Sunday, July 04, 2004

Opinion: For the Fourth of July

Our holiday of Independence is a good day for reflection upon the nature of American freedom, and to evaluate the state of that freedom. For inspiration and guidance I turned to The Debate on the Constitution, a collection much more comprehensive of the learned debate surrounding the founding of the Constitution than the Federalist Papers alone. Specifically, I looked to "An Inquiry into the Leading Principles of the American Constitution" by A Citizen of America, none other than our own great Noah Webster.

He held our nation to be unique at the time of its birth; a nation founded not upon fear or out of necessity, but upon the opinions and interest of the multitudes. He held us to be an empire of reason. Thus there exists a duty upon each of us to question and examine the principles on which our government operates, attempting to see the future of our system, and its effect upon human happiness.

Wallowing in self-satisfaction that we are Americans, and others are not, is not the point of the Fourth of July. Nor are hotdogs, cookouts, rock-music, or fireworks; the examination of our system of government so as to preserve our liberties and prerogatives as citizens of these United States is the gravamen of the holiday.

There is, according to Webster, but one measure for how American’s are faring as members of the Empire of Reason: the people’s enjoyment of freedom. But freedom is such an amorphous concept as to be empty. Is it words on a page of the Constitution recognizing a set of natural rights? Is it a vote; a momentary exercise of sovereignty that comes far too infrequently? Webster rejects such notions and finds the underpinning of any and all freedom to be power. The power to resist tyranny is freedom. People cannot be deprived of freedom if they hold in their hands a power superior to any other power in the state.

What is that power? In Webster’s view, it is property. He analyzes the history of the Roman Republic and English Monarchy to demonstrate how the common man’s control of property was parlayed into political power and protection from government. In the 18th century and earlier, land was the critical resource of economic production and self-sufficiency; no surprise then that Webster claims, "a general and tolerably equal distribution of landed property is the whole basis of national freedom." Without a core of property owners to check and destroy powerful combinations of hostile interests, liberty is lost, and a democratic government will inevitably assume some other form.

What lesson, and what warning, does Webster’s insight provide us? Certainly, that liberty cannot be had just for the asking; it must be demanded, taken, and defended with power. If we take liberty as our birth-right and do nothing to defend it when it is threatened from within, even more so than from without, we are lost. Standing about slapping each others backs for simply being lucky enough to be American is also folly. The essential ingredient of power is ownership of property, in some form. That property should be distributed generally, and tolerably equally, lest powerful special interests injure the public good in pursuit of their own interests.

How does this relate to our circumstances on this Fourth of July? Disturbingly. The distribution of wealth in this country is more skewed to the top 1 or 2 % of the population than at any time since the late 19th Century’s Gilded Age of Robber Barons and Trusts. The real incomes of middle and lower income folks have declined during the Bush Administration, in contrast to an enormous expansion under Clinton. Property ownership, including real estate and financial instruments, is every more concentrated in the top few percent of the income scale. Corporate interests freely purchase political access and manage to shape regulatory, tax, trade, and labor policy to consistently favor themselves at the expense of the mass of Americans. In short, American society is increasing violating the central covenant which keeps us free. America is becoming a financial oligarchy, controlled by legal entities with no interest in human values or national fealty, in which the national interest regularly abrogated in favor of combinations of special interests who are not concerned for the long-term health of the body politic.

We may be heading toward a turning point in which our system of participatory democracy becomes something far less. Already a Presidential election has been stolen by illegal manipulation of the registration rolls in Florida. There is a great deal of suspicion about the legitimacy of several other elections using e-voting; most notably that between Chambliss and Cleland in Georgia, where the difference between polling 24 hours prior to the election, and election returns on the DieBold machines, indicated an improbable 17 point shift in preference in just 24 hours. There is a suspicious push to make American’s accept e-voting machines with minimal security and no paper trail all across America. Election finance reforms only drive corporate and other large dollar donations into independent organizations, making them harder to track. The secrecy of the government constantly increases, including the latest recognition of so-called ‘deliberative privilege’ by the Supreme Court. Put together, these trends threaten to turn our system of government in something considerably different that an open, participatory democracy. We may soon find ourselves interacting with our government in the same fashion we deal with commercial vendors; product launches instead of platforms, PR in place of debate, buying-in instead of voting, and plenty of room behind the veils of secrecy to manipulate the numbers to make a dog product seem like a winning candidate. In short, our government is looking and operating more like the corporations it increasingly represents.

Enjoy your circuses... er, fireworks.

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