Of I and We

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Perhaps you have been chary of letting other people speak for you.  I know that I have.  I tend to bristle when someone announces what “we” are going to do without consulting with the “I”s in the “we.”  I feel much the same when I hear someone declare what “we” think without caring to learn what I and the other components of “we” think. 

Sometimes it is necessary or unavoidable to have someone speak for me.  I think of representative government.  A Congress of 330 million people will either get nothing done, or it will devolve into rule by a dictator who has, as an effective demagogue, arranged for enough of all of us to cede to him their will.  The city states of ancient Greece experienced both failings of genuine democracy—mob rule and dictatorship—and displayed how it never worked for long.

The Romans, inhabiting a city state governed by a king, threw off their king and created a democratic republic that flourished for several hundred years.  They elected Senators to represent them.  The Romans did not like a king who spoke for them without asking, but they thrived under a system of Senators who spoke for them, but only after obtaining the Romans’ permission.  That worked for centuries until the process of gaining permission—elections—became corrupted.  The Senators concurrently became corrupted, unwilling to face blame for making decisions.  The democratic republic was replaced by a government of emperors and Caesars.  Rome afterwards oscillated between civil strife and dictatorship on the way to collapse and invasion.

In the years following 1776 we, as a people of free individuals, united to shake off our king who claimed the privilege of referring to himself as “We” when speaking.  In 1787 “We the People,” through our chosen representatives, also established a democratic republic.  That followed the formation of democratic republics in each State.  Both sides in the debate to ratify the new Constitution emphasized keeping representatives tied closely to the represented.  Skeptics wondered whether that would actually happen or long endure if it did.

Individual people, representatives and represented, are imperfect, as the Founders understood.  We each prize our individuality and the liberty to live it.  We each can also be tempted to exert our will over others.  Consider the occasional neighborhood “WE BELIEVE” yard signs.  Are these an expression of personal faith or a declaration that you and I ought to consider ourselves included in the “WE”?  I wonder about the latter when I see decrees by federal officials, state governors, and local mayors extending government force to the seemingly anodyne slogans ornamenting the signs.  The man who today sits in the oval office, who would not dare to call himself a czar, has appointed a man (previously rejected by a national election) to be the nation’s “Climate Czar.”

We are scheduled to reach 250 years of our democratic republic when the 17-year cicadas next return.  Will they emerge in a nation still governed by “We the People”?  Or might they come out of the ground where the voices of the I’s have been subsumed by other Czars who announce what We think, do, and say?  Creeping political correctness, which has been chastising free speech for decades, telling us what not to say, has lately become enforced by governments, workplaces, media, and schools.  As the prophet Isaiah warned, a man is made “an offender for a word” (Isaiah 29:21).

By the way, the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser” are derivatives of the Latin title “Caesar.”

Of Firearms and American Democracy

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A commentator on a Washington-D.C. area Spanish-language radio station was declaiming at unusual length against private gun ownership. What caught my attention that morning was his expression of wonder at the deep and widespread interest of people in the United States in owning firearms. He could not understand or explain it. He was lost. The interest in private gun ownership was a new cultural phenomenon to him.

No doubt it was, but he was correct to identify the passion for gun ownership as an element of the cultural life of the United States that is not only deep, but deep-rooted. Those roots go back to the very founding of North America by the first colonists, reinforced by subsequent waves of immigrants. The very first North American colonists had guns, as essential to survival as seeds and shovels. As Germans joined the English, the Scots, and the Dutch in the new land, followed by Irish, Swedes, Italians and others, guns traveled with the pioneers west.

Western European society invented common firearms and spread them among the commoners. By means of firearms the commoners won their new land. With their firearms those commoners also won their freedom from the lords and ladies who could no longer control the armed rabble, particularly in the English colonies, and particularly in the colonies that became the United States. Guns in the United States have been instruments of survival, physical and political.

What the kings and nobles of Europe could not know was that there is something powerfully democratizing in gun possession. Firearms ended the reign of the mounted knight and made it hard for kings and emperors to keep their thrones. No aristocrat in any palace was invulnerable to the meanest peasant armed with musket and ball. Guns have been an historically powerful equalizer and defense against tyranny and pillagers.

