One of my former students, Allen Brown, a lawyer, urged me to read The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994), by M. Stanton Evans. I share Allen’s favorable appraisal of the treatise: it’s both a readable review of American history (clearly showing a close bond between religion and politics) and a call to reestablish that bond in order to recover basic freedoms in our nation.
Evans challenges the standard version of American history as dispensed by educators and mass media, which promulgate their own ideologies rather than the truth about the past, especially concerning the “fundamental issues, concerning the origin, nature, and workings of a free society. Above all, we seem to have no idea of what it takes to bring such a political order into being, or what is needed to sustain it” (p. 8).
Consequently, brainwashed by liberal historians who celebrate secularism and whose views are rarely contradicted, few of us know the religious roots of the political freedoms we praise. Those roots derive life, Evans contends, not from the humanism of the Renaissance or the revolutionary rhetoric of the Enlightenment–which actually incubated cruel despots and tyrannies in France and Russia–but in the Christian Middle Ages, where commitment to natural law limited the power of kings and princes. (While not taught in American schools or acknowledged in federal courtrooms, this view would not be foreign to Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson and C.S. Lewis.)
As Lord Acton, one of the great students of liberty, summed it up: “‘Representative government, which was unknown to the ancients, was almost universal. The methods of election were crude; but the principle that no tax was lawful that was not granted by the class that paid–that is, that taxation was inseparable from representation–was recognized, not as the privilege of certain counties, but as the right of all . . . Slavery was almost everywhere extinct and absolute power was deemed more intolerable and more criminal than slavery'” (p. 32).
The two giants of Medieval theology, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, Evans says, called for the separation of church and state and thus qualify “as the fathers of libertarian statecraft, whose basic function is to provide a framework of external order, but which has no competence in questions of belief and conscience” (p. 146). Though I think Evans overstates the case, there’s much truth to this view, for the ancient Greeks and Romans almost never called for or established “institutions of free government” (p. 150). The novel idea of government under law, constitutionalism, clearly emerged under the influence of a biblically-rooted theology in the Christian Middle Ages.
The Magna Carta (1215 A.D.) encoded such constitutionalism. Subsequent legal developments enabled jurists to insist that “the king is bound by the law, and this means he must govern by consent. At the time of Henry II, for example, Glanville asserted that ‘right and justice ought to rule in the realm rather than the perversities of will'” (p. 158). Evans amasses impressive citations, documenting the widespread Medieval conviction that kings ruled not as absolute monarchs but as representative rulers.
This perspective endured well into the Reformation era, when a Scottish writer, George Buchanan (King James I’s tutor, who apparently failed to modify his student’s divine right convictions) wrote: “‘The king is a delegate and an agent and is responsible to the community . . . Whatever powers have been given to the king may rightfully, for good cause, be taken from him and resumed by the people . . . The rights of the people are inalienable . . . A king who disregards the understanding on which he was created may be said to break an implied contract, becomes a tyrant, and forfeits all his rights'” (p. 179). The “contract” theory of government, often attributed to John Locke, was in fact deeply rooted in the common law tradition of Medieval thinkers; Locke simply restated it.
That essentially Medieval perspective deeply influenced America’s Founding Fathers. England’s common law (wrought by the Medieval Mind) enabled freedom’s defenders to protest “excessive taxes, seizure of property, and other species of oppression” (p. 800). Americans such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and James Dickinson all studied Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, a renowned commentary on the common law. Thus they invoked ancient English documents when defending Americans’ divinely-rooted right to freedom.
For example, John Adams, whom Richard Henry Lee dubbed the “Atlas of Independence,” declared: “‘the liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature, the grandeur and glory of the public, and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England'” (p. 208).
Thus Evans argues: “Viewed in this light, American ideas and institutions may be considered not merely as traditionalist, but as unique survivals of medieval attitudes into the modern epoch. The old tradition of limited government under law endured in England at the era of the Renaissance, when it began to be submerged elsewhere in Europe; in America it endured again when it began to lapse in England” (p. 87). The Declaration of Independence, assserting “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” reveals Christian convictions found nowhere in the Greco-Roman or Enlightenment traditions. In arguing thusly, Evans takes a lonely position, virtually unrepresented in today’s academy, but his reading of the sources merits consideration.
