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Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Exceptionalism: Freedom or Power/Affluence?

I believe my country, America, is exceptional.

However, so did the ancient Romans, the British Empire, and the early 20th century Germans. So what makes us exceptional? The debate seems to be over whether it is our power and affluence, or our law which protects our freedom and liberty? In other words, which would you sacrifice first, your freedom or your powerful government?

I believe that there a few prevalent perspectives put forward in contemporary American life today.

First, is the law and order types
They value physical security and the ability to capture and punish "criminals," as broadly defined as drug-users, undocumented immigrants and gamblers (i.e. victimless criminals). This is just an extension of the view that American power and affluence is superior to freedom, because it takes power and affluence to enforce such law. As we have seen from the War on Drugs, such laws necessarily carve into freedom (see the history of the 4th Amendment, which went from "the right against unreasonable search and seizures shall not be violated" too "reasonable expectations of privacy").

This leads to a general tendency to always favor the government over the accused and never consider whether the government itself might actually do injustice and cause violence and crime. They fail to see that a free society is one governed not just by the rule of law--but all law, not just some. In America, we have laws which limit the power of government, protect the rights of the accused, and command the prejudice that all are assumed innocent. The Soviet Union had laws which did this as well--they just didn't have a judiciary that could enforce them.

They say you cannot have freedom without enforcement of laws that make you safe--which is true. But you also cannot have freedom without enforcement of laws that make you free. Because the law and order types value affluence and power over freedom, they must be reigned in lest government power be abused.

Second, is the Progressives
They value material equality and (what they call) "social justice" over freedom. They think that society can never be fair to people, so the government should take control and redistribute wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Again, this is just an extension of the view that American power and affluence is superior to freedom, because it takes power and affluence to enforce such law.

This leads to a general tendency to always favor more government power, as if the government can only do good with it. Progressives draw a fine distinction between powerful government that acts for good, and one that acts for bad. But they fail to name one single powerful government in history that acted solely for good. Is there even one government that succeeded in balancing out inequities in society--without making everybody equally poor?

They should realize that people predictably act in their own self-interest. The free market forces private actors to achieve self-interest by volitional exchanges. Government actors achieve their self interest through force and coercion. This is the distinction to focus on.

They say you cant have freedom, while you are worrying about your income--which is true for the truly needy. But the so-called "needy" soon become those who help advance the interests of government officials. It is even more true, that nobody can have freedom when the government picks winners and losers. Because progressive value power and affluence over freedom, they must be reigned in, lest government power be abused.

American Exceptionalism
Both the above groups favor American power and affluence over freedom. They just favor using it for different things. Amazingly, both groups are slowly getting their way.

Many nations have, and have had, powerful governments that keep people safe, or redistribute income--there's nothing new or extraordinary about that. America is exceptional because it is free and people have enforceable rights against the government. We're one of the only nations that has ever even tried it. Over time, the results have brought about the most affluent, powerful group of individuals in human history. Even among the most poor--so much, that millions risk their lives to come here and work below our minimum wages. Freedom made us so affluent and powerful, that some people then wanted to harness those results for government's ends. Here, freedom becomes a tool which finances that which undermines freedom.

There is no trade-off between freedom and safety, security or equal wealth distribution. A safe, secure and powerful nation comes from having a free nation. Why? Largely because nations with powerful, rich governments, become police states, and destroy themselves from the inside through war. Similarly, the nation with the most access to wealth is the one with the most freedom. Why? Largely because nations with powerful, rich governments, disincentive wealth accumulation among both the rich and poor--through excessive tax and regulation people become stagnant and the government quickly runs out of other people's money.

When you try the police state, you get Rome. When you try wealth redistribution, you get the Soviet Union. When you try both, you get Detroit (without the mass exodus). The similarity across the board is one word: over-extension--and freedom prevents over-extension.

Freedom means that people are rich and powerful, not the government. The government's job is to make sure their rights are protected. The tension usually exists between the rights of people to do things that some find repugnant, and the power of government to stop it. This calls for a balanced approach, not the complete demolition of freedom.

Increasingly, people are saying "this is too important to leave it to the free market," or "this is too important to go without government oversight! We cant have drugs, and criminals, and gamblers, overly rich people and poor people, and sick people ect, ect, ect!" The list is endless, and it is all true--to a certain extent. Certainly, government has its purposes in reigning in repugnant private acts, and those are not to be ignored.

But at some point, you have to draw the line, and start saying, "American freedom is what makes us exceptional, not that other stuff, and that's too important to give the government more power."

1 comment:

J. said...

I think you mean "influence" thoughout this article when you write "affluence".

Government cannot guarantee our freedom because it comes from God or "natural law" if you prefer. This theme is throughout our Constitution. These themes are so anti-progressive that they do whatever they can to ignore it or strike it down. And, that includes appointing judges that will do just that. We continue to be governed only by our consent. And, as people wake up, they will start rebelling against the Progressives en masse. The first real rebellion is in November 2010.