Category Archives: Classical Liberalism

The Anthem: What Do We Stand For?

Like so many, I have a negative visceral reaction when I see athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem as a form of protest.  I like to try to understand my visceral reactions if I can.  Understanding them helps me to come to a logical, reasoned decision as to whether they’re warranted or not.  I realized though, as I considered the question, that my answers were still mostly instinctive rather than well-reasoned.  “It’s just not right” or “they’re just trying to stir up trouble” don’t really cut it.  I had to dig much deeper than that.  It occurred to me that it might be easier for me to determine why I’m motivated to stand-up for the national anthem than why I’m angry and frustrated at others choosing not to do so.  Perhaps that process might lead me to the answers I was looking for.

I’ve heard a lot of reasons some folks have said they think people should stand for the anthem.  They don’t generally ring true to me and I often find myself frustrated, shaking my head and thinking “that’s not right…that’s not why I stand for the anthem”.  Some say not standing is disrespectful to soldiers and veterans who have served under the flag and risked their lives as directed by the commander in chief, sometimes for our very freedom from an encroaching tyranny.  While I respect and appreciate soldiers completely, and have no complaint with them whatsoever on those occasions when I disagree with policy decisions that may send them in harm’s way, my respect and appreciation for them is not why I stand.  I still get a swell in my chest and once in a while, even goosebumps, when I hear the anthem and see the flag presented at a ball game.  Those reactions don’t come merely from respecting and appreciating soldiers and veterans.  There’s something deeper going on there.

More generally I’ve heard some suggest that it’s simply unpatriotic not to stand.  The idea is that one should stand for the anthem in order to demonstrate fidelity to the country, no matter what.  Though this probably comes a little closer to my personal perspective, I can’t quite get there either.  I think in particular the “no matter what” bit gives me pause and prevents me from jumping on board.  I’m sure there must be hypothetical circumstances in which I might decide not to stand for the anthem anymore, though I’d prefer to avoid the discomfort of considering what those circumstances might be.

Like most of us, I started standing for the anthem because that’s what I was taught to do, and I don’t discount that factor as a motivation for why I think it’s important to stand now.  I suspect that a general respect and appreciation for the country legitimately known as ‘the land of opportunity’ as well as good old fashioned tradition are not insignificant factors motivating most of us to stand for the anthem.   But I don’t think they’re sufficiently moving so as to account for the sense of pride or the goosebumps.  There has to be more.

As I grew up, learned, and gained a deeper understanding of the American experiment and what it had accomplished, I came to a real appreciation of America and an understanding of how very fortunate I am to have been born here.  In later years as I read and studied even more about the principles upon which the country was based such as limited government, a strict adherence to the rule of law, equality under the law and the unalienable rights of individuals, my appreciation grew more profound.

Not everything in our history has been perfect, nor could it have been.  We call this planet we inhabit ‘Earth’ rather than ‘Heaven’ for a reason.  Only delusional Utopian dreamers have ever suggested that the perfectibility of mankind is even approachable.  No human institution will ever be perfect.  But in the span of history, we’ve seen only one society become such a desired destination and such a consistent source of human hope and happiness.  That society was created as a direct result of the institution of those founding principles.  Such a society could only exist in an atmosphere of individual freedom, autonomy and responsibility, conditions which only existed because of those founding principles which informed the creation of limited, rights respecting governments.

When I feel pride in my chest or goosebumps on my skin, it’s because of those principles and the wellspring of goodness and happiness their implementation created.  Those principles and the common creed we once shared which allowed those principles to remain in place and essentially unadulterated for so long, are truly what gave rise to American exceptionalism.  Should ever the sad day come that I conclude those principles are dead from sea to shining sea, I’ll probably still stand for the anthem for the sake of tradition and a nostalgic appreciation for what once was, but instead of pride in my chest, or goosebumps on my skin, I’ll have a tear in my eye.  Over the years, those principles have been tortured.  They’ve been re-defined by those who have tried to hijack them for purposes contrary to their actual meaning.  Sometimes they’ve even been vilified outright.  And they’re in danger of fading into obscurity as we fail to teach them to our children.  But they’re not gone yet.  The ideal of small government and big individual liberty is alive in the hearts and minds of millions, if not in the halls of Congress or our state capitols.  If embraced and re-implemented, that ideal will return society to the exceptionalism of which we are so proud.

In the end, my reaction to those who refuse to stand is no longer visceral, but it’s as negative as ever.  I see those who started the effort as petulant and self-aggrandizing and the more recent tag-alongs as drone-like, choosing the ease of capitulation over the effort of exercising their own judgment.  In any case, the effort further obscures the greatness of what America once was and could be again.  It works to push that greatness a few pages further back in our history book and, I fear, toward being excluded altogether from a future edition.  Their kneeling serves as a stark reminder of how under-appreciated and much endangered are our founding principles and what our long term fidelity to them achieved for humanity.  The unique and successful idea of America warrants much more.

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Citizens, Government And Big Data

Classically, the only proper functions of government are 1) to provide security from outside threats, 2) to administer justice and 3) to secure individual rights.  A more recent development has been the general acknowledgment that government also has a significant role with respect to infrastructure such as road, airports and utilities.