That democratizing process worked further and faster in America, where courage and a gun could tame a wilderness and provide freedom for the family. Far from the reach of government, and unanswerable for the pretended protection of the manor house, the typical American could take immediate responsibility for himself and his own security and that of his wife and children, backed up by the very real ability to assert that security. No one seems to know the origin of the proverb, “God created men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” but the armed nation builders of the American West understood and believed it.

That is to say that, in the United States at least, people have not needed government, and especially government protection, all that much. Gun ownership has always been at the core of American independence and democracy, essential from the founding up into modern times. It is a symbol of American freedom, but more than that, ownership of firearms is a tangible expression of the independence and self-reliance that are at the core of American citizenship, a culture of freedom sometimes new to people hailing from other parts of the world. It is not accidental that not only the right to keep firearms but the active right to bear them is recognized in our Constitution as fundamental, alongside freedom of expression, free exercise of religion, the protection of private property, trial by jury, and other cornerstones of our liberty.

As the dangerous frontiers of violence encroach again on families beyond the timely protection of law enforcement, that innate American self-reliance is reenergized, and well it should be. The examples of people saved by their guns from robbery, murder, and worse, are legion if little noted by the establishment media reporting from their armed security zones. In the face of increased violent criminal activity—whether from terrorists or thugs—why does it make sense to weaken the defenses of law abiding citizens? Why would the government of a free people impose regulations to expose those who live peacefully to the barbarous cruelty of those who consider a regulation no barrier to preying upon the disarmed? I do not understand it. As an American, I do not understand it at all.

Of Slavery and the Constitution

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Slavery in America was doomed under the Constitution, and the slavocrats knew it.  For more than four score years they had been fighting and steadily losing ground to preserve slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the slavocrats understood that things would not get better for them.  They saw getting out as the only way to continue slavery.

They pushed their states to leave after the election of 1860 not because they disputed the results.  They recognized that Lincoln had been duly elected.  What the slavocrats feared was that under his administration and his support in Congress their ability to preserve slavery would be irreparably eroded and eventually ended.  They sought to exit the Union before that happened.

By necessity, forming a “more perfect union” under the Constitution required compromise to accommodate diverse peoples and experiences.  The miracle of the Founders was to bring all the states in.  Compromise and accommodation are at the heart of a republic. 

There is an art to compromise.  I saw that during the days of the Reagan administration.  President Reagan was a highly principled man, yet he often compromised.  I marveled how, in his compromising, he resisted compromise of principle.  Again and again he advanced his principles while accommodating on details.   

The Founders establishing a Constitution sought to preserve essential principles by which a government of liberty would act.  A key example was the slave trade.  Some vociferously argued for its end.  Slave state representatives argued for the matter to be left to individual states.  The Constitution enshrined the national principle that the slave trade must end.  Placing regulation of trade in general with Congress, the compromise set 1808 for the complete end of the slave trade.

A similarly important example where compromise embraced the principle was the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives.  The number of a state’s representatives was based on population.  Representatives from slave states wanted to count slaves.  Others objected that if your state treats these people as property, then they should not be counted any more than other property.  The principle in the compromise was to recognize the humanity of people held in slavery, but to count a person only as three-fifths for congressional apportionment so long as he was held in slavery, reducing southern congressional representation.

With these two compromises, resting on anti-slavery principles, all the states came into the union, accepting a Constitution that would progressively lead to abolition.  As the reality of that became abundantly clear to the leadership of eleven of the states, they tried to renege on the deal and leave.  The slavocrats failed.  Rather than let the Constitution end slavery peacefully, they forced a horrid war that ended it all the sooner, but at the cost of more than 600,000 dead, greater than the total of Americans killed in both World Wars I and II. 

The power of the principles of the Constitution continued its work.  Amidst a Civil War that, in the words of Lincoln, tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” elections were held.  The voters chose liberty and the nation endured.

The American Founders were sober people, sobered by a long and difficult war of Independence followed by several years of economic and social confusion.  They understood that people were flawed and make mistakes.  They believed that people are also good, who can and do make good decisions.  The Constitution on which they established the United States recognizes and is designed to offset the bad and allow good to succeed, which it more often than not does.  

