“Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties?”

by
November 16th, 2009

James Madison, the father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, asked, “Who are the Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties?” in a 1792 article in the National Gazette, a Republican newspaper critical of the ruling Federalist party. The question is always relevant.

For nearly a century, so-called “progressives” have insisted that they are entitled to public confidence for all they have done to improve people’s lives. Equality of condition has been the guiding principle of policies that curbed the powers of the business class, reined in the armed forces, provided social services, promoted world peace, redistributed income and protected minorities.

But if we take seriously Madison’s choice of terms, we can see that he was not committed to changing anyone’s conditions so much as securing their right to change their condition for themselves. Liberty is the condition we should be protecting, not government’s power to rearrange people’s lives.

It is not surprising that we should believe or expect the government to be benevolent, despite the numerous checks and balances which the Framers of the Constitution wisely wove into the document. For we must in the final analysis be governed by virtuous human beings.

The question, again, always is, who are we to trust? The progressives’ claim appears quite strong, for who can quarrel with a desire to make things better for people? But, again, that depends on what actually makes us better.

There is an alternative the progressives’ claims, the sheepdog narrative, one that I had the pleasure of reading lately. According to this account, there are wolves and sheep in the world and the former are bound to make life miserable for the latter. But, there are also sheepdogs in the world who are as ferocious as the wolves but are dedicated to protecting the sheep. Because of many sheep’s defeatist attitude (and wolves’ guile), the situation appears hopeless.

Too often the sheep hope that the wolves can be persuaded to stop terrorizing them by appealing to their reason and decency. But as often as this appeasement policy has been tried it has failed, as the victims of German and Japanese aggression can attest.

Granted, government is a kind of gamble because the very qualities of the sheepdogs that are useful in protecting the sheep can be turned against them. But if care is taken to ensure the sheepdogs’ loyalty to the herd, this problem is not insoluble.

Most Americans have little or no difficulty appreciating the sacrifices made on their behalf by our warriors, and even believe that they genuinely possess the requisite moral virtue for this purpose. But our nation’s military defenders have their detractors, who resent both the warriors and the huge reservoir of goodwill they has earned from their fellow citizens.

Progressives spend an inordinate amount of time maligning the motives of those who they feel are a threat to millions of victims. They are right to believe that human psychology has more to do with politics and society than is generally believed. Their mistake consists in exempting themselves from the analysis.

People with an academic background, such as Barack Obama, deeply resent the fact that business men and women are a lot better at providing goods and services than they are. They feel no less resentful that warriors contribute more tangibly to national safety than they do. So it is not surprising that breaking the hold of entrepreneurs and soldiers on the public mind is foremost on their list of objectives.

Imposing onerous rules and taxes on business enterprises is a great way to show their owners who’s boss. And cutting back on defense spending and holding endless (and pointless) negotiations with hostile nations is equally useful for putting military personnel in their place.

Those with overweening ambitions will always seek ways to elevate themselves over others. Pretending to be the friend of the “common people” happens to be the favored strategy of those who are left behind in the marketplace competition or cannot win wars.

Among the signals that President Obama is sending with his dithering in Afghanistan is his manifest discomfort with having to turn to the armed forces to achieve his objectives. Placing his faith in the spoken and written word, as academics are inclined to do, he cannot abide men of action. For, Abraham Lincoln once said, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Of course, when Lincoln honored the soldiers’ sacrifice, he established himself as a true keeper of the people’s liberties.

The author can be reached at rhreeb@verizon.net

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