This Christian tradition included a pessimistic view of human nature. Original sin, Medieval theologians held, renders absurd all schemes of angelic perfection or social utopia. Unlike Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who dreamed of heaven-on-earth (as Carl Becker’s classic The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers makes clear), America’s Founding Fathers had limited confidence in human nature, especially when puffed up with power, and sought to stringently, constitutionally limit its exercise. Thus “the Constitution was written down, not simply to authorize the federal government and start it going, but also to spell out the limits on its powers” (p. 260). The Bill of Rights, especially the Tenth Amendment, accentuated this commitment.
With Lord Acton America’s founders believed that “‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men . . . There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it'” (p. 97). Jettisoning this conviction, modern liberalism has confidently sought to centralize and magnify political power so as to engineer varieties of the “great society.”
With the centralization of power and the awesome growth of the federal government in this century, Americans’ liberties have steadily diminished. Sadly enough, Evans says, modern Americans have surrendered to the federal government what “medieval constitutionalists denied to kings, that Parliament refused to Stuarts, and that our forefathers refused to Parliament itself–fighting a war of independence to make the point emphatic. The federal government that we have today deploys exactly this kind of power” (p. 268). We’ve slowly subsided into a slavery unknown to our forefathers. This is most evident in economics, where government intrusion has dramatically increased. In the Middle Ages, defenders of freedom routinely resisted taxation. Americans fought a war for independence, protesting what to us would be quite modest taxes. As Sam Adams insisted, by nature man has a right to “‘quietly enjoy, and have the sole disposal of his own property . . . The Utopian schemes of leveling, and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable, as those which vest all property in the crown . . .'” (p. 298).
What’s been lost can be recovered, Evans thinks, only as we recover and reinvigorate the religious roots of political freedom which shaped the common law. To do that we must understand the historical record. The Theme is Freedom helps us do precisely that. Still more: a thoughtful bibliographical essay leads us to important sources, enhanced by Evan’s judgments on editions and merits. Such statements as “He who has read Burke, Tocqueville, and Acton will know most of what is worth knowing on these topics” (p. 343) clarify the author’s debts. This book gives us a marvelous mixture of scholarly preparation and readable presentation. It deserves the attention of all who care for the direction of this nation.
* * * * *
Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c. 1980), based on lectures presented on PBS, makes the economic views of a Nobel Prize winner accessible to non-economists such as myself. I’ve often heard Friedman’s work invoked, but this is my first sampling of his contemporary laissez faire, Adam Smith-shaped free enterprise theory.
The book begins with a quotation from Justice Louis Brandeis which should give us pause: “‘Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding'” (p. xiii). Equally prescient is a statement of A.V. Dicey’s, written a century ago, cited at the end of the book: “‘The beneficial effect of state intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and so to speak, visible, while its evil effects are gradual and indirect, and lie out of sight. . . . Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favor upon government intervention'” (p. 297).
Tyranny, whether iron-fisted or velvet-gloved, is still tyranny. Fused economic and political powers lead to tyranny. Thus the architects of this country sought to limit the powers of the central government to a few essential functions. In economics, the market must be unfettered for men to retain their freedom. In politics, government must be carefully, constitutionally limited so as to preserve individual freedom.
Economic controls–central planning–inexorably turn tyrannical. Visits to countries formerly under Communist regimes, or in developing countries which have embraced Socialism, illustrate this truth. The United States, where various governments combine to exact more than 40 percent of our income, may well follow the pattern.
The central planning pattern surfaced in this country in the 1930’s as FDR engineered the New Deal. Before that, combined governments spent no more than “12 percent of the national income except in time of major war, and two-thirds of that was state and local spending. Federal spending typically amounted to 3 percent or less of the national income. Since 1933 government spending has never been less than 20 percent of national income, and is now over 40 percent, and two-thirds of that is spending by the federal government” (p. 92).
All this spending was designed to provide cradle-to-grave programs for the nation’s citizens. Though most programs have manifestly failed, their failures have routinely been attributed to underfunding. Thus more programs are implemented, more monies appropriated, more failures rationalized. The Welfare State, clearly socialistic in its philosophy, now reigns in many lands, the United States included. (The 1928 Platform of the Socialist Party, printed as an appendix to this volume, reveals how completely socialist thought has been implemented by Welfare State engineers). In Friedman’s judgment, even lauded programs like Social Security and Medicare have failed, corrupted by the welfare state’s flawed commitment to the redistribution of wealth.
This commitment rests upon a flawed view of human equality. Rather than seeing all persons as equal in the sight of God, thus deserving equality of opportunity, architects of welfare states insist everyone deserves equal rewards, regardless of personal talent or effort. “As the Dodo said in Alice in Wonderland, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes'” (p. 134). To secure such equality, freedoms must be curtailed or eliminated, as they were in communist countries.
