Courting Gulliver’s Fate – Reflection from Lawrence Grayson

Freedom is a moral concept.  It is essential for the dignity of the human person, for developing one’s talents, for living life to fulfill one’s duties and responsibilities.  America’s founders recognized how fundamental and innate freedom is to human nature, and declared it an unalienable right provided by the Creator.  For over two centuries, Americans have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom and the prosperity to which it gave rise.  Slowly, but inexorably, however, this freedom is eroding as an expansive federal government assumes more and more authority.  It has acted to regulate the lives of individuals, dictated to automotive manufacturers, moved to restructure the financial industry, and clashed with the states over their respective powers.

Louisiana, recently, was prohibited from acting quickly to protect its waters from the BP oil spill because approval was required from the Corps of Engineers to erect sand berms in front of the state’s shoreline.  Arizona is being challenged by the Federal Government from enforcing a state statute targeting illegal immigrants.  Virginia is in court arguing the legality of its law protecting its citizens from a federal mandate to purchase health insurance.  Although the Constitution does not specifically grant any of this authority to the federal government, and the Tenth Amendment reserves non-enumerated powers to the States or to the people, the federal government has gradually usurped these prerogatives to itself.

This has not been a sudden annexation.  The accretion of powers has resulted from measured, but continual actions over decades.  In Jonathan Swift’s social satire, while Gulliver slept the Lilliputians fettered him with hundreds of small ropes, so many that he could not move.  His freedom was lost.  While the American people have been somnolent, the federal government has been fettering us with laws and regulations, rule making and executive orders, so many that it is difficult to act in our own interest.  Our freedom is disappearing.

In the name of the “common good,” a regulation is approved to improve water quality, a rule is enacted to assure adequate community green space, smoking is banned in establishments serving the public, environmental impact statements are required before a bridge can be built, energy-saving standards are developed that will preclude the sale of traditional incandescent bulbs, and school lunch regulations are discussed to reduce obesity in children.  The list goes on interminably as an expanding government tries to regulate all aspects of our lives.

Society is being covered with a blanket of rules, miniscule in themselves, but enormous in number.  With each, people are constrained is some way, while the power of the government increases.  No one rule is compelling enough to produce a revolutionary reaction.  Rather, it results first in a reluctant concession, then in a softening of the will, and finally in unquestioning acceptance.  As the political philosopher, F.A. Hayek, observed, “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.”

While these rules propose to serve ends that may appear praiseworthy, they are not always as they seem.  The government’s aim, for example, to foster equality is not to provide equality of opportunity, but to chase the chimerical equality of results.  Equality is a seductive concept.  It is true that we all are equal in a spiritual sense, in the eyes of God, made in His image and likeness.  But we are quite distinct in our material attributes, whether it be intelligence, physical strength, athletic ability, artistic talent, attractiveness, or other temporal characteristics.  As laudable as equality of results appears, it can only be approached through constraints on personal liberty.  The only way to make people more equal is to treat them unequally.  As one can only advance the untalented so far, to close the results gap one must restrain the more talented.  While equality of opportunity is pursued through freedom, equality of results is pursued through restraint and inequality of means, through institutional coercion and administrative discrimination.  It results in a greater centralization of government and a corresponding reduction in liberty.

As the term equality has been subverted, so the list of freedoms has been expanded beyond what was originally pronounced.  America’s Founding Fathers were concerned with freedom from coercion, from the arbitrary power to limit one’s choice of religion, ability to dissent, and right to assemble.  President Franklin Roosevelt, however, added to the range of fundamental freedoms and with it changed the role of government.  In his 1941 State of the Union Address, he proposed that everyone in the world should enjoy four freedoms: of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear.  While the first two freedoms are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution by the First Amendment, the latter two went well beyond it.  The desire to create freedom from necessity – an end which continually changes, for as present needs are met new ones arise – has become a central tenet of a welfare state approach and has led to an expansive, intrusive, paternalistic government.  The last promise, freedom from fear, has transformed the nation’s foreign policy from domestic protection to an internationalist view of America as protector of the world.

We have been moving progressively away from the basic concepts on which America was founded and more towards a strong central government that provides what it determines is good for an individual and withholds what it determines is not.  With little realization, we are experiencing a complete change in the nation’s fundamental values and in its social order.  We must decide whether we will be complacent Gullivers, or restless pursuers of liberty, affirming the dignity, moral worth and self-reliance of the individual.

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