverty and unemployment are so attractive to the Liberal Fundamentalists is that they give them the opportunity to create and mobilize new ‘rights’. The ‘right’ to health care; the ‘right’ to a livable wage; the ‘right’ to child care; the ‘right’ to decent housing; the ‘right’ to a job; and the list goes on.
And, of course, government sanctimoniously proclaims its solemn ‘responsibility’ to provide those ‘rights’. That is the “change we can believe in”. And those who oppose it are branded ‘heartless’, lacking in ‘compassion’, and selfish.
So the people have become increasingly dependent on government; and that gives government ever more control over the people. Dependent people are grateful people, especially when they don’t realize that their dependence was contrived in order to make them obedient citizens. And if they don’t express sufficient gratitude for the ‘rights’ and ‘benefits’ bestowed on them, they can be punished – their ‘rights’ and ‘benefits’ can be removed.
But we should not delude ourselves that the Liberal Fundamentalists are confined to a specific party. They are The Establishment. And for those admitted to this cozy club, the temptation to feather their own nests is almost irresistible, irrespective of the cost to the people in loss of their freedom.
The Liberal Fundamentalists even found an opportunity in terrorism. They would have to further restrict freedom in order to better protect it. It is no coincidence that the greatest sponsors of terror on this planet, and one of the most repressive regimes on the planet, also just happens to be one of the West’s greatest friends, Saudi Arabia.
In order to secure their authority, the Liberal Fundamentalists also had to destroy one of the cornerstones of freedom, the family. No longer could we exercise our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in aspiring to meet our obligations to our families. The people have been drowned in a deluge of drivel about the ‘right’ to ‘self-fulfillment’. Our only obligation is to indulge every stirring of our primitive carnal instincts, and the accumulation of Logos. Our ‘worth’ can only be measured by the quantity of Logos we can amass. This has given to the world the rather comic spectacle of Logo Man and Logo Woman consumed with a passion for Logos.
So how did the Liberal Fundamentalists so distort the Constitution and the concept of rights to render them instruments of deception and oppression?
For that we need to go back to one of the greatest influences on the Founding Fathers, and especially Jefferson – John Locke.
Locke was one of the greatest political philosophers of all time, but he was in uncharted waters.
He started off his Second Treatise of Government by declaring that the natural state of men is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” And men are in “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”
That is a statement of absolute freedom. But it is not a state to be feared. It is a condition to cherish and preserve.
And Locke recognized this when he said that “no one can be put out of [his freedom, equality, and independence], and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”
But regrettably, Locke could not define a system of government that would have as its principal objective the preservation of freedom as the natural state of human beings. He thus says that man “divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, … by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”
So Locke claims that when men put on the “bonds of civil society” they, by default, consent to a system where “… the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.”
And this is because, “when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only the will and determination of the majority; … it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: … and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.”
We thus give up our condition of freedom “to be regulated by laws made by society.”
But even then, at least Locke did recognize that man consents to give up “the equality, liberty, and executive power [he] had in the state of nature” only “with an intention [to] better preserve himself, his liberty and property.”
But it seems that once Locke had an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of this formula for government, he recognized that freedom, and government by majority unregulated by the principal objective of preserving that freedom, are incompatible. His formula was a recipe for government to suppress freedom, not preserve it.
So in his Letter Concerning Toleration he asks: what if government makes laws “to enrich and advance [it's] followers … with the spoils of others. What if the [government] believe[s] that [it] has a right to make such laws, and that they are for the public good; and [it's] subjects believe the contrary? Who shall be judge between them?”
“I answer,” says Locke, “God alone.”
The problem with Locke’s thesis is that the “will and determination of the majority” is something easily manipulated by “miserable politicians” with “bewildering propaganda.” The “will of the majority” is reduced to the ‘whim of politicians’.
Belatedly then, Locke restates his formula for government. He says government is “constituted only for procuring, preserving, and advancing [the people’s] civil interests.” And their civil interests are “life, liberty, health, and indolence of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like.”
Essentially, these civil interests taken together constitute the fundamental principle of freedom. But Locke does not subordinate government to the absolute preservation of freedom. And the reason for that is simple. Like today, people fail to recognize that the principle of freedom is not defined by an absence of obligations and responsibilities. The principle of freedom is in fact the foundation of all other obligations. It is a fundamental principle of morality. Reflection tells me that if my freedom is a state in which I can order my life in the way I consider appropriate for me “without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man,” then every other man is free to do the same “without asking leave [of me], or depending upon [my] will.” Freedom thus imposes on each and every one of us an obligation to respect and recognize the freedom of others in the same measure that we expect others to respect and recognize our freedom.
The fundamental principle of freedom could thus be stated like this: no one person, or group of people, has an authority, natural or otherwise, over any other person without that person’s consent. And that principle is reciprocal.
If each and every person recognized that their own freedom demands that they recognize the same freedom for others, the world would be a very different place. And from that principle emerges the obligation that everyone refrain from exercising their freedom in such a way as to interfere with the freedom of others.
Regrettably, however, there are those whose vanity, arrogance, and ignorance, compels them to believe that they are endowed with some natural authority over their fellow man, and they cannot resist the temptation to share with the rest of us their unbounded ‘wisdom’. And those who resist should be brought into submission to their will.
These people see freedom as a threat to be regulated, and they construe authority as a power, not an obligation; a power to suppress freedom, not an obligation to preserve it.
And although there can be no doubt that the intention behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was to preserve individual freedom, and subordinate government to that end, the weaknesses in the structure of the Constitution, and the failure to fully define the principle of freedom that underlies the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, have exposed the Constitution to exploitation and manipulation by those who perceive it to be nothing more than an inconvenience and irritation to their machinations.
That is the Liberal Fundamentalist Brief. And as a ‘constitutional professor’, it is a brief Obama has mastered, and one which the Republican Establishment, despite all its virtuous noise, passively follows.
But true conservatives should not be deluded into believing that the end of Obama’s term in office, or even a Republican victory in forthcoming elections, will push back the Liberal Fundamentalist course the United States is now on.
Conservatives still have a mountain to climb. Before they challenge the Democratic Establishment, they must discipline the Liberal Fundamentalists in the Republican Party, and they will face a formidable machine of disinformation and entrenched interests. So their message must be simple and compelling. They must place before the people “the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” And central to that message must be the fundamental principle of freedom, and the importance of the family.
Dave Brat of Virginia has provided a model; others in the conservative movement must take up the challenge. The stakes are just too high for complacency.
Copyright © Joseph BH McMillan 2014