Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Land of the Slaves, Home of the Fearful

If America's Founding Fathers could travel through time and learn about our government and how Americans relate to that government, would they think of us a true Americans, great Americans -- or as pathetic Americans who are an embarrassment to that name?

Sam Adams, "Father of the American Revolution," speaking at the State House in Philadelphia “to a very numerous audience” on August 1, 1776, said:

“If ye love wealth better than liberty,
the tranquillity of servitude than
the animating contest of freedom —
go from us in peace.
We ask not your counsels or arms.
Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you.
May your chains sit lightly upon you, and
may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”

Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying, "Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither."

The July 6 edition of TIME Magazine has Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the cover with the story, "What Barack Obama Can Learn from FDR." (Not surprisingly, TIME isn't interested in "What Barack Obama Can Learn from Thomas Jefferson," or any other libertarian-leaning anti-federalist.)

Leading the collection of essays on the "Legacy of FDR" is an article by David M. Kennedy, author of a study of the Great Depression called Freedom from Fear.

That's our first clue.

In his article, FDR's Lessons for Obama, Kennedy's conclusions are clear: The "essence" of "FDR's greatest achievements" "can be summed up in a single word: security."

The goal of FDR's reforms and stimulus packages was not really to end the Great Depression. Says Kennedy:

He could hardly ignore the compelling need to steer the economy out of the Depression, but he refused to allow that task to deflect him from his more important objective of making American life less hazardous — and more inclusive — ever after. He aimed not merely to end the crisis at hand but to forestall similar calamities in the future, and thereby to build a country, as he once said, "in which no one is left out."

That's the problem with "the animating contest of freedom": some people succeed more than others. And our achievement depends on our initiative, our work ethic, our innovation, our willingness to defer gratification for the future, and our willingness to accept personal responsibility.

When Rockefeller found new uses for that black goop that comes out of the ground, he became rich precisely because he raised the standard of living of an entire nation, lowering prices on everything he made. Because of capitalism, Americans in 1939 were better off, and could dream higher, than Americans in 1839, when John D. Rockefeller was born. A "depression" under growing liberty and capitalism is better than a "boom" in a colorless socialist collective.

But the vast difference between Civil Servants and Entrepreneurs cannot be overstated.

Kennedy notes that when FDR said "I see one-third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, ill nourished,"

F.D.R. was not referring primarily to the victims of the Great Depression, which he thought was ending. He was speaking, rather, about the accumulated social and human deficits spawned by more than a century of buccaneering, laissez-faire American capitalism....

Never mind that The Great Depression was caused by the government, not "buccaneering, laissez-faire American capitalism" -- what was really important was not assisting the poorest victims of government monetary manipulation, but making sure that those who were not competing as efficiently or as energetically as others were not "left out."

FDR's task was not relieving the temporary effects of economic depression, but of undoing the American Revolution and substituting "the tranquillity of servitude" for "the animating contest of freedom."

This was a socialist opportunity that was not easily taken advantage of. Kennedy quotes

the historian Henry Adams [who] wrote, among the founders of the Republic, the greatest fear "was power; not merely power in the hands of a president or a prince, of one assembly or several, of many citizens or few, but power in the abstract, wherever it existed and under whatever form it was known." That's why the framers of the Constitution constructed a political order based on "checks and balances." That arrangement has conspicuous virtues, but it also designs a measure of paralysis into the American political system. It impedes swift adjustment to changing economic and social realities. It sustains a chronic deadlock in which trauma and shock become the necessary preconditions for effective political action.

Kennedy claims

President Obama knows this. Asked by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer in February if he did not feel burdened by the several crises now besetting the country, Obama noted that the moment "is full of peril but full of possibility" and that such times are "when the political system starts to move effectively."

Or as Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, told a Wall Street Journal conference of top corporate chief executives last year, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

"Roosevelt could not have said it better," Kennedy says. "F.D.R. championed a long-deferred reform agenda that put security at its core."

If you think that FDR's Social Security program is going to make you secure in your old age, then you are a very bad American -- at least compared with those who fought a War for Independence, who championed liberty, and spurned the uniformity of government-provided "security."

In a Christian nation characterized by "Liberty Under God," "competition" means freedom to choose the products you buy. It means freedom to choose what kind of business you'll run. It means thinking not only about ourselves, but about securing "the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Capitalism means deferring present gratification and investing in production to meet the needs of future generations.

FDR gave us an economic/political system based on "security," which is slavish and present-oriented. It rejects "the animating contest of freedom." It is the foundation of "consumerism." Injections of new money from the government reward those with the lower moral character. Government insures that everyone gets the trinkets that define our self-worth. Nobody is "left out." Kennedy says that FDR's measures "laid the foundation for unprecedented economic growth," but then says novelist Philip Roth "aptly described" this era as "the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history."

America the inebriated consumer is now a security addict, and as the new FDR, Obama is the new pusher.

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