Equalitarian thinking has subverted America’s schools, which increasingly reflect the inevitable result of centralized, bureaucratic organization. Dr Max Gammon’s “Theory of Bureaucratic Displacement,” discerned during his study of the British National Health Service, applies: in “a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like “black holes” in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of “emitted” production”‘” (p. 155). Only free enterprize in education, instituting a voucher system, will enable America’s schools to perform well.
Free enterprize, Freidman thinks, would not only make our schools better–it would better protect the consumer and the worker than various socialistic regulatory agencies. The FDA, OSHA, environmental laws, all routinely fail to accomplish their objectives, however admirable in design. His data and illustrations at least make his case worth considering if not conclusively convincing.
* * * * *
Both Friedman and Evans concur in their condemnations of the totalitarian tendencies of excessive taxation. Reading Martin L. Gross’s The Tax Racket: Government Extortion from A to Z (New York: Ballantine Books, c. 1995) easily converts one to their views! John Marshall long ago decreed that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and it seems clear that governments destroy freedom through increasing taxes.
Gross, a journalist who has taught at the New School for Social Research and New York University, embraces Thomas Jefferson’s definition of good government: “‘A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned–this is the sum of good government'” (p. xiii).
Such limited government has vanished in America! Today the average household in America pays more in taxes than for housing, food, and medical care! Federal income taxes have increased “tenfold in real dollars” in the past 40 years (p. 2), but the average American worker’s wages, “after inflation and taxes, have decreased 17 percent since 1973” (p. 9). When various governments (some 85,000 in all) take more than 40 percent of the peoples’ incomes, Gross says, they’re involved in “legal extortion,” not legitimate taxation.
Still more: the taxes exacted have not been used as promised. FICA tax surpluses, Medicare monies, airport and highway funds, have been used to pay for welfare and politicians’ pork projects, leaving IOUs in empty coffers, probably as worthless as the politicians’ explanations of how it is simply being “borrowed” for a time. (37 percent of our highway taxes are spent on non-highway programs!) It’s a racket, Gross thinks, of gargantuan dimensions.
Much of the money goes to pay government employees. State, county, and city employees’ numbers have increased dramatically during the past four decades. For example, the number of schoolchildren has only increased 20 percent, the number of teachers has increased 80 percent in the last 35 years. Most government employees receive more generous salaries and fringe benefits than their non-government counterparts. Each federal employee, costs us $80,000 a year.
The book is less a systematic analysis than a collection of anecdotes and data. It’s organized in a rather haphazard way, simply using letters of the alphabet to suggest the “a to z” dimensions of taxation, from airline taxes to zany tax stories. Yet several underlying arguments weave their way through the book.
First, Gross believes the 16th Amendment was a horrendous step, departing from the clear intent of the Constitution and annulling some of the most basic liberties Americans should enjoy. To eliminate the income tax, to shut down the IRS, is a necessary step to rescue taxpayers from government control. The sales tax, not the flat tax, is the only solution in Gross’s judgment.
Second, Gross believes that those who treasure freedom must act now to wrest away power from government officials. Taxes must be sharply curtailed if Americans are to enjoy any semblance of real freedom. Taxpayers have rights, he argues, though they are today almost non-existent–as is evident when the IRS, without due process, conducts audits and seizes property.
Finally, Gross argues that much government does is superfluous and inefficient. We really don’t need much government, and well-run governments would cost much less than they now demand. Balance the budgets! Reduce expenditures by at least 25 percent! Eliminate waste and fraud! Since WWII Americans have been hoodwinked, tricked into thinking Congress and assorted bureaucracies know what’s needed for the people of this nation. It’s time to let the people who make the money decide how it should be spent.
“Never in our history have we had such an opportunity to sharply reverse a destructive trend in American civilization. It can be accomplished by the implementation of this single idea: the closing of the IRS and its replacement with a national sales tax, one which is painless, visible, and viable.
“To all who love their country, I heartily commend this plan and hope that it will become a reality by the year 2000. The in unison, we can all happily chant:
“FREE AT LAST! FREE AT LAST!” (p. 313).
This work, like A Call for Revolution, the other Gross treatise I’ve read, awakens us from our slumbers. It’s a journalistic, impressionistic, impassioned cry, a call to arms on behalf of freedom. It’s designed to awaken and anger those of us who’ve tended to just accept the mounting tax burden, naively assuming it’s necessary to fund socially-worthwhile programs.