By Lathan Watts, Director of Public Affairs
In the classic 1987 film The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya, after listening to Vizzini’s incessant use of the word “inconceivable” turns to his employer and says, “You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Today, the word “freedom” is tossed about carelessly by many Americans who clearly think it means something it does not.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he appealed to the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. He affirmed the eternal, self-evident principles of natural law — such as the equality of all men stemming from their common Creator and life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness being the natural rights of mankind.
While asserting national independence 244 years ago, the signers of the Declaration understood the freedoms they sought belonged to individuals and that government secured — not granted — those rights.
The Founders understood that self-governance as a nation begins and ends with self-governance by the individual. We could not have one without the other. If we turn over responsibility for our lives, families, and communities to government our dependence expands and our liberty contracts. It is as inescapable as the natural law of gravity.
The Founders’ notion of freedom was inextricably linked to personal independence, described as the absence of interference into the daily life and destiny of individuals with the caveat that to preserve and protect freedom, individuals accept some inevitable interaction with government so long as it is minimized to the greatest extent practicable. Consequently, the most crucial of those rights would be articulated in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. First among these are the foundational freedoms of religious liberty and the right of conscience.
Did we always succeed in living up to those lofty ideals? Certainly not. But our failure as a nation to do so does not render those ideals invalid, moreover, they remain an ever-present reminder of our aspirational responsibility.
Yet as our culture lurches further from its founding principles, it seems the idea of freedom is becoming more and more divorced from independence and is more aptly described as the absence of responsibility for one’s fortune with the caveat that to be provided material comfort individuals must accept all inevitable intrusion by government to whatever extent necessary.
Our foundational concept of freedom was self-reliant. This freedom declared, “I am made in the image of God-endowed by Him with everything I need to pursue the life of my choosing. It matters not who my father was; I am not bound to his station in life. I am free to succeed on my own merit. I’ll take care of myself, my family, and help those around me. I expect government to protect me from the evil acts of others — repel foreign invaders, punish the wicked at home, then leave me alone.”
The modern concept of freedom is more self-indulgent. This freedom declares, “I was born this way and there is nothing I can do about it. Government exists to protect me from the consequences of my own actions and the actions of others — clothe me, feed me, shelter me, and tax others to pay for it. With my material needs met I am ‘free’ to pursue anything and everything which brings me pleasure or makes me feel better about myself and no one can judge me for it.”
Many in search of political power have fed this false notion of freedom with equally false promises. From the New Deal and Great Society right up to the present day, government expansion (by both parties) has displaced the institutions of family, faith, and community. These institutions were the foundation upon which a free, prosperous, and civil society could be built. The Founders placed religious freedom first in the Bill of Rights to protect the role of religion in strengthening these institutions.
Yet politicians have promised for decades that with enough power, tax money, and government programs they could build a better society where life’s outcome is fair, and equal for everyone. Still, the consequences of human frailty persist trapping millions in a cycle of poverty and government dependence.
When the government fails to deliver on its actual limited sphere of influence let alone the promised utopia, angst gives way to rage. The media provides daily reminders. Betrayed by the government entrusted with their protection, citizens’ justifiable outrage devolves into riotous criminality.
The key to addressing what is wrong with our country is returning to what is right with our country. Reuniting freedom with independence would be a meaningful step in that direction. Where government fails, “We the People” must succeed.
Mark Twain once defined patriotism as “supporting your country at all times and your government when it deserves it.” This Independence Day, more than any in recent memory, Twain’s irony hits home. Even when Americans are angry at or frustrated with government, we can still support a country where men are free enough to do something about it because our founders trusted future generations enough to give us the power to do so.