July 15, 2006
The left is forever pushing the term “sustainable.” It seems to mean “severely limited under central government control.” Permit me to repossess that perfectly good word. Let it mean what it ought to: capable of lasting without artificial props.
Then let’s apply it where it’s desperately needed: Creating Sustainable Freedom.
But how? So far, nobody has figured that out.
Freedom can’t be sustained by bits of paper, however noble their intent.
Freedom can’t be sustained by guns, useful though guns may be in discouraging both freelance and tax-supported gangsters.
Freedom certainly can’t be sustained with vast edifices of legislation, regulation, and punishment. That’s one of the great cons of all time — believing the very destroyers of freedom can be freedom’s saviors.
To endure, freedom must be self-governing and self-regenerating.
That’s not to say that freedom doesn’t require effort. But when conditions are right, freedom will be sustained by fulfilling efforts (like an artist or inventor makes when “in the flow”) rather than desperate ones (like a homeowner makes when her roof is collapsing and her house foundation is crumbling).
Jefferson’s “eternal vigilance” admonition is, I think, off base. Nobody can be eternally vigilant. Nor is there any satisfaction in trying. It’s perfectly understandable that few people care about freedom when caring about freedom means nothing but Sisyphian labor.
Sustainable freedom will begin on sound footings, and its maintenance will be more humanly do-able, perhaps even pleasurable.
But is that possible? And if so, how?
That’s the sort of thing I’ve been pondering here at the Hilltop Hermitage.
Last column, I contemplated the qualities of a free man — the individual with whom freedom is born, lives, and doesn’t die until the body dies.
We need that man — who may just as easily be a woman — if we’re to have any hope. But we don’t need him to stand ramrod straight, perpetually on guard. We’re going to need that person to live with a certain style and class.
First, though, I want to define the problem that free man of character faces. It seems to me there are four major elements that cause freedom always to fail.
1. Freedom’s Fatal Flaw
Neitzsche had it right: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
The most crushing adversity may destroy us. But some adversity is necessary to teach us empathy, build preseverance, and cause us to question received truths.
Ease, on the other hand (as our Puritain great-great-great grampas would have told us), produces indolence. And mental sloth.
Look around. Freedom produces prosperity. But prosperity breeds apathy. Wealth breeds spoiled children — who grow into spoiled, childlike adults, demanding satisfaction of every whim now, now, now. Limited government produces the illusion that government is harmless and beneficial. Such “friendly” rule in turn leads deluded activists to spawn governments that resemble Audrey II.
In other words, freedom literally breeds the type of people who destroy freedom.
Without free men of character, freedom dies.
It probably started in the caves. We discovered that a stronger or smarter human could best lead the mastodon hunt or organize the defense against the neighboring tribe. Those who rallied behind that “alpha human” had a better chance of survival. Those who didn’t were driven out, produced fewer offspring, and died young.
Thus we developed as born and bred alpha-seekers, always hoping to place ourselves under the authority of the one who could best protect us.
When the alpha was merely a man among a small group, he could be challenged and overthrown. If he became ineffective, out with him. If he was too cruel, bop him over the head and leave his body for the jackels.
But now that we’re “civilized” we’ve institutionalized the alpha. The alpha isn’t just the president, king, dictator, or generalissimo. It’s the whole structure, from the flag atop the Capitol to the lowliest bureaucrat in the most pointless bureau. We may despise that petty bureaucrat, but we still fear to challenge him because he is the terrifying, in-our-face embodiment of alpha power.
Consider that. Instead of one alpha, “civilization” has made us subject to thousands of alpha-avatars, from the cop with a bad attitude to the tax man with a quota to fulfill. They are no better than we. But they rule us by fear. We tremble before a host of petty creeps who, in a just society, would be deservedly powerless over anyone but themselves.
A few people want to overthrow the alpha human at the top of this vast alpha edifice. But they simply want to replace him with a different alpha. The vast institutional alpha structure doesn’t change — except to grow more bloated, remote, cruel, inefficient, and arbitrary.
Without self-governance, freedom dies.
