It’s the Fourth of July! Why Am I Sad?
When I was a boy, one of my favorite holidays was Independence Day. I was an enthusiastic student of the War for Independence. My favorite book was the How and Why Wonder Book of the American Revolution by Felix Sutton. I spent a lot of my childhood reading about the colonial era, the lives of people like Sam Adams, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. I learned all about our American forefathers’ struggle for liberty against a king who merely treated them as revenue-generating pawns. I was nine years old when the US celebrated its bicentennial and my mother wallpapered my room with a red, white, and blue colonial American themed paper and I had various prints of famous revolutionary war scenes hanging on the walls. I looked forward every year to the day celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Over the years, alas, my enthusiasm became dampened so that now, if I am exposed to any mainstream media celebrations of Independence Day, I do not feel the joy I once did. Instead I feel more like Charlie Brown at the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Remember in that childhood classic how, when Christmas approaches, Charlie Brown tells Linus that he knows he should be happy, but instead he always ends up feeling depressed. I increasingly get the same feeling as people gear up for 4th of July celebrations.
Now, much older and perhaps wiser, when I hear the popular media gushing about our freedoms, the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell, Celebrate America concerts, and all the rest on the Fourth of July, instead of being happy, I feel a tinge of sadness. I like celebrating the Fourth of July by, say, gathering with friends, teaching my children about the Founding Fathers, reading the Declaration, and watching fireworks, but when I think about where we started and what we have become, like Charlie Brown I end up melancholy. This is because the politicians and the media talking heads clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Most seem to not even know what liberty really is. The only politician at the national level who spoke about freedom and the Constitution with actual conviction was Ron Paul and they laughed him off the stage. Instead, popular journalists and pundits try to make us believe that we are free because we are allowed to have other people vote away our liberties.
At the beginning of every major sporting event, Americans pay lip service to “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but everywhere they are in economic chains. Last year total government spending was $6.4 trillion. That is $6.4 trillion with a t. That number amounts to over 36 percent of GDP. The Federal budget deficit the past fiscal year was $438 billion. Over the past eight years, our government debt has skyrocketed. By the end of this fiscal year, gross Federal government debt is expected to be over $19 trillion. That will be 106 precent of GDP.
Now, the important point to remember with respect to our freedom is that every single penny of government spending represents government control. When you spend money to purchase a loaf of bread, a tank of gas, or a pair of pants, you become owners of these economic goods and can use them as you see fit. When the government spends money, its bureaucrats gain control of economic resources. And the more of our resources under their control, the less free we become.
Additionally, government control of our society is greatly bankrolled by the central money creating machine, the Federal Reserve. It has maintained a monetary base in the stratosphere as the money supply increased $880 billion over the past year. That is an 8 percent increase over 12 months. It is all too obvious to the man on Main Street that such monetary inflation provides no social benefit, but sows much economic harm. It decreases the purchasing power of the dollar, and especially hurts the most vulnerable of our citizens who live on fixed incomes. At the same time it rewards cronies — not for producing goods that are actually profitable, but for going to the right parties and exerting the right influence on members of the ruling class. Inflation also generates the business cycle which always results in recession and unemployment. Perhaps you’ve heard of the real estate and derivative bubbles of 2008?
The Leviathan state’s control goes beyond dollars, however. In fact, our rulers seem to want to control as much of our lives as possible. The 2013 Code of Federal Regulations had a near-record 178,277 pages. And these laws regulate virtually every area of our lives. Government bureaucrats simply do not trust buyers and seller to voluntarily agree on acceptable goods at acceptable prices. Did you know that the federal government regulates the production of battery chargers, ceiling fans, central air conditioners, clothes dryers, clothes washers, clothing itself, computer and battery backup systems, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, furnaces and boilers, kitchen ranges and ovens, lawn mowers, microwave ovens, swimming pool heaters, refrigerators and freezers, window air conditioners, televisions, cable and satellite TV boxes, water heaters, commercial ice makers, industrial clothes washers, compressors, electric motors, fans and blowers, refrigerated beverage vending machines, refrigeration equipment, walk-in coolers and freezers, ceiling fan light kits, lamps, fluorescent lamp ballasts, illuminated exit signs, light bulbs, flash lights, faucets, showerheads, and flush toilets? And this is not even an exhaustive list. Exhausting yes, but exhaustive, no. The USDA regulates the marketing of cotton, milk and dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and livestock, poultry, and feed. Government bureaucrats even have detailed instructions mandating the cornbread-to-meat ratio required in a commercial corn dog! The state will not even let us produce and sell corn dogs on our own! In the land of supposedly free enterprise, a full 38 percent of workers employed in 2008 needed a government license or certification just to do their job. In the 1950s the number was about 5 percent.
