This talk was presented in Roanoke at the Third Annual Liberty Tree Dinner of the 2nd Tuesday Constitutional Group on September 15th, 2012.
Good evening. I’m delighted and honored to be here. I want to talk today about liberty, how it is defined in practical terms, and what is required of us to gain and preserve it. I’ll talk about a man, dead for centuries, who spent much of his life in exile or in prison. A man who led a movement that inspired and informed our own founding fathers, a man whose ideas and example may well be appropriate for our own era of reclaiming liberty in our own country.
Before we examine the life of this hero of liberty, I’d like to mention another young man, who lived in the mid 1500s, in France. Etienne de la Boetie was still a teenager when he wrote a three-part essay entitled The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. De La Boetie divided his essay as follows:
In Part I he asked simply,”Why do people obey a government?” His answer was that people tend to enslave themselves, and let themselves be governed even if by tyrants. He believed that freedom from servitude comes not from violent action, but from a simply refusal to serve. Tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support.
In Part I, de la Boetie observed that liberty, not servitude, is the natural condition of the people.” Servitude is fostered when people are raised in subjection, when people are trained to adore their rulers. He observes that while freedom is forgotten by many, there are always some who will never submit.
In Part III, he writes that if things are to change, one must realize the extent to which the foundation of tyranny lies in the vast networks of corrupted people with an interest in maintaining tyranny.
De La Boetie was fascinated to find that throughout history, the majority willingly does the bidding of the minority. This obedience is voluntary. He argued that it would have to be, because there would be no possible way for any minority to force any majority to do anything, except by their consent. He noticed that this required consent was often “manufactured,” to recall Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s term in their 1988 book on media.
Manufactured consent, in this case, relies on a successful sales pitch promoting the existing status quo government. There is (and there must be) a widely accepted and shared belief, promoted by the minority, that the existing hierarchical system – the existing government — is good, just, and perhaps even divine. To reject the system, and its innate goodness, was certainly treason, and often blasphemy.
This majority consent is constantly reinforced by the majority itself, through group and family pressure to conform, and by group rejection and family criticism of those who would fail to join in with the prevailing paradigm. We are happy to be included, and miserable if on the outside. It is easy to see how this control mechanism works in a family, a tribe or a group – but harder to see how it would work for a whole nation. But remember, in the 1500s, Europe was still a place of kingdoms, with rulers blessed by God, both royal and divine. Merging the political with the religious was very effective, and to reject a king would be to reject your very faith.
I mention Etienne de la Boetie because he had three important things to say to Frenchmen, to Englishmen of the 1600s, to our founding fathers, and to us today. He understood that freedom comes not from violent action, but from the refusal to serve. He could see that tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support. He pointed out that liberty is our natural condition, and that we are born free – free born – but are instead taught that our governments or our kings only allow us freedom. He recognized that to change things we first must become aware of the locus of real and true power (which is at the individual level and not at the state level), and then change our own minds about how we wish to live.
De La Boetie was young, and the young are known for their optimism, enthusiasm, and fire in the belly demands for liberty. We older people nod and smile at the naïve antics of young people who haven’t yet learned what we think we know.
But it is true that when the people withdraw their consent, governments fall, whether in ancient Rome, or modern Moscow or Warsaw or Bucharest. It is true that education, whether for freedom or for enslavement, is important. The father of modern American public schooling, John Dewey, wrote, “Children who know how to think for themselvesspoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent.” This observation is not new.
De La Boetie lived in the 1500s in a society where most people were wholly devoted to their kings and queens, the order of the day, as they were taught. Yet he could see that the individual matters, that liberty is fundamental to our humanity, and the rule of government depends on our belief in it. The moment we stop believing in that order, government begins to weaken.
I wanted to introduce you, or reintroduce you, to a certain radical Englishman of the 1600s. His adult life was marked by a series of civil wars against a tyrannical King spanning 1642 through 1651. It was Parliamentarians against Royalists, Oliver Cromwell against King Charles I, and ultimately the Parliamentarians gained ground. One group that fought on the side of the Parliamentarians against the monarchy became known as the Levellers.
The Levellers were agitators and pamphleteers and soldiers who demanded constitutional reform and equal rights under the law. They believed all men were born free and equal. They believed all men possessed natural rights that resided in the individual, not in the government. They believed that each man should have freedom limited only by regard for the freedom of others. They believed the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. They were the liberty agitators of their day, the classical liberals of the 1700s, the Lysander Spooner style abolitionists of the 1800s, the anti-imperialists of the early 1900s, and the Taft Republicans of the 1940s. They would be called libertarians and constitutionalists, and would constitute the liberty wing of the Republican Party today.
A primary leader of the Levellers was John Lilburne, also known as known as Freeborn John. Lilburne was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Parliamentarian Army. He wrote extensively and prolifically, as did his associate Richard Overton. Through their pamphlets and their speeches, and their examples of resistance, they rallied the troops, and the common people, and members of the gentility as well – in the name of liberty.
