Beware a Government of Fear
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” — Benjamin Franklin (1706–90)
One of my Fox colleagues recently sent me an email attachment of a painting of the framers signing the Constitution of the United States. Except in this version, George Washington—who presided at the Constitutional Convention—looks at James Madison—who was the scrivener at the Convention—and says, “None of this counts if people get sick, right?”
In these days of state governors issuing daily decrees purporting to criminalize the exercise of our personal freedoms, the words put into Washington’s mouth are only mildly amusing. Had Washington actually asked such a question, Madison, of all people, would likely have responded: “No. This document protects our natural rights at all times and under all circumstances.”
It is easy, 233 years later, to offer that hypothetical response, particularly since the Supreme Court has done so already when, as readers of this column will recall, Abraham Lincoln suspended the constitutionally guaranteed writ of habeas corpus—the right to be brought before a judge upon arrest—only to be rebuked by the Supreme Court.
The famous line by Benjamin Franklin above, though uttered in a 1755 dispute between the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s governor over taxes, nevertheless provokes a truism.
Namely that since our rights come from our humanity, not from the government, foolish people can only sacrifice their own freedoms, not the freedoms of others.
Thus, freedom can only be taken away when the government proves fault at a jury trial. This protection is called procedural due process, and it, too, is guaranteed in the Constitution.
Of what value is a constitutional guarantee if it can be violated when people get sick? If it can, it is not a guarantee; it is a fraud. Stated differently, a constitutional guarantee is only as valuable and reliable as is the fidelity to the Constitution of those in whose hands we have reposed it for safekeeping.
Because the folks in government, with very few exceptions, suffer from what St. Augustine called libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—when they are confronted with the age-old clash of personal liberty versus government force, they will nearly always come down on the side of force.
How do they get away with this? By scaring the daylights out of us. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime, though our ancestors saw this in every generation. In America today, we have a government of fear. Machiavelli offered that men obey better when they fear you than when they love you. Sadly, he was right, and the government of America knows this.
But Madison knew this as well when he wrote the Constitution. And he knew it four years later when he wrote the Bill of Rights. He intentionally employed language to warn those who lust to dominate that, however they employ governmental powers, the Constitution is “the Supreme Law of the Land” and all government behavior in America is subject to it.
Even if the legislature of the state of New York ordered, as my friend Governor Andrew Cuomo—who as the governor, cannot write laws that incur criminal punishment—has ordered, it would be invalid as prohibited by the Constitution.
This is not a novel or an arcane argument. This is fundamental American law. Yet it is being violated right before our eyes by the very human beings we have elected to uphold it. And each of them—every governor interfering with the freedom to make one’s own choices—has taken an express oath to comply with the Constitution.
You want to bring the family to visit grandma? You want to engage in a mutually beneficial, totally voluntary commercial transaction? You want to go to work? You want to celebrate Mass? These are all now prohibited in one-third of the United States.
I tried and failed to find Mass last Sunday. When did the Catholic Church become an agent of the state? How about an outdoor Mass?
What is the nature of freedom? It is an unassailable natural claim against all others, including the government. Stated differently, it is your unconditional right to think as you wish, to say what you think, to publish what you say, to associate with whomever wishes to be with you no matter their number, to worship or not, to defend yourself, to own and use property as you see fit, to travel where you wish, to purchase from a willing seller, to be left alone. And to do all this without a government permission slip.
What is the nature of government? It is the negation of freedom. It is a monopoly of force in a designated geographic area. When elected officials fear that their base is slipping, they will feel the need to do something—anything—that will let them claim to be enhancing safety. Trampling liberty works for that odious purpose. Hence a decree commanding obedience, promising safety, and threatening punishment.
These decrees—issued by those who have no legal authority to issue them, enforced by cops who hate what they are being made to do, destructive of the freedoms that our forbears shed oceans of blood to preserve, and crushing economic prosperity by violating the laws of supply and demand—should all be rejected by an outraged populace, and challenged in court.
These challenges are best filed in federal courts, where those who have trampled our liberties will get no special quarter. I can tell you from my prior life as a judge that most state governors fear nothing more than an intellectually honest, personally courageous, constitutionally faithful federal judge.
Fight fear with fear.