Tested by myriad difficulties and unparalleled prosperity, the Constitution has worked better than any other system of government on earth.  That is why enemies of freedom hate it and why so many people want to come here to live.

Of Easter and the Constitution

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One morning in Tennessee, almost 160 years ago, many thousand U.S. soldiers were quietly enjoying breakfast on a beautiful spring Sabbath, thinking of little more than passing a quiet Palm Sunday and sometime soon thereafter continuing the destruction of the rebel army in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. That was, until the rebels came calling and rudely interrupted breakfast.

By the end of the battle the next day the rebels were in full retreat, but over 13,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing, and nearly 11,000 rebels had met the same fate. Shiloh turned out to be a major victory for the United States Army, opening up nearly the whole western part of the rebel confederacy to reunification. The import of the victory was missed by much of the population of the loyal states, however, whose senses reeled from a bill of losses of husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers never seen before in the life of the Republic.  General U.S. Grant, whose coolness under pressure made the victory possible, was mercilessly criticized in the press.

The nation little understood that the casualties of Shiloh would be only the first of many tens of thousands more who would suffer from civil war in the land of Washington and Jefferson before 1862 would be over. Then there would be 1863, 1864, and 1865 to follow, running the tally of destruction ever higher.  In 1865, near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln summed up in his marvelous second inaugural address—for a term of office that would last the rest of his life, less than 6 weeks—“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

All Americans today benefit from that profound victory and the others that brought an end to the rebellion and that upheld the Constitution. It was a strange and new thing for the world that the words on a piece of paper, written by men of an earlier generation, could create a system of government and affect so many lives. It was the lives of those who fought to sustain the Constitution that gave it that life, men who insisted on living by those words and organizing a free society within the protections of its provisions.

The same is true today, as with each generation:  we are called upon to uphold that Constitution, those words on a piece of paper, and hand it on down, as strong as ever, to our children. Those men who died at Shiloh cannot do our work for us today. Neither can the men who fought and died in Europe and the South Pacific and on many other places of battle.  Just as important as those who died to preserve the Constitution are those who have lived to maintain the Constitution. They, however, could do no more than pass that freedom under constitutional law to us. We have it today. What will we do with it?

As Ronald Reagan taught in his 1967 inaugural address as Governor of California,

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

We must not let it become extinct. It is under challenge from enemies without, who hate the liberty and worth of the individual enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and it is endangered by those within the nation—some in very high places of power and responsibility— who see the Constitution as a barrier in the way of their plans to replace individual rights, value, initiative, and worth with the ages old system where the government and the governors run the lives of the people and decide who wins, who loses, who gets what, and how much.

Our forebears fought a revolution and crafted a new system in the New World to get away from that rule by the few. The lesson we need to learn anew, is that it is the job of the many individuals who make up each generation to win that freedom again, because there will always be those eager to impose their will on others and use and direct and take the resources that they themselves did not earn, who will want to have their way with other people’s money and other people’s lives.

No one’s sacrifice is the same as anyone else’s. Read no unfairness in that, because to sacrifice is to absorb unfairness. We cannot avoid the call to sacrifice.  Not even Christ, the greatest of all, could.

As we celebrate Easter we should remember the sacrifices of the Savior, by which He absorbed all unfairness. His sacrifices made Easter possible, by which all that is wrong is overcome and ultimate freedom bought for each person born into this world. We are privileged by Christ to be given the chance to join in that effort to preserve and extend the blessings of freedom to our families, our friends, and to people we do not know and may never meet.

At Gethsemane, then Golgotha, and from the Garden Tomb, Christ has created the framework that makes freedom possible. He inspired the founders who built a nation of liberty as the beacon to all mankind that it has been for almost 250 years. As our Easter worship, let us take up the last call given by Abraham Lincoln to the nation as the Constitution was reaffirmed in struggle, who recognized the great value of America for the world:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Of Viruses and Governors

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I have a close correspondent in Europe, with whom I have exchanged ideas for years.  Most recently he shared with me his worries and frustration with how Germany has been responding to the virus that has occupied so much attention these past months.  Here are thoughts from the response I shared with him.  I shall call him Walter.

