David Adams
David Adams

The Rediscovery of Freedom

In The Discovery of Freedom, novelist and historian Rose Wilder Lane described the man who fired the first shot against the British in the American Revolution:

Not acting under orders, not led, but standing on his own feet, acting from his own will, responsible, self-controlling, he fired on the King's troops. He defied a world-empire.
. . . No one knows who began the American Revolution. Only his neighbours ever knew him, and no one now remembers any of them. He was an unknown man, an individual, the only force that can ever defend freedom.

In the United States today, we have forgotten much more than this one defiant individual. Americans have forgotten the spirit of their Revolution. The memorial statues have chilled to so much icy metal, the stretches of land on which blood was spilled in the name of freedom are now zoned, regulated, and barren. Independence Day celebrations consist of families relieved to be off work, picnicking and watching fireworks, without ever wondering at the connection between the bounty of food on their barbecue and the men who died for liberty. The country's vitality is largely momentum, lasting waves from the explosion of the Industrial Revolution. The great, defiant spirit of a nation has faded to an indefinite fog.

More than two hundred years ago, a group of people stepped so far forward that the rest of humanity was elevated by the thrust of motion. Into a nation were woven innovative, revolutionary twin concepts: natural rights and limited government. For the first time, a nation was founded on ideas, not on blood procession or blood-spilling, nor the dictates of an irksome deity grumbled through the dictates of a tyrant. The founding of this country represented, in practice, the revolutionary idea that every individual, as a human being, is the source of productive, creative energy. Each individual is alone a moral agent, and that force from another can never induce creation — but it can destroy both creations and the ability to create. In a real sense, the founding of America represented the true discovery of what is human. This discovery rests on the facts of reality, of human nature, and of productive energy — no legion of guns nor rhetoric of despots can alter this reality. Fundamentally, every human being is free.

What a climb it was. The state of human beings prior to the recognition of individual rights and the American Revolution was one of hideous poverty, frequent plagues, famines, and misery of all sorts. Wealth existed, but it was plundered wealth — held by an array of pharaohs, kings, and aristocracies. This condition was not unbroken — at certain times and in certain societies the idea of freedom was discovered to some extent — and to that extent people advanced, starved a bit less often, and began to question the fatalistic notion of one's sorry lot in life. But witness as well that one period in which an authority had nearly complete control, both politically and psychologically, over a society — namely, the Church — is known as the Dark Ages. Historically, the very notion of "progress" — that conditions could ever rise above brutal survival — is quite new.

In 1776, the otherwise slow, measured shuffle of human history was shaken off course and changed permanently. The convenience, technology, living standards and living options we take for granted today began when human energy was finally allowed to function properly — at the individual level. Not only technology, but social developments were made possible by the sovereignty of the individual. Slavery, the presence of which was a sickening contradiction in early American history, could not last the notion of equal human rights. True cultural diversity (as opposed to that mandated by an elite group of well-wishers) is possible only in the context of individualism and equal opportunity. It is significant to note that America's free market of both goods and ideas allows even the promotion of antithetical ideas, such as socialism. As Milton Friedman has pointed out, it is nearly impossible to imagine a socialist society permitting the promotion of capitalism. Indeed, the division between economic freedom and personal freedom, or of either from political freedom, is an artificial one convenient for discussion. In practice, there is only one freedom in society: that of living one's life as one chooses, and allowing others to do the same.

Very few people today comprehend the meaning of the American Revolution. Many of those who do, see it as an historical novelty to be studied, but which is now somewhat stale. Like the proverbial fish ignorant of water, we are soaked in increasing political control and despotism, but most choose not to see it. This decay of hard-won freedom, like sewage seeping onto ground, dampened feet after the Civil War and the federal centralisation of power, but Americans walked onward. The corrosive stream of government-controlled currency mitigated the Great Depression, while further government intervention to "re-stimulate" the economy, exemplified by the New Deal, exacerbated the damage tremendously and further corroded American liberty. The country was soaked with muck. The rise of judicial activism and uncontrolled regulatory agencies, of government-mandated racism ("affirmative action") and involuntary servitude (the military draft), of state creation of a criminal class (the "war on drugs"), of censorship, of subsidies, of paroled murderers, and of government extortion (either through taxes or inflation of fiat currency) — this is the rise of the swamp of tyranny, which stagnates, congeals, and perpetuates itself. Today, we are quickly submerging, and most have failed to notice the lack of oxygen.

