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The Failure of the Republican “Revolution,” Part 1

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There have been four significant non-violent revolutions in American history: the Revolution in 1776, the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the constitutional amendments of 1913, and the Roosevelt revolution in the 1930s. To understand the Republican “revolution” of 1995 — and its manifest failure — it is necessary to place it in the context of the revolutions that preceded it.

The significance of the Revolution of 1776 did not lie in the military battles that took place between the British soldiers and the British colonists. Instead, the importance of that revolution lay simply in an idea — an idea that was expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Throughout history, governments had claimed the power to control and regulate the lives and fortunes of their citizenry. The king had the authority to issue rules, regulations, and decrees respecting any aspect of a citizen’s life. For example, in the Age of Mercantilism, the age that preceded the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, government officials regulated the most minute aspects of people’s lives. The rules told citizens what they were permitted to produce, the quantities to be produced, the prices to be charged, and so forth. Taxes in whatever amount the king deemed appropriate were assessed on the income and savings of the citizenry. Sometimes, the king found himself engaged in a war with another king. No problem — he would simply order his citizens to take up arms against the enemy.

No one questioned the power of the king to do this. The king issued the orders; the citizens obeyed. Everyone accepted that the king had the power to regulate their activities, tax them, and conscript them.

No one doubted that the citizens “belonged” to their king. Sometimes a king was benevolent and permitted the people to have a wide ambit of personal “freedom” — lower taxes, fewer regulations, and less conscription. When this happened, the citizens considered themselves to be privileged because their ruler was permitting them to live “freer,” more pleasant lives.

Sometimes a king was less benevolent — higher taxes, more rules, and more conscription. Citizens living under this type of regime considered themselves less privileged and less “free” than others.

But again, the basic idea was that the king had the sovereign prerogative to do whatever he wanted with the lives and property of “his” people. Everyone knew that “their” lives, “their” freedom, and “their” property were simply privileges bestowed upon them by their king. Since the king could legitimately regulate their entire lives — since he could legitimately take all of their income — since he could seize their bodies whenever he wanted — then “freedom” from full regulation and control was viewed as an enormous privilege, for which the people were grateful to their ruler.

This was the belief mankind has always held — that is, that “rights” are actually privileges bestowed by the collective — the tribe, the government, the king, society, and and the like. This was certainly the mind-set that Europeans have held throughout the ages.

In one fell swoop, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 overthrew that age-old notion. The Declaration announced that individuals have inherent, fundamental rights that do not come from government. Rather, these rights preexist government. The Declaration pointed out that people call government into existence in order to ensure that others do not interfere with these God-given rights. What happens if a government itself becomes destructive of these rights? Then it is the right of the people to overthrow that government, either peacefully or violently.

Here is the way Leonard E. Read, the founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, put it in his book Castles in the Air (1975):

“More than two centuries ago in this land of ours men built castles in the air. What was their dream? A country free from authoritarian tyranny; each citizen free to act creatively as he pleased, government limited to inhibiting destructive actions, invoking a common justice, keeping the peace! No political arrangement had ever matched this dream, even remotely. Castles in the air, indeed!

“The challenge they faced was to put foundations under their dreams . And they did: The Declaration of Independence unseated government as the sovereign power and put the Creator there: ‘. . . all men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty. . . .’ The Declaration . . . was . . . the first stage in laying the greatest politico-economic foundation in the history of mankind.”

This revolutionary notion that Thomas Jefferson was expressing in the Declaration — that the individual in society is sovereign and supreme and that government officials are the ones who are subservient — was shared by his fellow colonists. All of them had read and studied the works of the English philosopher John Locke and, specifically, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government , which had been published almost a hundred years before. Jefferson was simply restating Locke’s central point: Life, liberty, and property are natural, God-given rights that no government can legitimately regulate or destroy. People set up government in order to protect these rights from the violence of others. Thus, government officials are the servants, and the citizens remain the masters.

What happens if the government becomes destructive, rather than protective, of these preexisting rights? Locke provides the same answer that Jefferson would later enunciate in the Declaration: the right of revolution. The masters (citizens) have the right to privatize the servants (government officials) by altering or abolishing the government.

It is impossible to overstate the enormity of what happened in 1776. For centuries before, citizens had been beholden and thankful to their government officials for letting them have a certain amount of “freedom.” The message of 1776 was this: Since rights preexist government, men do not have to be beholden or thankful to government officials for anything; in fact, government officials are only servants, whose role in life is to do our bidding — which means protecting us from the violence of others. When government servants try to regulate or destroy the preexisting rights of their masters, they cross the line and subject themselves to rebellion.

Here is how Ayn Rand described the importance of the American Revolution:

“The most profoundly revolutionary achievement of the United States of America was the subordination of society to moral law .

