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The Government-Liberty Connection: Looking to the Founding Documents

constitution-preamble-quill-penI have noticed, both in the rambling discourses of Cliven Bundy and especially in the defenses spun by his supporters, a strange disconnect between the issue of the ability to enjoy our liberties and the role of government.  To wit:  many try to divorce the two. Now,  it is true that the presence of government means some loss of liberty (it is, after all, impossible to have perfect liberty if there are rules to follow), but the question become, rather importantly, does perfect freedom actually lead to a life worth living?

Most philosophers, including those who directly influenced the thinkers of the US founding, including, but not limited to, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu, all thought that some level of government was needed to allow for the enjoying of natural liberties. And, indeed, the Founders of the US republic thought so as well.

For example, while many like to quote the following from the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  They fail to quote the very next line:  “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

In other words, Jefferson and the committee that penned the document (cribbing Locke) made an explicit connection between the enjoyment of our liberties and the creation of government (something that, by definition, also could restrict our liberties by making laws to bind our behavior).

We can also turn to the Preamble of the US Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Note that to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” requires the establishment of a constitution, which is the establishment of government.

Anyone, by the way, who thinks that perfect liberty without any kind of legal structure is a functional alternative, consider what driving would be like without the traffic code.

Yes, all of this should be obvious.  However, it is not to too many (including some of the commenters on OTB, it would seem).  Too many are so thoroughly protected by the nearly invisible workings of government around them that they can pretend like only the inconveniences of government exist (like the Cliven Bundy’s of the world and his supporters).

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Stonetools says:

    Bundy is pretty much the classic example of the anti federal government crank who lives off Federal subsidies. Given that, I sure hope you don’t expect logic from Bundy and folks who think like him.

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  2. @Stonetools: On the one hand, no. On the other, yes: if there is no one who is persuadable, then not only am I in the wrong profession in general but there is no point in publicly discussing anything. (Unless all one wants is to talk to the like-minded).

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  3. Tillman says:

    Anyone, by the way, who thinks that perfect liberty without any kind of legal structure is a functional alternative, consider what driving would be like without the traffic code.

    Better example: consider trying to find a parking spot.

    No insurance laws means no need for liability insurance, so everyone buys the biggest damn car they can to nudge out smaller ones. No zoning laws for commercial zones means no attention paid to even making parking reasonably available, which crowds the lanes of traffic and leads to more accidents. No gun laws means everyone also has a gun or is an idiot during all this.

    Going to the grocery store that somehow flourishes during all this (my bet is Harris Teeter) means ‘rasslin’ up the whole clan to provide backup fire and lookout duties while you make your purchases. Now that is family values.

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  4. Matt Bernius says:

    All excellent points Steven.

    Compete side note:
    Another fun one is to point out the fact that, after specific references to the “Creator” in both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of the Confederation, that our God-fearing Founding Fathers made so such reference in the Constitution.

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  5. David in KC says:

    When you’re reduced to using facts, you’ve already lost… or something like that.

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  6. Tillman says:

    I just googled “parking lot regulations,” and what I saw would make a libertarian or limited-government conservative cry.

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  7. Eric Florack says:

    Put simply, the founders understood first hand that freedom is inverse in size to government. The whole of the constitution is written to the end of containing government.

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  8. Eric Florack says:

    Note, Steven, that securing the blessings of liberty was indeed addressed by the constitution… which was written specifically to limit the power of government. Thats how liberty is secured.

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  9. Eric Florack says:

    didnt realize the first response got through. sorry

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  10. @Eric Florack:

    Note, Steven, that securing the blessings of liberty was indeed addressed by the constitution

    Indeed. In fact, I quoted the passage in question above.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Matt Bernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    It would be great if some people actually read to the end of sentences and then understood and attempted to understand them in context, huh? Let alone actually read the contents — let alone considered the substance — of a post before commenting.

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  12. anjin-san says:

    limit the power of government. Thats how liberty is secured.

    Well, if things work out for the conservative movement, we will be free to serve our new corporate masters. I’m not sure thats what the founders had in mind.

    I occasionally think back to Bush after 9.11 – urging everyone to do their patriotic duty and return to the malls.

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  13. @Matt Bernius: ‘twould be nice.

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  14. DrDaveT says:

    Most philosophers, including those who directly influenced the thinkers of the US founding, including, but not limited to, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu, all thought that some level of government was needed to allow for the enjoying of natural liberties.

    Don’t forget Adam Smith, who (if you actually read his most famous work) emphasizes the importance of government regulation in allowing markets to operate efficiently without devolving into monopoly or oligarchy or cartel.

