When the U.S. declared its independence, mother country Britain had been the freest nation on the planet. By the standard of the times, the injustices our ancestors suffered undoubtedly seemed to some like small potatoes. I mean, so what if Britain forced us to let soldiers move in with us and eat our food? Who cares that they wanted to extract money out of us but wouldn’t let us have political representation? Although Britain’s motive in permitting the colonists’ relative freedom was in growing its own wealth – not in establishing the bastion of liberty our founders had in mind – we nonetheless enjoyed far more liberties than did our former countrymen.
Each colony developed its own system of self-government. Residents of these colonies were mostly independent farmers, who owned their own land and voted for their local and provincial government. In 1772 Benjamin Franklin, after examining the wretched hovels in Scotland surrounding the opulent mansions of the land owners, wrote that in New England “every man” is a property owner, “has a Vote in public Affairs, lives in a tidy, warm House, has plenty of good Food and Fuel, with whole clothes from Head to Foot, the Manufacture perhaps of his own family.”
Britain let us travel too far away, and left us alone for too long, in conditions that had perhaps the least corruption of natural rights since the time humans lived in caves. We had to fend for ourselves in all kinds of ways, some of which involved loss of life or limb. After a rough start, we got pretty good at getting along without the king and his cronies and bureaucrats. Then Britain’s original motive in letting us loose in the world – money – prompted them to try to reel in some of that freedom. As we all know, this went very badly.
Once we’d lived with maximum liberty – religious freedom, freedom from royalty’s oligarchy, freedom to conquer the wilderness or die trying – we were not going backward.
Been there, done that
Because of our experience with the excesses and abuses of Britain’s oligarchy and insufficiently restrained government, plus our founders’ beliefs that everyone* inherently possessed certain rights, the framers of our Constitution designed our government with maximum individual liberty in mind.
If you want, you can fuss about how little our government does (I will be rolling my eyes, though) and how much more it should do when compared to _________ (insert the name of the country you think is better). But just know that we came out of that sort of top-down European bureaucracy, and based on our experience and what we believed was true about human nature, we set out with the specific intent to avoid ceding our liberties – even to friendly politicians who only have our best intentions in mind…nudge nudge wink wink.
Screwed it up anyway
Unfortunately, since that auspicious beginning we’ve mucked things up through a combination of an aversion to critical political thought, delegation of self-governance to a political ruling class, majority/mob rule and a desire to have “things” (education, jobs, retirement funds, food, housing, health care, cell phones) provided as opposed to the greater liberty necessary to more easily obtain what we personally desire rather than what someone deigns to give us.
It’s clear to libertarians that this state of affairs is just the type of mess the founders and framers worked to avoid as they crafted our Constitution and government. What’s less clear is whether the rest of the country could ever agree that the uncertainty of liberty is better than the quasi-guarantee of government-issued things. Most of us look around and instead of realizing that we are really not free anymore, we think “It could be worse” or even that we should relinquish additional liberty for the sake of ________ (insert the name of the cause that’s more important than freedom).
As for me, well – you know what Patrick Henry said.
* Yes, I know that back then when they said we were all created equal that most viewed black people as property, not persons. I believe we’ve since clarified our position to mean everyone.