The revolution against Charles I, the rise of the Parliamentarians and the rapid awareness and articulation of liberty might be instructive for us today. This story is something I wanted to share with you tonight, because 400 years later in our own country, history could be repeating. This revolution started in part because no one was really paying attention to the trendlines.
It was nearing the end of the 30 Year War that began in 1618. Continental Europe’s landscape and economy had been devastated. England had been spared, because Charles I could not afford to participate in the War for long. Because he had dissolved and alienated the Parliament in 1629, he had no way of raising revenue from the common people through national taxation. For those next 11 years, Charles I had ruled without a Parliament, and this period became known as the “11 years of tyranny.”
Charles did need to raise money during this time – but he did so through fees and creative financial gyrations. For the common people, this meant several decades of growing prosperity, with no growth in their tax burden. Charles I became quite a popular king among this group. Commoners would have had no real voice in the Parliament in any case – remember the creation of the Parliament was an assertion of power by noblemen, to rein in kings who threatened their lands and wealth. On the other hand, the small middle class, property owners, and noblemen increasingly resented the creative financing and tax schemes placed on them alone by the King, and they increasingly felt powerless – they had to pay but they had no voice.
To summarize, English political trends of the day were these: 1) a gradual loss of a political voice for the productive and property owning classes, while the poorer classes were experiencing relative prosperity even as they were not moving up the economic ladder, and 2) The nation’s leader is increasingly seen as a tyrant, with his own agenda, unresponsive and contemptuous to the people who built the country. Does any of this sound familiar?
The trigger to revolution was an overt power play. King Charles moved to bring the Presbyterian Church of Scotland under Anglican reforms and rule. In response, the Scots took up arms and invaded England. Charles apparently didn’t see this coming, and needed to quickly hire soldiers for the English army. He had no money to pay those soldiers, so he finally convened a Parliament to raise those funds. But when he did, he found the representatives were angry, and more interested in addressing their grievances with the king than funding his war with Scotland. So Charles dissolved it, and convened a new one. But this parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, passed a law saying it could only be dissolved by its own consent. King Charles was angry, but he believed that only a handful of troublemakers were the problem, and he attempted to have these men imprisoned on charges of treason. But when the kings army came to Parliament and demanded that they turn over the five troublemakers, no one would help – no one consented – no one cooperated. Charles left London, and the parliamentary revolution ensued.
Freeborn John and the Levellers fought with Cromwell on the side of the Parliamentarians. Yet they were not the same in terms of goals or principles. In fact, John Lilburne was jailed several times at the discretion of Cromwell, who would later purge the Army of many Levellers. If anyone has been paying attention to the GOP and its liberty wing over the past few years, including at the convention a few weeks ago, this might sound vaguely familiar. Over time, the Parliament itself assumed unprecedented powers, and Cromwell, in some ways perhaps an early neo-conservative, became an expansionist tyrant in his own right. But the Leveller movement was influential in the articulating understanding of the natural rights of people, and the ideal functions of a government that respects and serves the people.
- Equality of all persons before the law
- Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
- No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
- The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
- The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
- Abolition of imprisonment for debt
- Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
- Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
- Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes
- The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
- No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
- Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
These demands certainly sound familiar, and several are specifically reflected in the anti-Federalists positions as seen in the first ten amendments of the Constitution. Three main concepts of Leveller thought persist at least in our own Constitution. First, we understand the natural right of self-propriety, or as we would say today, self–ownership. Second, we see a clearly stated right of free association. Third, we embrace equality under the law, for rich and poor, the same rules applying to both the politically connected and politically outcast.
In a modern era where we hear of people talking about the 99% and the 1%, when we see government policy favoritism and bailouts directed by both parties to key financial and industrial giants, and when we find massive debt accumulated by the central government while more and more people cannot find productive work, and entrepreneurs are stifled by government regulation and taxation and oversight – the very concept of a “Leveller” may even be appealing. It also sounds a bit communistic, a bit destructive, and not really related to individual freedom. In fact – the “Leveller” name was a pejorative term placed on the liberty advocates by the royalists – John Lilburn and William Overton preferred the term “agitator”, but they were known by the people as Levellers nonetheless. Hmmm. Imagine the government labeling the liberty movement as destructive, dangerous, and silly. That’s a new one!
Freeborn John and the levelers were jailed and persecuted, not only by Royalists but eventually by the very Parliament they had fought to empower. Just as public schools and collectivist societies cannot tolerate people who think for themselves, overweening massive government cannot function in an environment of property-owning people who are well-versed in the rationality of freedom, and who will boldly question their government.
Our founding fathers were inspired and informed by 17th century libertarianism and they designed a system of government they thought would preserve those values. But much as the evolution of Oliver Cromwell’s own parliament, our constitutional republic started out with the right ideas, and then gradually became authoritarian, and eventually, tyrannical. I say tyrannical. Perhaps there is a better word. But how else might we describe $16 trillion in federal debt, millions of pages of laws and regulations, and future unfunded obligations of $220 trillion? How else might we describe a politicized, unelected central bank that creates money out of thin air for the government to spend, and an executive bureaucracy that functions largely outside the constitution, spending billions to monitor and regulate our lives and businesses? We are told each day that we are free, but in fact, we have been made peasants, and our children serfs. Our grandchildren may indeed be runaway slaves, seeking a freer country in which to make their lives and fortunes.
