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Vigilant Distrust, Part 1

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Free enterprise. Familiar words for this class. Enterprise is an undertaking marked by its difficulty, requiring action that is bold, energetic, and venturesome in order to accomplish it. I need not remind you that “free” as in free enterprise does not mean something without cost. Instead “free” means that the person undertaking the task has the freedom to do so without hindrance from government. Hindrance of government? Is free enterprise something akin to theft, drunkenness, or rape that one would anticipate government being an obstacle?

Hardly. Free enterprise is a concept that opens the door for human advancement in all walks of human experience — including, in the end, increased years of life for people in communities where such freedom exists. As with most opportunity, there are also perils and risks. But the rewards are magnificent and plentiful, far outstripping the chances taken.

So, why is it probable that government would be a hindrance? Why would government do this?

There is a disease that comes with political power. Government leaders believe that you, as a private person, deciding for yourself, are irresponsible. You are a child, needing regulation — their regulation. For your own good, of course. What else?

You’ve heard it said: “His handshake is all you need to deal with him.” Or, “You can count on her.” Or, “Her word is her bond.”

These old phrases describe trust.

My subject is not about trust. It is about the exact opposite from trust — something I will refer to as vigilant distrust. Descriptive words come to mind — being wary, alert, forewarned, cautious of the actions of another with whom you have entered into a specific relationship. I am not thinking of those peaceful situations in an orderly society where one private person voluntarily enters into an agreement with another private person — a private transaction, as in doing business. Not that. Rather this subject matter is between a private person and his or her government, concerning the terms and conditions a person would expect while living under the jurisdiction of such government.

Perhaps the most critical search in all of human history has been and continues to be the search for individual freedom. Yet in our advanced world of today, it is given only minor attention despite the fact that the word itself is widely used (misused). Freedom scholars find that historically the weapon of distrust has been a vital strategy employed in the quest for freedom. Think of such actions as taken by the people of England leading to the Magna Carta — where the distrust of their rulers was put into words — a pact — wherein the rulers promised from that time forward to “lay off” their practice of coercing the people. Of course, it helped the people for a time. While freedom-loving people have improved their defenses over the centuries against authoritarian leaders, political rulers have also refined the art of being deceptively coercive. Freedom wins a few. Crafty politicians win a few more.

The historical tracks of human freedom are obscure. Historians, trained to be alert to evidence of the presence of freedom among human beings, have found only traces of freedom now and then over the last six to ten thousand years. I can tick off some instances found from the past, such as the written law of Babylon, the Greek free cities, the Roman freeman, the Sumer people of Mesopotamia — all brief stars of emerging growths of freedom that appeared in society of men and women and burned with some brightness for a few seconds. Possibly most glimpses of freedom have arisen briefly only in the minds of persons sensitive to the correlation between wretched living conditions and the lack of freedom, only to go unspoken, unwritten, unnoticed, and undiscovered.

There is nothing obscure, however, about the centuries upon centuries of people living with little or no freedom. This fact, unhappily, is easy to track due to the widespread presence of evil, coercive leaders throughout historical time and the trail of crushed lives. Power in the hands of a person — or a few persons — has literally destroyed or crippled human life in unbelievable numbers as far back as our minds can probe these vestiges of the past. This power enabled certain persons to rule many other persons. Its organizational form is called government. Government is the power of numbers and/or other means of physical force that sets a person (called king, monarch, emperor, and so forth) at the head of all important decision-making of people living within a certain geographic area. Throughout history, a person so empowered has used the ultimate threat of death (physical force) to maintain and continue his power over his subjects. Certainly not all rulers were evil. Some were reported to be “good kings.” Nevertheless, independent thought and action even under them were fragile and tolerated only to the extent that the king permitted.

Moreover, to bolster more effectively such power, the ruler of the past often resorted to the metaphysical — claiming that he had received the “divine right” from God to rule. It takes a lot of extraordinary courage for a peon to challenge a king of whom it is said receives his power from the God of the heavens. Superstition and gullibility aided the government and flawed religion to impose tyrannical rule of the few upon the many. If a hint of distrust of political leadership existed then in anyone’s rebellious heart, he usually had the wisdom to keep it to himself — or invite earlier death. I use the term “earlier death” since, until recent times, the average longevity for centuries seldom reached more than thirty years. This in itself is brilliant testimony of the snail-like progress toward freedom by mankind over the thousands of years people have groveled at the feet of their rulers.

But with the advent of the Renaissance and the dawn of general questioning of religious “no-no’s,” (for example, with the Reformation movements) more persons appeared with the courage to stand up against these twin-pronged “big sticks” — burdensome government and tainted aspects of religion. These courageous persons expressed strong distrust for the leaders. Yet back then as today, we observe that many persons, despite the warnings from the courageous few, are disinterested in bucking any malevolence in government. To endure abuse often seems preferable to some people and much less trouble.

Luckily for us, several hundred years ago, small groups of people in the British Isles and on the mainland of Europe, overwhelmed by tyrannical acts, heeded the grievances imposed on them via governmental cruelty and said “Enough is enough!” They were fed up with their submission to the rulers. Now another possibility of escape was on the horizon. The newly discovered and unknown wilderness of America beckoned as a haven. Now was the time to act on their well-grounded distrust of political leaders.

Those who had a shred of self-respect had to acknowledge that the lives they lived were loathsome. On the other hand, the decision to flee to America was not an easy decision to make. Think about it. There were no travel agents available to “book” the trip. To travel to America in the seventeenth century meant first that one locate a sailing vessel going to America and arrange passage on it. Then one must physically escape the tyrants’ officials and deputies who often tried to prevent such departures. Furthermore, it meant leaving relations, friendships, and virtually all personal possessions, with the certain knowledge that loved ones would never be seen again. Beyond that, the voyage provided probably no more than a fifty-fifty chance of arriving safely on the other side of the ocean. If all of these hurdles were overcome, and one did indeed arrive, there would be no travel motels and inns to meet these weary travelers. No supermarkets were waiting there stocked with food for them to buy. No hospitals or medical-supply stores were available down on the corner to nurse their sicknesses. Nevertheless, the illusory glimpse of freedom — yet only an idea in a person’s mind — was strong enough and so very desirable that people dared to face the harrowing perils.

A small number of them went forward with superb courage. For those who survived the ordeal of going to America, the reward was the achievement of personal freedom. They were finally “out-of-the reach” of the tyrants who had made their lives miserable. The new life was not easy — but they were free! Distrust of rulers — bravely acted upon in putting geographic distance between them and the tyrants — had given them freedom!

Part 1 | Part 2

This is Part I (of two parts) of a speech he delivered at Malone College in Canton.

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    Mr. Sparks, a Freedom Daily subscriber, is a retired businessman residing in Canton, Ohio.