Is this surprising? To have the courage to see things as they are, in the light of lost freedom, is to acknowledge a grotesque level of corruption and injustice. To open one's eyes and name these programs, agencies, and restrictions for what they are is to face up to a very difficult conclusion, one which offers little immediate comfort. Truly, that the United States has reached this point is not easy to admit — and most have lost the knowledge of freedom along with their actual freedom. This is precisely the way the tyrant wins. What must it have been like as a citizen in the early Soviet Union or Nazi Germany? "Surely," they must have thought, "we won't take things to extremes. Of course a Stalin (or a Hitler) is impossible! After all, this is Germany (or Russia, or Cambodia, or China . . .)." How many cried out at the loss of their freedom, such as it was where there was any? This is the way the bloodiest oppression begins, unanswered by cries of protest.

America is not exempt. Last year, six police officers raided the home of a Texas man. The man was holding a gun, but it was never fired. The officers shot him twelve times, nine times in the back. An informant had accused the man, a father of two, of drug possession. He had harmed no one. Evidence of narcotics was never found.

In California, a woman recently won a lawsuit against Philip Morris, claiming the tobacco company is responsible for her lung cancer after more than thirty years of smoking. City governments have taken suits against firearms manufacturers, claiming them responsible for violent crime. The cities are winning.

The most successful businessman in the world, Bill Gates, is under attack by the government not for any fraud or force, but for the crime of being the most successful businessman in the world.

President Clinton has proposed to invest Social Security funds, extorted from taxpayers, into the stock market, allowing tremendous government pressure on corporations. The term for government control of "private" companies is fascism.

America is not exempt, and right now, almost every mouth is silent.

The silence is not unbroken. Steady but faint, as if from far off, is a low, growling hum. It is the sound of the dissolution of liberty. The American Revolution is being dismantled slowly, in little pieces. The bullets that fired against a world empire are sucked back into their shells and the blood of thousands evaporates and is forgotten. The American Revolution is turning in reverse.

What is being destroyed? It is very simple. The government is now operating on the assumption that you are not in control of your own life. What is being lost is your freedom to act, to live your own life, to find your own success. The means of the loss of this freedom is physical force — that is the only thing which destroys freedom.

Politicians and journalists side-step the issue of freedom when identifying America's essential nature. When they speak against limitations on free speech in Singapore, the abuse of women in the Middle East, or the treatment of political prisoners in China, they avoid mentioning the fact that the common principle behind these injustices is the violation of liberty. What do we hear instead? The actions of these governments are somehow wrong, and somehow different from what we would allow in America. In a dangerous evasion, the media and politicians proclaim these countries insufficiently democratic. Democracy, they claim, is the unique strength of the United States.

Democracy without the limits of a constitution, without the limits of individual rights, is simply majority rule. The Founders of the United States recognised that historically, democracy has led, and can only lead, to tyranny. A man's rights cannot be put up to vote. The purpose of a government is to secure these rights, not to swing the collective fist of a mob. The Founders declared the United States a constitutional republic, in which democratic vote is merely a method of electing officials and establishing laws within the restraints of man's rights.

Yet today, a law is seen as just, not because it protects liberty, but because it was democratically established. If you don't like a law or official, one is told, too bad, you had a chance to vote against it. Thus, all that comes from government is good, for it is blessed by the ever-righteous vote. Not surprisingly then, politicians and the tyrants of the status quo eagerly embrace democracy alone as an ideal. To name the actual principle of liberty would too obviously condemn their own policies and positions, let alone the despotism of other countries. And while they clamour for "social democracy" throughout the world, human lives are torn and destroyed — by a show of hands.

America's glory is not democracy, but the principle of freedom. On the whole, we have forgotten this, and the fast erosion of our rights and dignity on the part of ever-increasing government is testament to our neglect — not only in America, but world-wide. But the American Revolution happened, and cannot be erased. A truth has been discovered, and so long as some are free to think and inquire, this truth will not be lost.

In the physical sciences, many actions can be accurately predicted — in the case of astronomy, for example, the position of planets hundreds of years in the future can be calculated. But in the case of human choices and history, nothing is fated. Human beings operate with a unique faculty: volition. We choose our own fates. Freedom is not inevitable. But then, neither is tyranny. Liberty in America — and liberty in societies throughout the world — was won because it was recognised and valued. In order to regain and keep our birthright of freedom, we must never forget its nature or its value.

The battle for a country of individual liberty was fought two hundred years ago, but the war has not ended. It cannot be fought merely with the cold stare of a memorial statue, a dry recitation in history classes, or with a lazy July picnic before fireworks. One must defend liberty at every opportunity, and never lose focus on its shining goal. One must live up to the courage that defied an empire. It is not too late. An individual can re-ignite a revolution.

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