If tyranny might have been predicted, history also tells us that the ideas of liberty remain steadfast and pure, and repeatedly these ideas take form and flight, and agitate the status quo.
Periodically in our own history, we have seen a resurgence of the ideas of Freeborn John. We are seeing them in the Republican Party, most specifically in the person and message of Dr. Ron Paul. We’ve seen them in the relatively young Libertarian Party.
These ideas – of self-ownership, of religious toleration, of the right of free association, and of equality under the law, and ideas that oppose government influenced, government created, and government subsidized monopolies – these are old ideas, and they are right ideas.
Today, we live under a constitution that in words, embraces liberty. And yet what we have in terms of a government, a president, a Congress, and a judiciary is arrogant and unrestrained. Just this week, we witnessed a mild example of actual constitutional process. A federal judge permanently blocked the detention of Americans by the executive branch. Section 1021 of the NDAA provides for the detention of any American indefinitely without habeas corpus or trial on executive order. It clearly contradicts the Constitution. Yet, when a federal judge explained this and blocked the practice, within hours of the ruling, the Obama administration filed an extensive and panicked appeal.
Judge Napolitano wrote a scathing article this week, wondering what our choices were in terms of a change of national leadership. He basically asked, “What if the principal parties’ candidates for president really agree more than they disagree?” He concluded with another question: “If elections change nothing, what do we do about it?
These observations are not from a nihilist or an anarchist – they are from a seasoned judge and constitutional scholar, a Fox News advisor and host. And this same question: “What do we do about it?” was on the mind of 16th century Frenchmen like Etienne de la Boietie, and 17th century Englishmen like John Lilburne and Richard Overton. These were indeed the questions that our own founders, from Patrick Henry to Thomas Jefferson to George Washington asked. These questions were also asked by the anti-imperialist league at the beginning of the 20th century – and what all of these men discovered about their own roles is what I believe we must rediscover today.
I believe we must take an active and even aggressive role in the effort to restore liberty. This is accomplished first in our hearts and our minds, but that won’t be enough. Like John Lilburne and Richard Overton, and like our founders and thousands more who stood with them – we must be ready to face a king’s wrath, social disfavor, and the criticism of our group or our party. We must be ready to face arrest and imprisonment keeping our eyes on the long-term goal of liberty for all of us.
Just last month, federal and state law enforcement officers detained and arrested a former Marine just outside of Richmond because they didn’t like what he said in a private Facebook chat. This man had committed no crime, but a criminal and a nut he was made out to be, until valiant resistance by his mother, his friends, and theRutherford Institute out of Charlottesville publicized his case. Thanks to their swift and bold action, Brandon Raub of Chesterfield was not locked away forever in a mental institution on the command of a government bureaucrat. Instead, Brandon Raub, former Marine and solid citizen whose only crime was to annoy and agitate the federal government, was released free of charges. This release would never have happened without the publicity and the bold defense by John Whitehead. John has written in the weeks since he garnered Raub’s release, that he has heard from hundreds of people all over the country with similar stories, that didn’t end as well.
If that can happen in Virginia today, then the time is long past for us to get over our concern that we will stand out from the crowd if we demand liberty too loudly – and that we will be rejected by our political party if we argue for the rights of the people to self-ownership, freedom of association, private property, and equality under the law. These are simple demands reflect natural law and they don’t require an Ivy League education to understand. They are not newly invented, but have been a rallying cry for centuries against overweening government and against tyranny. We did not invent these values of liberty! All we are being asked to do, all we must do today is stand up for them.
I doubt many of us really consider what it means to demand liberty, at the cost of death. Patrick Henry’s famous words are well known to us. In the beginning of his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, he says this,
…it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
We want a map, we want to understand how we should be organized to restore a Republic, and to restore liberty in the hearts and the lives of Americans. I’ve mentioned some historical figures, and I’ll rephrase their advice. First, de La Boetie would advise us to withdraw our consent. Withdraw our consent to tyranny, to statism, to a lack of equality under the law. In other words, we should obey no unlawful, and for us, no unconstitutional, order. Freeborn John would advise us to never compromise on the natural liberty of man. He would tell us that the only just government is one that honors and protects the individual and individualism.
He would advise us to always preach dangerous words to power, even though we may be imprisoned or removed from our livelihood and families. We already know what Patrick Henry advised, and perhaps we must also be reminded of the famous last words of Nathan Hale, who before being hanged on September 22nd, 1776 by the British: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
This is what liberty means, and it cannot mean other than lives lived free, and given freely. If government, as George Washington wrote, is force, and dangerous like fire, our very survival and our children’s survival, depends on keeping that fire in check, keeping that fire limited, strictly useful, always our servant, and never our master. If we must learn, teach others, risk everything to resist tyranny, and fight and die for liberty, then that is what we must do. That is our instruction. That is our mission. For those who ask, as we all have, as Judge Napolitano did this week, what can we do, this is your answer.