“The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system — as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right . The United States of America was the first moral society in history.

“All previous systems had regarded man as a sacrificial means to the ends of others, and society as an end in itself. The United States regarded man as an end in himself, and society as a means to the peaceful, orderly, voluntary coexistence of individuals. All previous systems had held that man’s life belongs to society, that society can dispose of him in any way it pleases, and that any freedom he enjoys is his only by favor, by the permission of society, which may be revoked at any time. The United States held that man’s life is his by right (which means: by moral principle and by his nature), that a right is the property of an individual, that society as such has no rights, and that the only moral purpose of a government is the protection of individual rights.

How was this idea institutionalized? The second stage in the Revolution occurred in 1787, when the Constitution was enacted. Recognizing that government was necessary as a servant to protect their natural, God-given rights of life, liberty, and property, the American people used the Constitution to call a national government into existence. What type of government? A government of limited, enumerated powers . In essence, by permitting the government to come into existence, the American people said this: “The national government is being set up at our behest and under our authority. Officials in this government will be our servants. We will remain their masters. Unlike all other governments in history, you will not have omnipotent power over our lives and fortunes. In fact, the only powers you will have are enumerated in the Constitution. You are not permitted to exceed those powers.”

Even then, many Americans opposed the setting up of a national government. (See the arguments set forth in The Anti-Federalist Papers. ) They did not believe that it would be possible to restrain the government. They believed that ultimately the government would become as tyrannical as the government against which they had rebelled. Most of the resistance was overcome, however, with the promise that the Bill of Rights would be enacted soon after the government came into existence. Thus, the first ten amendments both make it clear that government cannot deprive the citizens of preexisting rights and protect the citizens against governmental abuse in the area of civil liberties. The lack of trust that the American people had in their government officials is reflected in the number of times that the words no and not are used in the Constitution — 46!

An important point to make here: today, most Americans (including the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court) believe that people’s rights come from the Constitution — “Look and see if a right is listed in the Constitution; if not, then the people don’t have it.” Our ancestors, on the other hand, clearly understood that people’s rights are inherent and that they preexist the Constitution; they understood that the Constitution simply called government into existence to protect these fundamental rights. Unlike present-day Americans, they understood that the Constitution granted powers, not rights.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), there was another enormous revolution that took place in 1776 — this one in Great Britain. The revolution occurred, again, in the form of an idea, this time expressed in a book. For it was in that year that the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote his famous treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations .

For centuries, government officials had waged wars against poverty. Throughout the ages, there had been price controls imposed on producers and sellers of goods and services to ensure that the poor would be able to afford food, clothing, transportation, and other essentials. There had been antispeculation laws that prevented speculators from buying low and selling high. There had been welfare laws, such as the English Poor Laws, that guaranteed free or inexpensive food for the poor. The way to end poverty, it had been widely assumed, was to have the government wage increasingly fierce wars against it. (See “Speculation, Law, and the Market Process” by Jacob G. Hornberger, Freedom Daily, February 1993.)

Along came Adam Smith and startled the world and angered politicians and bureaucrats, not only in England but all over the world. Smith announced that there was a very simple reason why mankind throughout the ages had remained mired in poverty. The reason: because governments throughout the ages had waged war against poverty! If government was prevented from waging war against poverty, Smith argued, the prosperity of people would skyrocket.

In other words, what was needed, Smith argued, was a repeal of all the laws that were designed to help the poor. Repeal price controls. Repeal antispeculation laws. Repeal excessive taxes. Repeal the Poor Laws. Leave people free to engage in economic activity, trade with one another, and accumulate the fruits of their earnings. This is the only way, Smith argued, to achieve economic prosperity — and especially for the poor!

But Smith’s critics asked: What would happen if the government did not dictate the production of shoes? Isn’t it possible that everyone might forget to make shoes one year, resulting in everyone’s going shoeless? What if everyone forgets to make bread? People could starve to death. What if no one assisted the poor? Wouldn’t they starve to death? A governmental war on poverty was needed, the critics said, to ensure a “safety net” for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Not so, responded Smith. If you leave people free to live their lives the way they choose, they will be led by an “invisible hand” to produce the goods and services that people need and are willing to pay for. It is not through the benevolence of the baker that we get bread, Smith said. If people want bread, the baker will produce bread out of his own self-interest — to make money, which enables him to purchase the things that he considers important to himself. Moreover, when people are free to accumulate wealth, they will be more willing to assist those less fortunate in society.

Thus, Smith’s idea of an unhampered market economy — unhampered by government rules and regulations — unhampered by a governmental war on poverty — was as revolutionary as Jefferson’s idea of inherent, God-given rights of man. Together, these two revolutionary ideas would result in the most amazing society in the history of mankind.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.