3. The Loyalty Deception.
This could be a corollary of problem 2. But it’s bad enough to be a freedom disaster of its own.
First we set up our institutional alphas — governments (and in the past, tyrannical churches). Then we imbue them with imaginary goodness they never possess. For more than a thousand years, our ancestors persuaded themselves that an oozingly corrupt Roman church was the fount of all goodness on earth. For 20 years, westerners and Soviet citizens alike persuaded themselves that mass murderer Stalin was kindly “Uncle Joe.”
Today, a vast police-state apparatus is being constructed around us. Our president openly tells us he’s above every law. Congress wouldn’t recognize the Bill of Rights if it stepped on it (which it regularly does). But millions of hearts still soar as we listen to politicians prating about our “freedoms.”
We believe governments protect us — when in fact they are the most vile and deadly mass-murderers of all history. Then we shun dissenters and Cassandras who try to warn us. Why? Because seeing governments for what they really are would upset us too much. It might cause us to change, might cause us to become discontent with what is. Far easier to burn the heretic (in the past) or dismiss him as a wing-nut, a “paper terrorist,” or an “illegal protestor” today.
The Loyalty Deception often begins with skilled alpha illusionists. But blind loyalty opens the way, ultimately, for the pettiest and most corrupt of men to rule over the cruelest and most corrupt of systems.
Mass self-delusion can’t support the hard realities of freedom. So freedom dies.
4. Larceny’s Lunch
We know perfectly well that somebody always has to pay for every free lunch.
We just hope it’ll be the other guy.
Humans have always longed to get more than they give. Empires have risen and fallen on bread and circuses, on plunder, envy, and the desire to grab what somebody else has created. People have scrambled for the silver flung from the parade coach of the Grand Leader, never asking whose labor provided the leader’s largess.
But we new, improved, sophisticated modern people couldn’t countenance such crass grasping and groveling. No, we “civilized” beings have driven this natural tendency even lower: We’ve declared it a virtue to steal Peter’s hard-earned money to pay grasping Paul (while feeding a dozen bureaucrats in between). We’ve decreed it to be the decent thing to do.
Voluntary charity to the less fortunate is a virtue. But we applaud ourselves for our “generosity” as we giddily grab and fling around what isn’t ours to give.
Thus we’ve taken a shameful blot on human nature and enshrined it as thoroughly as our ancestors enshrined the Borgia popes or the Emperor Caligula.
Freedom can’t live on thievery. So freedom dies.
To sum: Free men of character establish secure, prosperous, just societies. Those societies in turn breed generations who scorn the very notion of character or self-responsibility. Unthinking people hand their loyalties to alpha men and alpha institutions. They turn their eyes away from the ugly realities of power, prefering to see starry skies and waving flags. The alphas buy their continued loyalties by falsely promising protection and “free” benefits.
In this cycle, freedom doesn’t have a chance. On the rare occasions it’s forged, it immediately begins to die.
So will freedom invariably implode? Does it always carry within it the seeds of its own destruction? Do human flaws doom us to return again and again to tyranny?
It’s been so up to now. It’s certainly so in America, where tattered scraps of paper meant to keep us free have become toilet paper for creatures whose mediocrity is equaled only by their ambition. Free men of character — what few there are left — separate themselves from the Roman orgy of spending, borrowing, controling, and killing that replaces paper-limited government. If a horse was elected to the Senate, they wouldn’t be surprised. They might even consider it an improvement.
In a world of corrupt and institutionalized alphas peddling stolen goods, free men withdraw from civic life. They build computers and space rockets. They retreat to hidden backwoods gulches. They become expatriates. They defend themselves without permits. They school their own children. They deceive the tax man. They do what free men must to survive in a society that has no use for them. And they hope for a freedom that might return someday.
But again, is this the invariable end of freedom?
I don’t think so. I believe we could produce Sustainable Freedom with a little help from a paradigm shift.
I believe we could find a way for societies consistently to produce a substantial minority of free men and women of character. I believe that those individuals could then inspire others — without coercion, propaganda, false loyalties, or incredibly costly free lunches — to think and grow in freedom.