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Patrick Henry’s Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Speech

This was the question asked by the colonies before the Revolution.  As King George III tightened his grip on the colonist the people one by one were forced to reassess their relationship with a sovereign and country they long called their own.  The assault started simple enough, arbitrary taxation without ne’er a word of consultation. Much like Indiana taxing Ohio, there was no basis for a government to tax those who have no say in its running. It then spread to dissolution of colonial legislatures, hijacking judges and finally violence. As some point a large portion of the people said this is tyranny and decided no more!

Today there is no King George and despite the recent terrorist attacks the truth is we are not getting invaded anytime soon.  Despite this, in the words of Ronald Reagan, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. Today the forces allied against liberty are more often motivated by fear and concern then conquest.  As L. Brandeis said “Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” Accordingly those whose main concern is our safety and our well being are also the ones most likely to be trying to extinguish the flame of freedom that burns in our souls.

Over the last hundred years or so there has been a drive to make government more and more a part of our lives.  The reasons given for this have been to keep people safe and out of concern for their health and well being.  This ever expanding encroachment of government into our lives is reaching levels equal to and, in some cases, even greater than that which caused our ancestors to take up arms.  All being done by those that think it is their duty to protect society both from others and from themselves.

One of the best ways to control men is by playing on their emotions with fear being the most effective.  Fear is a terrible emotion, it can lead men to do that which they would otherwise avoid and accept that which they would normally fight. Those things that perpetuate fear create an atmosphere that is inherently poisonous to liberty. War and the threat of war is perhaps the ultimate source of fear and consequently is always a threat to freedom. War and the willingness to fight is sometimes necessary to keep a free society free but we cannot forget the tides of war can also sweep away at home what the soldiers are fighting for abroad.  Such is the power of fear that it has overcome even our most heralded heroes. John Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts that basically outlawed public criticism of government. President Lincoln famously suspended “Habeas Corpus”, meaning people could be arrested without warrant or cause. Wilson outlawed dissent and paid people to spy on their neighbors and who can forget the internment of Japanese Americans in WW II by FDR. Later the cold war inspired J. Edger Hoover’s FBI to open files on thousands of Americans and to put spies inside anti-war organizations. General MacArthur quipped at the time “Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear – kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it.”

The current “War on Terror” is again showing the terrible threat fear is to freedom.  Almost immediately after the attack there were Americans arrested and held on “suspicion” for over a year, in essence a defacto suspension of Habeas Corpus.  The War on terror also gave birth to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One does not have to look too far to see how the Department of Homeland Security (For some reason this brings to mind the French Revolution’s “Committee for Public Safety”) is undermining what it means to be American. George Will recently highlighted two photographers who have found themselves harassed and detained for exercising their right to take pictures freely in public. Of course DHS does more than monitor the activities of photo junkies; journalists are monitored as are bloggers. Emails are now regularly sifted through to see if people are planning anything nefarious and watch out if someone crosses some undefined line.

The TSA, that notorious step child of DHS, has also acted in ways not totally compatible to a free society.  he TSA is a force all its own within DHS. It has famously stripped searched grandmothers, fondled babies, monitored public news organizations, used citizens as spies and arresting people for just doing the things free people do. In a recent case they detained and deported a couple of British tourists for using the wrong slang in their tweets.

Government is just as much a danger to freedom when it is trying to protect people from themselves as it is when it is trying to protect them from outside threats.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every step we take towards making the State our Caretaker of our lives, by that much we move toward making the State our Master.” From regulating trans fats and now even sugar, the food police have long been active in trying to control people’s lives, going after companies, restaurants, schools and even parents that do not tow their line. Now it seems child rearing, private get togethers and even what you do in your car is up for grabs.  Of course the biggest infringement is likely to be in the area of health care. Already freedom of religion, speech, and choice is being challenged by the President’s healthcare mandate to Catholic healthcare providers that they must provide birth control.  The implementation of Obamacare will further erode liberty. It will put the government in charge of peoples medical records, medical choices and by default their health. A system that is designed to drive private insurers, who can be held accountable, out of business and leave the public with a untouchable government system.

This all leads to a central question, at what point tyranny? At what point do enough people decide that the expanding role of government has gone to far and has to stop? It is obvious that government intrusion into the lives of citizens will not decline on its own. It was the 1940’s when Nobel Prize winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote the book The Road to Serfdom. In it he showed that the larger a government becomes so does the inevitable tendency to remove control and power away from the people. One of the prime reasons for this is the ceding of more and more power to bureaucracies. Today the EPA, FDA, USDA and others have the right to search without warrant, fine without giving recourse and make laws without public input. Similarly under the guise of zero tolerance; schools, local governments and police have routinely punished the innocent or unwary along with the guilty.  (Sometimes with deadly consequences)

As heralded as Hayek’s book was the fact is he had no great insight, what he pointed out had been known for at least as long as the United States has been in existence. Jefferson warned of it as did the historian Tocqueville. It is the very reason the founding fathers put their attention on limiting the role of government in people’s lives, especially the central government.

One of the basic truths people must realize in order to stay free is that freedom does not come without risk. There are risks involved in living in a free state and these are inherent and unavoidable.  Those who try to legislate away these risks cannot do so without imperiling freedom itself. Benjamin Franklin famously said “Those who will trade liberty for security deserve neither”. He could have easily added “and they will receive neither”. As benevolence of government expands so does its infringement into the lives of its citizens. As a Consequence more and more people find themselves looking over their shoulders or cowering in fear as they try to enjoy what was once their right to do.

The Question Remains, At What Point Tyranny?

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them”  Thomas Jefferson.

The Conservative Mind

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