“It’s a free country!”
We’ve all heard it. It’s the hallmark statement in the United States, almost a national motto. It’s so much a part of our national identity that no one ever really gives it much thought, particularly not critical thought.
But just exactly what does that mean? And is it really a “free country”?
There are certain characteristics of the human condition that are traditionally considered and held to be the indicators of true freedom, and thus a truly free society.
The first and most obvious, of course, is that slavery is not countenanced in that society. Any society that allows the enslavement of any of its members, even by using the rhetorical trick of portraying the slaves as non-members, cannot in any sense consider itself free. If slavery is a possible condition for one, there are circumstances that can be conjured to make it possible for any. We fought a bloody Civil War in which slavery was one of the underlying issues, and cast that onus aside.
The ability of individuals to own property outright, without need of permission from a higher authority, is another mark of a free society. In feudal societies, the land is owned by the aristocracy, either as an outright possession of the monarchy or as feudal estates such as baronies and duchies. The serfs or peasants working the land for their subsistence do so at the pleasure of the overlord, and only keep a portion of the proceeds of their labor. They can be dispossessed at any time for no reason.
The Founding Fathers understood this and enshrined private property rights in the Constitution, very strictly limiting the ability and justification of the government to deprive a citizen of their property in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Unfortunately, in Kelo v. New London the Supreme Court saw fit to redefine property rights and give preferential treatment to government determination of the appropriateness of land usage based on potential tax generation, a reversion to the old feudal system of letting the overlord – in this case local governments – rather than the land’s owner arbitrarily determine whether or not the private property is being used in a “proper” manner. Further encroachment has been enshrined in cities such as New York and Santa Monica that allow “rent control” practices to flourish. Property owners are not allowed to enjoy the benefit of the free market, but instead are forced by government fiat to realize only a portion of the return on their investment in property as is deemed fit by government mandarins.
Free societies enjoy governmental self-determination. They are not ruled by monarchs, but instead the members of the society select their own form of government and leaders. Surprisingly enough, in the Western Hemisphere the first true democracies were actually practiced by the pirates of the Caribbean, who elected their own captains and were free to recall them and elect replacements.
Recognizing that governmental self-determination required the ability to hold free and open discussions, the Founders enshrined these freedoms in the First Amendment in the form of a free press, the right to assemble, and the free speech right to criticize and petition the government.
Again, however, we see this freedom under rabid assault. The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act prohibits many forms of exactly the kind of discussion that the Founders had intended to take place for free elections, such as candidate-specific political ads within 60 days of an election. Think of that: you can’t discuss the candidate within 60 days of the election in which he’s running for office.
Another prong of this assault is the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which in its currently-proposed incarnation would be narrowly targeted at the exact two media that are the most critical of Big Government policies: talk radio and the internet. Interestingly enough, these are also the most populist forms of media, and the ones the Founders would have probably most approved, being reminiscent of the broadsides of their era, as well as the Federalist Papers.
The last hallmark I’ll address today is that of the ability of the citizens of a truly free society to openly own weapons. Since ancient times the rulers of repressive societies have limited or banned this right. In the Far East this led to the development of the various marshal arts such as karate and judo, combat methods not dependant on the use of weaponry. In Great Britain we see the efficacy of armed subjects forcing monarchic reform in the forced signing of the Magna Carta by King John. Of course, the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired when the Redcoats marched on the armories of Lexington and Concord to seize the colonials’ weapons; the precipitating event of the Revolutionary War was King George’s attempt at gun control! Historically, even in the modern era, the first action of a burgeoning tyranny is the elimination of private gun ownership, as we’ve seen in Nazi Germany, the USSR, Cambodia, Uganda, and many other places.
The Founders realized that the final refuge of the victims of tyranny lay in their own ability to secure their freedoms by force if necessary, and that required the ability to possess the same weaponry as the government. When any government is the sole possessor of weapons, the citizens are at the mercy of that government and totally dependant upon government largesse for any freedoms they enjoy. Being diligent students of history the Founders were well aware of this axiom.
Our Second Amendment rights are under constant assault by those who would disarm the public to assure government primacy in all matters. Their tactics include misusing two words in the Amendment itself, “state” and “militia”, by coupling the two to misrepresent Original Intent as meaning the Amendment only applied to “state militias”. To the Founders, a militia was the entire body of citizens capable of bearing arms, as evidenced in the Federalist Papers, their own contemporary writings, and Section 311 of Title 10 US Code. To the Founders, it was in the very nature of freedom – as we have explored – that free men were able to own their own weapons, just as they owned their property, and had the right to governmental self-determination. These freedoms were indistinguishable and inherent in the concept of liberty.
It would be facile to say these assaults are only from Left. It would also be wrong. The Kelo decision rendered by the Supreme Court was determined based on the vote cast by Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee. McCain-Feingold was passed by a Congress completely under the control of the Republicans, and signed into law by Republican President George Bush. The Republican Presidential candidate currently in the lead in the polls, Rudy Giuliani, has openly supported tighter restrictions on private gun ownership.
Freedom is a rare commodity, as fragile as fine china. It has to be guarded jealously, and protected constantly. The US is the oldest extant democratic form of government in the world today, but it has no God-given guaranty of its survival. To answer the question I posed at the start of this essay, the United States is no longer the free country it used to be, and is slowly but inexorably edging itself ever-further away from freedoms that at one time were taken for granted.
It has been, and continues to be, a slow process, this erosion. But the Grand Canyon started out as a little streambed.