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  15. @DrDaveT: Indeed. Hamilton was heavily influenced by Smith (and you are correct about regulations issue–even though most people think Smith was some sort of proto-libertarian on economics).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yet, you seem to argue that liberty cannot exist without an all powerful government. Makes no sense at all, and flies in the faceof everything we know about the founders.

    Not that such things shock me, mind.

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  17. @Eric Florack: But, of course, you miss the point entirely, not that that surprises me. No one said anything about an “an all powerful government.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    No one said anything about an “an all powerful government.”

    Well, Hobbes did, in Leviathan – but nobody else took him seriously, except to note that he pretty much nailed what life in the state of nature is like.

    (Aside — the best volleyball team name I ever saw was 6 limeys who went by “Nasty, British, and Short”.)

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  19. @DrDaveT: True. But this isn’t the Hobbes thread, so I didn’t figure that was the reference here.

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  20. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: No mentioning required.
    Unless you’re nowdays calling for a limited government, which seems to me to constitute a rather large change of attitude, if we are to take previous wring of yours with any seriousness at all..

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  21. anjin-san says:

    I seem to remember Florack calling for a rather significant increase in the power of the federal government in the wake of 9.11. It was mixed in with rantings about “being converted at the point of a sword.”

    When you mentioned the Constitution in those days, he would reply “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

    He fit right in with the bulk of the “conservative” movement, who were cheering at the top of the lungs while Bush and Cheney vastly expanded the size, power, and cost of the federal government.

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  22. anjin-san says:

    @ Steven L. Taylor

    It’s simple really. If you don’t agree with Florack, you hate freedom and want to see the US become an absolute dictatorship.

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  23. Matt Bernius says:

    “Quod nescis aut non libet cogitare,” @Steven L. Taylor. Quod nescis aut non libet cogitare.

    (anyone who knows latin, please feel free to correct my attempt at articulating the core issue that some commenter have).

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  24. @Eric Florack:

    No mentioning required.

    Well, of course not. Why have an actual argument with evidence and such if you can just decide what other people mean all by yourself.

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  25. @Matt Bernius: Indeed.

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  26. @Eric Florack:

    Unless you’re nowdays calling for a limited government, which seems to me to constitute a rather large change of attitude, if we are to take previous wring of yours with any seriousness at all..

    I suspect that there is nothing I can do for you to take me as seriously as you should (although the fact that you go out of your way to read and comment on my work means you must take me seriously to some degree).

    Regardless, this is empty formulation as is “all powerful”–because a) all governments are limited in some capacity (the question is what are those limitations and why) and b) no government is “All powerful.” The hard part is going beyond empty formulation to an actual conversation (not to mention comprehension) of the issues at hand.

    Part of the point of all of these posts is the to be able to enjoy fundamental rights (like freedom of speech, right to worship, property rights, etc.) requires government in the first place (even as the government itself is constrained in these arenas).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. Eric Florack says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Rather the reverse, actually.
    I wonder if it has occurred to you that the biggest abuser/denier of those rights is government, itself?

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  28. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: Oh, quite true, I was.
    There’s a major difference however between dealing with citizens and dealing with sworn enemies during a time of war.
    There is also an issue you have always refused to acknowlegde… that the value of such things is directly connected to the integrity of the CIC, or rather in the case of Obama, the lack thereof.

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  29. @Eric Florack: That government can abuse rights is not the issue.

    The issue is whether liberty and rights can be accessed and enjoyed sans government

    Provide me an example of where that has been the case and you might have the embryo of an argument.

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  30. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    the integrity of the CIC

    You are quite selective here. I don’t recall any outrage on your part when Cheney’s cronies were engaging in war profiteering on a massive scale.

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  31. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    There’s a major difference however between dealing with citizens and dealing with sworn enemies during a time of war.

    Well that’s true. So it follows that you simply don’t understand that “The Patriot Act” has the effect of eroding freedom for American Citizens.

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  32. @anjin-san:

    Well that’s true. So it follows that you simply don’t understand that “The Patriot Act” has the effect of eroding freedom for American Citizens

    It is ironic. He is both the Grand Skeptic of the Government while at the same certain The Government Knows Best.

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  33. Matt Bernius says:

    There’s a major difference however between dealing with citizens and dealing with sworn enemies during a time of war.

    Beyond that, its been pretty clear that during a “time of war” (including apparently our rather ill defined one) many of the “strong constitutionalists” are the first to try and gut multiple aspect of the document when a *US Citizen* is accused of working with an *enemy.* Or, historically, simply speaking out against the current “state of war.”

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  34. @Matt Bernius:
    And, of course, it really isn’t the Constitution that he he is concerned about:

    that the value of such things is directly connected to the integrity of the CIC

    It really is a bizarre, but not uncommon, position that someone claims that the constitution is special, if not sacred (but really only when it creates outcomes that that person likes and elects parties and persons that that person can accept).

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