June 19, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
In an earlier letter, I described and criticized the view that our Constitution gives the government the power and duty to provide us with material security because such security is necessary for democracy. In fact, as I argued, economic insecurity does not deprive any one of their rights or prevent them from exercising them.
In addition to being wrong, the argument that to ensure democracy the government must ensure our material security is paradoxical. To even attempt to provide material security, the government would have to have such power over our lives and livelihoods that the government would have all the freedom and citizens none. This is hardly what we call democracy and so, paradoxically, such an effort to preserve democracy destroys it.
If we consider the claim that government must provide material security in light of the founding of our country, however, we arrive at another and deeper paradox. The great enemy of democracy at the time of the Founding was not the effort to provide material security but the effort to provide spiritual security. For more than a thousand years, governments had claimed a right to rule based on divine sanction. They claimed to be God’s rulers on earth, and in the name of carrying out God’s will they dictated what their subjects could think and do, what they could wear or with whom they could associate. They did this, they claimed, for the good of their subjects, to ensure their salvation, their spiritual security. They thought not at all about their subjects’ material security.
The Founders noted, as others had before them, that although the rulers did not care about their subjects’ material security they did seem concerned about their own. They ensured it by wringing it from the labor of their subjects. Talk of providing spiritual security was a pretense for injustice. Whatever may have been the good intentions behind the effort to provide spiritual security, such is human nature that inevitably the vast powers necessary for such a purpose were put to tyrannical ends. As I remarked in a previous letter, “Americans know that on this earth the rule of God always means only the rule of men, who claim to act in God’s name and with his unlimited power and yet act merely in their own self-interest.”
Faced with spiritual tyranny, the Founders established a government that promised spiritual liberty. Of material security, they thought not at all and the government they established promised nothing. Human life had been too poor for anyone to have thought of material security as a goal. The Founders hoped for prosperity, certainly. They believed that the creative power and energy liberated by their new government would increase it. But they understood that human life was so needful and precarious that providing material security was something no power on earth could do.
But the new regime of liberty proved good almost beyond imagining at allowing men to produce wealth. Within little more than 100 years, it became possible for some to think distributing wealth more important than producing it; conquering want a possibility; sharing in the conquest, each citizen’s right; and ensuring it, a government’s duty, for which it should be given the necessary power. Paradoxically, such thinking was possible only because of the freedom and prosperity that such a new conception of government would destroy.
It may seem an exaggeration to say that giving government the power to provide material security will extinguish freedom. But think of the endless needs of human beings and thus the endless demands for security or freedom from those needs. Think of the already vast power of technology, extending now into the very intricacies of human biology. Think of the intrusive power of government and how power corrupts. Think of combining these powers on the assumption that they must satisfy those needs and you can easily imagine the threat to freedom. Indeed, in a final paradox, the claim that government must provide material security would lead to a government with tyrannical powers exceeding those of the spiritual tyrannies the Founders fought to overcome.
No doubt many of those who speak of government providing material security are well-intentioned. But we know where the road paved with good intentions leads. We need to remind the well-intentioned that freedom and insecurity are inseparable. That we may run, means we may fall. That a business may start up, means a business may fail. To remove this insecurity, we would have to remove freedom itself. We cannot have security, spiritual or material, unless we give up freedom. But, wrote Jefferson, “almighty God hath created the mind free.” It is that freedom and the prosperity and happiness it makes possible that is the only true compensation for the insecurity that is unavoidably part of human life.
Government cannot give us either material or spiritual security. No government would be free that attempted it. To the extent we may possess either kind of security, we must earn it by hard labor. In truth, all the American Founding promised was the freedom to engage in such unending labor, to the measure of our abilities and the limit of our time. It is not common, especially in an election year, to speak in such a way about the promise of American life. But if we remember that to speak otherwise is to flirt, however innocently, with tyranny, we will remember as well the beauty and true greatness of that original promise.