Mises Wire

The Government Won’t Make America Great Again

The 2016 election was notable for many things—from the frequency of ad hominem arguments to the frequency of scandals to the frequency of OMG reactions to Donald Trump’s victory. But one thing notable for its absence has been adherence to the principles that created America as a unique beacon of hope for liberty.

Americans now “look forward” to a President who has expressed little affinity for the principles of liberty or the Constitutional limitations designed to defend it. But, as a reminder of the central importance of these two concepts, it may be helpful to turn to Leonard Read, who, in his 1976 book Comes the Dawn, marking its 40th anniversary.

A few men who did look into “the law of liberty” bequeathed to present-day Americans a unique heritage. They were the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In what respect were these political documents unique? First, they unseated government as the endower of men’s rights…Second, they more severely limited government than ever before — for the first time in history, hardly any organized coercion standing against the release of creative energy. Result? The greatest outburst of creative energy ever known, simply because the millions were free to act creatively as they pleased. Political power diminished and dispersed beyond the ready grasp of authoritarians who would run our lives. That was the American miracle!

Americans, however, began to take the blessings of liberty for granted. Unprecedented well-being came to be regarded as an act of nature; progress seemed as inevitable as the sun’s appearance in the morning. That the practice of difficult human virtues and political wisdom lay at the root of this new-world miracle was forgotten or, more likely, never learned by new generations… unaware of the rationale on which their magnificent edifice was erected. The intellectual and moral foundation weakened and the limitations on government were relaxed. Disaster  — in the form of a return to the old-world pattern of sovereign state and servant people — was only a matter of time...

Most citizens, enjoying the forward thrust that was possible under limited governmental structures, came to believe that the ever-increasing governmental intervention they subsequently voted was responsible for their prosperity and well-being. Today, they fail to see that the genuine bounties in their situation are but the result of an earlier momentum…Self-reliance and freed energies have made for such wealth that they can, for a time at least, take government pap without apparent immediate injury. And many believe the pap to be the cause of their vitality.

What steps are required, then, for a return to liberty by the millions who have innocently gone along with “leaders” of the Command Society?...the initial step is to grasp the very essence of Americanism: “...that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty...”

This…for the first time in the history of nations, casts government out of that role…Our heritage stems from this glorious triumph of human liberty—everyone free to act creatively as he chooses.

The next step is to recognize the real meaning of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights…note that there are 45 “nos” and “nots” circumscribing governmental power. Reduced to a sentence, they decree: “Government, keep your coercive fingers out of these activities; we reserve these—all of them—to ourselves as free and self-responsible citizens!”

Let our thinking improve until those in public office no longer vie with each other as to the good they can do for us with our money. Improve our thinking…and they will contend with each other to advance free market, private ownership, limited government ideas and ideals…The mess we observe today is but the effect of hanging onto yesterday’s poor thinking.

Americans seem to have “evolved” to the view that limited government is an anachronism, if the campaigns we have just endured offer us guidance. We have largely abandoned what our founders and founding documents created for what is essentially a world of unlimited government, restricted only by a few “favorite” constitutional rights still defended by the Supreme Court. But now we have elected a “change agent,” offering potential for improvement as well as trepidation. Leonard Read can remind the new president, and us, of how truly stupendous was the human growth and creativity unleashed by history’s greatest demotion of government from its authoritarian control over individuals’ lives and also how much we have regressed from history’s freest society to what is now largely a command society. Given government’s displacement of liberty in America, we can hope Donald Trump can “catch” some of Read’s wisdom. As Read wrote, “I side with the English poet, William Cowper.”

Tis liberty alone that gives the flower

Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,

And we are weeds without it. All constraint

Except what wisdom lays on evil men

Is evil.

[Adapted from Apostle of Peace (2013).]

Image Source: "bkaehny" www.flickr.com/photos/8729992@N02/
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