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.”
Those “chains of the Constitution” have often been illusory or merely a placebo phantasm for government victims. Politicians perennially invoke the Constitution to prove that citizens have no reason to fear the government. When the House of Representatives considered the PATRIOT Act in October 2001, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) assured fellow members of Congress that “the bill does not do anything to take away the freedoms of innocent citizens. Of course we all recognize that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prevents the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures, and that is why this legislation does not change the United States Constitution or the rights guaranteed to citizens of this country.” Sensenbrenner talked as if that the mere existence of the Bill of Rights shackled Congress. This is akin to claiming that because automobiles have brakes, drivers can never exceed the speed limit. The PATRIOT Act unleashed a constitutional crime wave, as the Bush administration suspended habeas corpus and conducted waves of secret arrests, unleashed the FBI to conduct hundreds of thousands of warrantless searches, and entitled the National Security Agency to vacuum up Americans’ emails and other personal data.
American presidents take an oath of office solemnly swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But this has long been an empty ritual, akin to Roman emperors making public sacrifices to pagan gods they knew did not exist. Fealty to the Constitution has evaporated in part because philosophical trends have long favored absolute power.
Intellectual servility has been perennially profitable and there has never been a shortage of writers exalting supreme rulers. Writing in 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes labeled the state as Leviathan, “our mortal God.” Leviathan signifies a government whose power is unbounded, with a right to dictate almost anything and everything to the people under its sway. While Hobbes was reviled in the first century after his book was published, his ideas later became fashionable as academics rushed to echo his derision of “tyrannophobia.” Hobbes declared that it is forever prohibited for subjects in “any way to speak evil of their sovereign” regardless of how badly they are abused. Hobbes offered “suicide pact sovereignty”: to recognize a government’s existence is to automatically concede the government’s right to destroy everything in its domain.
Hobbes profoundly influenced subsequent political philosophers, including German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who trumpeted the doctrine that history is the actualization of freedom. But Hegel was not using “freedom” in the sense that the Founding Fathers did. Instead, Hegel declared, “The State in-and-for-itself is the ethical whole, the actualization of freedom.” Hegel also proclaimed that “[t]he State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth” and derided the notion of freedom as individual choice as “uneducated superficiality.” Hegel’s slavish version of freedom was difficult to distinguish from Hobbes’ s totalitarian vision of sovereignty.
Hegel had a profound influence on communism (via Marx), fascism, and on the most popular philosopher in Washington in recent decades. Francis Fukuyama, a State Department functionary, hailed Hegel as the supreme “philosopher of freedom.” In 1989, Fukuyama proclaimed the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” and boasted that “we in the liberal West occupy the final summit of the historical edifice.” He announced “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama’s “law of history” supposedly proved that government was no longer a threat to freedom. By making political power appear innocuous, Fukuyama became an instant hero inside the Beltway. Fukuyama’s “end of history” revelation was zealously embraced by the political-media establishment. Fukuyama provided a law of history that supposedly negated all the warnings from history about political power.
Fukuyama’s doctrine “liberated” presidents in the name of freedom. In his 2002 National Security Strategy, President George W. Bush echoed Fukuyama’s view: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” At a 2002 Republican fundraiser dinner, Bush declared: “We will do whatever it takes to make the homeland secure and to make freedom reign across the world.” In his 2005 inaugural address, Bush whooped, “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.” Bush used “freedom bosh” to sanctify his wars, torture regime, and militaristic threats against any foreign regime that disobeyed Washington.
Why would history stop after either liberty or democracy is achieved? The experience of many countries has been “one person, one vote, one time.” Faith in democracy as a perpetual guarantor of freedom is tricky to reconcile with the collapse of more than thirty democracies around the globe in recent years. Few of the democracies that have survived have fastidiously respected citizens’ rights.
Some libertarians are confident that, despite post–9/11 debacles, liberty will inevitably triumph in the end. But why would freedom be safer in the future than now? Because of a law of history that was never enacted by God, a convocation of cardinals, or even the Arkansas state legislature?
