Wednesday, March 10, 2010
The publishing of the Declaration of Independence 233 years ago by our Founders was responded to in London by two of the 18th century's greatest minds: Dr. Samuel Johnson (after whom a literary age was named) and Edmund Burke (the intellectual father of modern Anglo-American conservatism).
Dr. Johnson made the harsh assertion that our Declaration was "the delirious dream of republican fanaticism" that, if sincere, would "put the axe to the roots of all government." Moreover, he went on, it was the rankest hypocrisy for owners of slaves to shout for freedom, or, as Johnson put it: "Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?"
But it was Edmund Burke who had the more profound insight. He recognized that it wasn't despite being slaveholders that American Colonists felt so powerfully about liberty. Rather, being in the midst of the obvious evils of slavery, those men who were free more fully appreciated their freedom. "Those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege," Burke argued. Or, as Jedediah Purdy (from whose historically rich and ingenious book "A Tolerable Anarchy" I have abstracted these observations) put it: "Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence."
These sensitivities -- sensibilities -- that Burke so shrewdly observed in 1775 continue to manifest themselves in American politics today as we fight over socializing health care, nationalizing industries, indebting our grandchildren, regulating and taxing energy creation and the other intrusions into what Americans have long considered not to be the government's business.
Burke would understand what Europeans (and many European-influenced Americans) in 2010 continue to scoff at as America's obsession with the slogan of freedom. Because although we Americans may talk about freedom as an abstraction -- and believe in freedom as an abstraction -- our politics come alive when we experience an intrusion into what John Adams called "the sensations of freedom."
As Burke explained: "Abstract liberty, like other abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favorite point which ... becomes the criterion of their happiness."
I believe that the rise of the Tea Party movement and the impassioned nature of American politics in 2009-10 is the result of the Obama administration's having, probably inadvertently, intruded into "some favorite points which becomes the criterion of (our) happiness."
That is to say, though the Democrats see their health care proposal as merely another step along a continuum of government action, a strong majority of the American people sense that the "quantity" of the intrusion has changed the "quality" of the intrusion.
What is seen, currently, as a basically private-sector health process with some government intervention has crossed over, in the Democrats' plans, into basically a government system. And, by being seen to have so crossed over, it is an attack on "some sensible object" (i.e. private-sector health care) in which our "Liberty inheres."
Similarly, the shift from less than $500 billion of annual deficit in the last George W. Bush year to a $1.5 trillion deficit in each of the first and second Obama years (and the proposed addition of almost $10 trillion of new public debt over the next decade) has -- by the increase in quantity -- changed the nature of public debt in such a way as to intrude into our sense of our fundamental liberty.
If the Chinese, by selling off our debt notes, can destroy our economy and way of life at a whim -- as the accumulating debt suggests is possible -- then what had been merely irresponsible, self-indulgent deficit spending by both Republicans and Democrats in the recent past has transformed into a fundamental threat to our liberty and our grandchildren's future.
The Obama administration and the Democrats crossed a line and touched a nerve in America's body politic. We sense our fundamental freedom endangered. And the response will be as remorseless as was our revolution against the British. Against all odds, the intrusion on those things around which our "liberty inheres" will be driven from our political midst. (It is not Waterloo, but Yorktown, that is likely to be the terminal point.)
The first hard step in that defense will be the election in November. The second, even harder step will be the rollback of already enacted debt and damage to our freedom. Defining the extent and detail of the rollback must be the agenda for the government's loyal opposition in this year's election. And the things to which we are loyal are our Constitution, our founding principles and the good institutions and social contrivances brought into being by those principles over our providential history.
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