Liddick: When ‘government’ is the threat
The celestial clockwork has once again rolled the seasons around to spring, with its promises of warmth to come and hints of flowers. And, to those of us of the Catholic flavor, Lent.
The season of Lent is part of the traditional preparation for the culmination of the religious year in Easter; it gives us the opportunity to consider our foibles and failings, our transgressions and our weaknesses, that we might undertake to better ourselves and more fully partake in Easter’s meaning. And because of this, it’s also a fine time to consider the complexities of the legitimate relationship between free citizens and their government.
Many of our Founders were Deists. According to his close friend Benjamin Rush, George Washington was; Thomas Jefferson’s writings make him out to be one. Franklin was certainly, by his own admission. Adams is harder to categorize, but he was by no means an orthodox churchman. Nevertheless, they all identified a “creator” as the source of many of the basic rights our constitution was designed to protect. They all agreed as well that these rights were “inalienable”; that is, they could not be taken away. But they could be ignored, or denied through tyranny, which these men wisely considered an ever-present threat in any system of government.
The Founders also concurred with a view of humanity common to many who are religious. They thought that no paradise is possible on Earth – workers’ or otherwise. In their view man is an imperfect creature, and in fact, as imperfectable. Which might be merely a quaint expression of misanthropy save for the fact that governments, being human institutions, are prone to the very personal faults and foibles we are asked to expunge during Lent. The Founders knew this well, too; the experiences of the colonies with the haughty and thickheaded rapacity of Lords North and Townsend, and the self-centered incompetence of George III taught them that even governments hedged about with “English liberties” can do dark work.
This, then, was the fundamental quandary facing those who constructed our republic: man being man, checks are needed on the most violent, avaricious and sociopathic, that the vast majority can pursue lives that are peaceful, productive and “happy.” This will prevent society from collapsing into chaos – ” the terrible war of all against all,” to use British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ term of art. But who was to mind the minders?
After a false start with the Articles of Confederation, our first generation of political leaders settled on a constitutional republic, with many balks to what they regarded as the dangerous threat of “faction” – what we would call party today. By creating a federal government with separate branches, they sought to prevent the sort of unitary rule that prevailed in the British Parliament of the day, in which the largest party controlled both the legislative and executive functions of the state.
They also spent much time and effort on the structure of a bicameral Congress, which many Founders regarded as the most important branch of government. In providing distinct powers and compositions to the two houses, they looked to provide a brake on precipitous government action by the operation of diverse interests represented by the various senators and representatives. Their goal was not efficiency, but deliberation – since they saw in unhindered government the chiefe threat to the liberties enjoyed by citizens of the new republic.
Today it seems that many Americans agree with the Founders about the dangers posed by a government uninterested in differences of opinion, untroubled by opposition and unmoved by alternatives. In a recent CNN poll, 56 percent of those polled thought that “the government” posed the greatest “immediate threat” to their freedoms, a number perhaps triggered by moves to pass unpopular and far-reaching legislation through use of vote-buying, parliamentary tricks and, if that fails, by simple fiat. This is recognizable as one of the principal fears of the Founders, and rightly so: when a faction in control of the government is unrestrained by either principle or countervailing power, the liberties of citizens are in jeopardy.
This is true because men are weak. Men are corruptible. Men are avaricious, self-centered and lust after power. And those who rule us are not immune; rather, they seem more prone than others to these temptations. Just ask Charles Rangel, D-NY.
A meditation for us all, as we move through Lent.
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