We are everywhere reminded that liberty is the “delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton wrote. Thus we find that freedom, responsibility, and even manners, seem to wax and wane together. The Founders, schooled in ancient and modern history, intended to keep the state in its proper sphere, to prevent it from invading domains suited to the church, family, and individual.
But they also knew their institutional structure was not sufficient to sustain a free society. In their private correspondence and their public speeches, they frequently remind us that liberty cannot sustain itself absent a moral commitment to the ideal of liberty itself. Tragically, today that commitment is not as strong as it once was. The state has marched with a determination, while the defenders of liberty have lacked nerve. As a result, we tolerate levels of barbarism, of official and unofficial varieties, that would have seemed unthinkable only ten or twenty years ago.
Every public opinion poll shows the first concerns in the minds of people today are the uncertainty of economic life and crime. As we examine those two concerns, we find they are interrelated.
Our economic difficulties are due largely to a loss of economic liberties. The freedom of enterprise is restricted with each day in legislation proscribing a myriad of new costs on business. Red tape makes it difficult for business to accomplish its primary job of serving the public. Instead it comes to serve those who enforce the regulations. In a more direct way, taxes and mandates also have redirected the telos of enterprise away from the public toward other forms of authority. When the freedom of enterprise diminishes in this way, so too does our prosperity and the security engendered by it.
We have come to expect a major leap in federal power to occur every quarter or so, and we act as if it can be tolerated in perpetuity. We seem resigned to constant increases in public debt, wealth redistribution, and economic planning. Troops of social workers, inspectors, auditors, and bureaucrats are quartered in the very private spheres the Fathers attempted to constitutionally insulate from public officials. We are in the process of erecting arbitrary government. Compare today’s federal policy with Mr. Jefferson’s grievances against the English crown.
With the decline of economic freedom our society has forgotten the boundaries of private property. If we truly believed the commandment against coveting our neighbors’ goods, a multitude of Washington lobbyists would lose their jobs tomorrow. As that law wanes, so too does the commandment against theft, which is routinely ignored in the formation of policy and in the private conduct of the citizenry.
How can we recapture liberty? I don’t disparage “policy wonks” and their concerns, but no technical solution can ultimately work to secure our future. Liberty rests on a firm moral foundation which must derive from faith. That faith has a strong private component, but it also has public representatives in ministers, priests, and rabbis, as well as lay leaders in religious bodies. It is to these people that the culture will turn when all technical fixes have failed. If these people can become partisans of the moral case for liberty, our battle is half won.
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