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Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Never-Ending Battle between Leviathan and Liberty | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on March 19, 2021

https://mises.org/wire/never-ending-battle-between-leviathan-and-liberty

James Bovard

The notion that Americans will always be free is part of the catechism that is force-fed to public school students. For hundreds of years, philosophers, politicians, and reformers have touted a law of history that assures the ultimate triumph of freedom. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

But few political follies are more hazardous than presuming that one’s liberties are forever safe. None of the arguments on why liberty is inevitable can explain why it has not yet arrived. Most of the human race existed with little or no freedom for 95+ percent of recorded history. If liberty is God’s gift to humanity, then why were most people who ever lived on Earth denied this divine bequest?

Many efforts at limiting state power have failed almost immediately. In the thirteenth century, oppressed English nobles revolted and sought to bind their kings in perpetuity. King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, petulantly accepting a limit to his prerogative to pillage everything in his domain. While the Magna Carta is celebrated nowadays as the dawn of a new age, it failed to even bind the king who signed the document. The ink on his signature was barely dry before King John brought in foreign forces and proceeded to slaughter the barons who forced his signature. King John died just after his vengeance commenced, providing a respite for Englishmen. In the final realm, the Magna Carta was simply a political pledge that was honored only insofar as private courage and weaponry compelled sovereigns to limit their abuses.

History is a chronology of nations pillaged by reckless regimes. English kings recited coronation oaths that limited their power. Such oaths were as binding as a congressional candidate’s campaign promises. Rampaging kings sometimes converted smouldering discontent into a raging fire of resistance. Historian Thomas Macaulay summarized England’s path to its Glorious Revolution of 1688: “Oppression speedily did what philosophy and eloquence … failed to do.” King James II was ousted in 1688 and Parliament speedily enacted laws to curb all subsequent monarchs.

The United States was the first government to be created with strict limitations on its power, enshrined in the Constitution. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The Founders included numerous checks and balances in the Constitution to restrain political ambition. But they were never so naïve as to presume that a parchment barrier would keep American liberty safe in perpetuity.

Within the first decade of the nation’s existence, Congress and President John Adams enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which destroyed freedom of the press and speech. Thomas Jefferson responded by writing a resolution in 1799 that warned, “Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence…. In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Senator John Taylor, in his 1821 book Tyranny Unmasked, scoffed at presuming “our good theoretical system of government is a sufficient security against actual tyranny.”

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Author:

James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including 2012’s Public Policy Hooligan, and 2006’s Attention Deficit Democracy. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.

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