Presuming that America or any other nation is destined to be free lulls people against potential oppressors. Author Robert Anton Wilson observed, “Every national border in Europe marks the place where two gangs of bandits got too exhausted to kill each other any more and signed a treaty.” Similarly, the current extent of government power marks the boundary of political onslaughts into the private domain of liberty.
There will be no perpetual truce along this border, because political marauders will continually create new pretexts to invade citizens’ lives. The private domain relies primarily on voluntary agreements, independence, and peaceful coexistence. The political domain relies on command and control, subjugation, and threats and penalties.
One of the greatest perils to the private domain is the notion that Leviathan is more legitimate than liberty. Downplaying government coercion is the key to this propaganda coup. For most of the American media, compelling submission to political commands is a nonissue, equivalent of the sun rising in the east each morning.
At the time when political power began soaring, in the 1930s, American political thinking systematically disregarded the danger from government. In the 1940s, as Professor David Ciepley observed, “the State was dropped from American social science, as part of the reaction to the rise of totalitarianism. All traces of state autonomy, now understood as ‘state coercion,’ were expunged from the image of American democracy.” Ciepley explained that “the emergence of Hitler and Stalin as the ultimate social engineers led American political scientists to … fall silent about all such activities in the American governmental system. If totalitarianism means elite social engineering, then American democracy must mean popular control.” Democracy became the purported champion of freedom, because people were taught that democracies were inherently nonoppressive. But as Senator John Taylor warned two centuries ago, “Self-government is flattered to destroy self-government.”
For many people, liberty is an abstraction until government agents ravage their lives. A lucid recognition of the coercive nature of Leviathan is vital for the defense of freedom. Leviathan’s abuses and atrocities must be weaponized to awaken as many people as possible to the perils they face.
“Legitimacy” spawns a political fog that obscures people’s recognition of their own victimhood. Lenin reputedly said that the capitalists would sell communists the rope with which the capitalists were hanged. Similarly, Leviathan perennially provides ample gunpowder for detonating its legitimacy. Leviathan without legitimacy is simply a regime that must rely on brute force to compel submission to its decrees. At some point, the brute force becomes too great for regime lackeys to cover up.
Once legitimacy is lost, governments can collapse like overheated soufflés. For instance, East Bloc regimes imploded much faster than almost anyone expected. Prior to 1989, Soviet leaders believed that cosmetic reforms would keep people subdued despite a failing economic system. CIA analysts predicted that 100+ million people in East Europe would remain docile and downtrodden for decades longer. But proliferating protests in several nations spurred the Hungarian government to permit a breach in the Iron Curtain along the Austrian border in May 1989. That breach quickly spurred a flood of humanity rushing to escape communism, taking with them the tattered remnants of regimes’ legitimacy. Six months later, the Berlin Wall was breached and governments fell like dominos. On Christmas Day, Romanian soldiers celebrated by lining their dictator and his wife up in front of a stone wall and executing them.
Most contemporary governments have more popular support than Soviet Bloc regimes received in the 1980s. But sustained abuses can be an acid drip that eventually topples any government regardless of its purported mandate. More Americans believe in witches, ghosts, and astrology nowadays than trust the federal government. In the covid-19 era, America is degenerating into a cage keeper democracy, where voters merely select the politicians who place them under house arrest.
Expecting liberty to permanently triumph would require rulers to miraculously become selfless if not self-sacrificing. But, as Hayek warned in his essay “Why the Worst Get on Top,” power is a magnet for the dregs of humanity. Faith in the state will continue reviving as long as some people feel entitled to domineer other people. Political action pays a higher premium on deceit than almost any other human activity and thus will remain perilous to everything decent. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” as our forefathers recognized in the nineteenth century.
To presume that liberty is inevitable is to absolve oneself from fighting oppression. As soon as people drop the reins on government, politicians will leash the people. Rather than hoping for an “end of history” triumph, people must battle forever to defend their rights. As long as individuals continue to defy oppressors, the seeds of resistance will produce bountiful harvests of freedom in better times.
This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.