What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
After several generations of preceding philosophical musings and political pamphleteering, a group of American colonists revolted against the most powerful empire in the world. It’s quite staggering to contemplate the boldness of their action—short of the divine providence to which many of them credited their ultimate success, they surely would have failed.
“Mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable,” they wrote in their treasonous Declaration of Independence, “than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This is, after all, the human condition; apathy and inertia are powerful tools of the state to keep its subjects in line. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism,” they wrote, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government…”
This argument justified secession and a defensive war against Britain’s attempt to compel obedience. Following their victory on the battlefield, delegates produced a Constitution which created and empowered a federal government—a government that has become much more oppressive than the regime under which the colonists “patiently suffered,” as they alleged in the Declaration.
In response to the gargantuan nature of government in our day, many argue that a restoration of the Constitution is needed—that we need to enforce its restrictions on the federal government and apply its principles. While it is true that doing so would be a significant victory for liberty, this would only be the first of many steps worth taking to protect our unalienable rights. The Constitution has many good things going for it, but it’s not perfect.
That position is hard to stomach for many whose reverence for the document equates to a soft form of idolatry. Many patriotic people romanticize the past and long for a day when we will “return to constitutional government.” They focus so much on this lofty goal that they can’t see the forest for the trees—they obsess over amendments and clauses and case law but give little attention to fundamental principles, political philosophy, and, frankly, ways in which the Constitution is deficient.
It’s as if these individuals believe that the Constitution is the final and only application of the enlightenment philosophy and Judeo-Christian ethic that formed the basis of the colonists’ “throwing off” of the alleged “absolute despotism” under which they suffered. Is that it? Is the Constitution a political utopia of sorts to which all of our loyalty and energy must be given? Can we not advance further, or better? Should we not learn from the past to improve upon it—and not simply copy and paste it to the present day?
Had the colonists themselves believed this way, they would have been content to live with the Magna Carta. The actions of their political predecessors would have been reverenced and repeated, upheld as the summum bonum of good government. Fortunately they recognized the importance of improving upon the past, and did just that—and they were (and we are) better off for it.
The Constitution was a means to an end—not an end unto itself. Obviously, that “means” has proven rather ineffective, for it failed to actually restrain the government it created. Today we suffer from “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny” over people whose unalienable rights are being institutionally and repeatedly violated. Defending them in full requires more than merely suggesting that the Constitution be reinstated.