Of course, our government has gone far beyond these well-defined limits and has inserted itself into virtually every aspect of our personal and economic lives.  Practically everything is regulated in some manner –  the rate of pay for which we may agree to work, the specifications of our homes and vehicles, the information we must be provided on food and merchandise, the types of light bulbs we can use – the list is so long it’s beyond the capacity of any one person to complete.

As frustrating as such examples are, there are circumstances in which government interference in society goes beyond such typical meddling, big brotherisms and into a nightmarish arena where the concept of who is to serve whom is turned upside down.  As troublesome as they are, most government regulations are ostensibly intended for the benefit of society and the citizenry.  But there is a unique class of government regulation in which the citizenry is regulated/controlled/manipulated, not for its own good, but for the good of the government.

One example is the proliferation of testing in public school systems, not to monitor the advancement of individual students, but to create, record and utilize ‘big-data’ in the service of the school systems and the governments that run them.  It short, millions of students spend millions of hours doing work, not for their own benefit, but to create data for the government to use.

Even more recently, as this article explains in more detail, the “Commission On Evidence-Based Policymaking” was created by a bi-partisan Congress to analyze how to use data collected by governmental agencies including educational and workforce databases in order to determine how well government programs are working.  It’s a classic “tale wags dog” story.  Government overreach results in innumerable programs and agencies doing the unlimited work of government.  In order to measure, evaluate and improve these myriad functions of government, the Commission wants ‘big data’ on citizens.  A current ban prevents gathering such data but the Commission would like to see the ban lifted.  It’s justification is an eerie example of how, under the guise of improving government, the citizenry can be transformed from the ‘served’ to the ‘servers’.  “(B)ans on data collection and use create a serious impediment to evidence-based policymaking, and could make it difficult or impossible to hold government activity accountable.”

Get it?  Our behemoth government says it needs your personal information so it can monitor itself and make itself better.  So questions arise.  Are there any impositions upon the citizenry which are not permissible in the interest of monitoring or improving government?  If so, what are they?  Are there limits upon which the people will insist?  Or should privacy concerns always come second to whatever the government decides will make itself more efficient?  More broadly, government is already largely unmanageable, corrupt and incompetent.  Why would anyone think it is a good idea to turn over all our personal information to its great computers to be sliced, diced, examined and manipulated to God only knows what ultimate purposes?  Who serves whom?

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Clarifying Mussolini

After World War I signaled the end of government by aristocracy in Europe, a lot of debate ensued regarding alternatives to replace them.  As autocratic dynasties were relegated to history, the next generation of leaders and academics argued the question of how nations should be governed in a post-aristocratic era.

In 1932, Benito Mussolini wrote about fascism, seeking to distinguish it favorably from other systems, including democratically structured governments.  In doing so, he conflated democracy and classical liberalism.  He wrote:  “Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation  Fascism has taken up an attitude of complete opposition to the doctrines of (classical) liberalism born in the political field and the field of economics…”

Mussolini’s initial comments are accurate—pure democracy or ‘majority rule’ cannot effectively “direct human society”.  But he later seemingly equates democracy with classical liberalism by using the terms more or less interchangeably.  In truth, classical liberalism is the antithesis of majority rule.  Classical liberalism is a moral and social philosophy standing for strictly limited government.  Government authority should be limited to the protection of individual rights, ensuring security from outside and internal threats, and administering civil and criminal justice.

America was founded on classical liberal first principles and the governmental system the founders thought best to safeguard these principles was a constitutional republic—a representative government which, though it would operate on democratic principles, would be constrained by the Constitution’s strict limits on government power.  The reason America was not a country where the majority attempted to “direct human society” was because the government was so effectively limited.  Only when the Constitution has been disregarded, has American government slid ever closer toward the conditions Mussolini describes—a democratically instituted government attempting to direct all of society.

Mussolini also made a prediction which proved sadly accurate, but not in the way he anticipated.  “(F)or if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism (liberalism always signifying individualism) it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism, and hence the century of the state…”  We now know that Mussolini’s particular brand of fascism failed upon defeat in World War II.  But communism and socialism gained an ever larger foothold through much of the 20th century and fascist principles are often employed by governments without regard to the manner in which leaders are selected or otherwise established in office. Further, the American government slowly but consistently metamorphosized from a constitutionally constrained republic founded on the principles of classic liberalism to representative majoritarianism as the Constitution’s constraints on the government’s power were systematically diminished over time.  This didn’t happen because it was inevitable, or because classical liberalism doesn’t work.  It happened because we permitted the Constitution to be too much and too often disregarded, rendering it weaker and less effective as a constraint on government.

Viewed from the turn of the millennium and beyond, the 20th century proved to be “the century of the state” as Mussolini predicted, not through the despotism he expected, but at the hands of democratic governments with powers too broad to allow classical liberal principles to thrive.  Liberty and statism are inversely correlated.  One only expands by displacing the other.  At the turn of the 20th century, America was a stalwart of classical liberalism.  As a result of the diminishment of our Constitution throughout remainder of the century after Mussolini’s comments, America devolved into an ever more statist country.  Though it is now perhaps one of the last fields upon which the battle for strictly limited government and unalienable individual rights is still waged, that battle is now mostly confined to the arena of ideas.  Our political reality is that nearly all of our elected representatives now embrace the use of unconstitutional power and expansive state authority far beyond what our first principles contemplate or our real Constitution authorizes.

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