One of the great intellectual errors that drive such despotism is the view that the independence we celebrate is primarily about egalitarianism. After all, the most famous phrase in the Declaration does say, “All men are created equal.” Hear this statement in context, however. The passage in question reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What the Declaration affirms is every person has the divine and natural right to liberty. The common way of stating the doctrine at the time was that each person has a natural right to life, liberty, and property. He has the right to not be murdered, the right to use his mind and body without restraint by others, and the right to the fruits of his labor.
That one of “the unalienable rights” asserted by the signers of the Declaration was the right to property makes it clear that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are antithetical to our current government’s policy of confiscation and control. Missing the connection between freedom and property is a tap root of our nation’s interventionist culture — a culture that yields the bitter fruit of social and economic destruction.
The lesson of economic theory and practice is clear. As the institution of private property goes, so goes society. This was recognized by the great nineteenth century pastor and college president Francis Wayland. He noted in his Elements of Moral Science that
Just in proportion as the right of property is held inviolate, just in that proportion civilization advances, and the comforts and conveniences of life multiply. Hence it is, that, in free and well-ordered governments, and specially during peace, property accumulates, all the orders of society enjoy the blessings of competence, the arts flourish, science advances, and men begin to form some conception of the happiness of which the present system is capable. And, on the contrary, under despotism, when law spreads its protection over neither house, land, estate, nor life, and specially during civil wars, industry ceases, capital stagnates, the arts decline, the people starve, population diminishes, and men rapidly tend to a state of barbarism.
This insight was also significantly recognized by Ludwig von Mises:
All civilizations have up to now been based on private ownership of the means of production. In the past civilization and private property have been linked together. Those who maintain that economics is an experimental science and nevertheless recommend public control of the means of production, lamentably contradict themselves. If historical experience could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization. There is no experience to the effect that socialism could provide a standard of living as high as that provided by capitalism. (Human Action, pp. 264–65)
Thus, when a society rejects the right to private property, which is the bedrock of all of our freedoms, it is committing suicide. And yet that is what too many in our culture seemed primed to do.
A couple of years ago, when the darling of the left, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren seemed to be flirting with a presidential campaign, she wowed a convention of liberal bloggers and activists with 11 tenets of progressivism. They included calls for increased regulation of financial markets, the environment, the internet, and labor markets, a higher minimum wage, and subsidies for higher education, increased Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. Now, we surely have serious social ills that need addressing. However, they are consequences of government aggression against private property in all its variety. And what is the suggested solution? More of the same: increased regulation, more government spending, higher taxes on the productive, more monetary inflation. In short — the destruction of private property. And with that, the destruction of freedom and the selling of our American economic birthright for a mess of socialist pottage.
Nevertheless, we must not give in to despair as the enemies of freedom would have us do. We must, instead, proceed ever the more boldly against the evil. We must jump once more into the breach to defend our American tradition of liberty, property, and the free society. And this requires that we refuse to be duped by our politicians. Remember that the Psalmist says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:9). We need, instead, to hold their feet to the fire. We should not put up with their mere sloganeering about freedom. It is too easy for politicians and their intellectual supporters to champion “markets,” all the while finding reasons to curtail private property in their efforts to regulate the economy. They praise freedom and then expand the welfare-warfare state. Such empty rhetoric results in little except angry cynicism fostering an anti-capitalistic mentality that believes that the persistence of our economic problems is the result of a free market, instead of the consequences of the obstacles that hamper it.
We must also champion private property to ourselves and to our neighbors. Each of us needs to be willing to turn away from the Leviathan State and any goodies it promises us. And then we need to explain to our fellow man why prosperity and human flourishing is able to abound only in a free society undergirded by private property. Only a change in reigning social ideology can accomplish the sea change necessary for a free society to survive. Surveying our contemporary cultural horizon, the vista is clear and the battle lines are starkly drawn. What Patrick Henry said about himself over two centuries ago, is sadly true about our contemporary society, culture, and the American tradition “Give me liberty, or give me death.”