  

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your note.  The virus lockdown and response situation in Germany sounds worse than I thought.  We don’t hear much about it in our media.  Most of what I pick up from Europe is from British commentators boasting about how glad they are that they got out of the EU just in time.  They claim to be way ahead in vaccine administration, particularly compared with Macron’s record in France.

Here in the U.S. we have been witnessing a general overreaction but we also experience the benefits of a federal system.  The variety of states are following a variety of policies, and people can see what works better (if the news can get through the big media channels).  The general pattern seems to be that the more the lockdown the higher the incidence, which these governors then use to justify even tighter lockdowns.  But even the worst states, like New York and California, are starting to realize that they have gone overboard.  Virginia is starting to ease up, perhaps because they have elections this year for governor and legislature (where Democrats have very thin majorities).  Schools are starting to reopen—despite the teachers unions who want to stay closed—but who also want their teachers first in line for the vaccines.  Children have been hardest hit, not by the virus but by the policies.

Politicians do talk to one another.  The virus gave a good excuse for heads of the executive branches to enjoy making decisions without working with the other branches of government.  The Chinese Government showed how, by engaging in a sharp, heavy lockdown of Wuhan, including control of information.  I don’t claim that they told governors here and leaders around the world what to do, but they did show them what to do and how to use the virus as the excuse. 

In the U.S., most governors with the early heavy-handed policies were Democrats, and the media were by and large in deep sympathy, quickly pitching stories to support what the governors wanted to do, helping to hype the hysteria on which the governors’ decrees were based.  Once the governors issued their first round of decrees they got to like it, but they needed to keep going to keep their legislatures off balance.  A few judges here and there, eventually, ruled that some of the governors had gone too far, rolling back some of the policies.  Many judges found ways to stay out of it, considering these to be policy matters, not judicial issues.

The thorn in the side of these governors has been other governors, who followed more reasonable approaches, such as the governors in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, even South Dakota, among others.  That is the beauty of a federal system.  It has worked imperfectly, but it has been a salvation, particularly as people have seen better results—from the point of view of the virus and of the economy—in these other states.  It has worked to keep the debate somewhat alive, even with media working hard to silence alternative voices.

This all shows the importance of a constitution, with personal freedoms and diffused government.  But it also demonstrates the importance for people to insist on observance of their rights.  Bless those who have had willingness and means to go to court and judges who have been willing to take the cases and support the Constitution.  The biggest tool that people have is perhaps economic, and there have been economic responses that have been penalizing states that have it wrong. 

Another important tool will be elections.  A few states, such as Virginia, have elections this year, and there has been a rising tide of resentment to the policies.  Throwing out of government the officials who have violated rights and pursued destructive policies would send a powerful message to other parts of the nation.  What we hope for now are good candidates, the ability to get their message out through the media opposition, and integrity in the elections (plenty to worry about there).

Anyway, a long answer.  But I understand your frustration.  I am, however, hopeful.

Wayne

Of Platitudes and Political Attitudes

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I am naturally optimistic.  So you will understand that I rejoiced to see several of my friendly neighbors, who sometimes disagree with me politically, place signs in their yards supporting positions consistent with the views of free market liberty-loving constitutionalists like myself.  That would appear to bode well for candidates in this election who also tend to trust markets, liberty, and constitutional rights.

I will confess that to some the signs might read like a public creed of platitudes.  Perhaps they are intended to present an impressionist attitude of some kind.  Here are the phrases, written in bumper sticker style.  See what you think.

To begin with, who could argue with the obvious truth that “Black Lives Matter”?  I personally know no one who does not naturally embrace the idea.  I do notice that those who in published media lionize the eponymous organization laying claim to the title reveal little material interest in the lives of black police officers, black small business owners, or unborn black children.  That may be why the lady running for Congress in Baltimore’s 7th Congressional District emphasizes that “all black lives matter.”

Next on the signs is the phrase, “No Human Is Illegal.”  That is surely the case in the United States as long as it remains a nation of law and order.  Things that some people do are illegal, but enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is the concept of individual worth.  The notion that people themselves can be illegal is reserved for socialist governments and monarchies, where large portions of the population can find themselves illegal.  That is a crucial reason why the American founders broke from the monarchy and why applying socialism here terrorizes lovers of liberty.

Third on the signs is the bromide, “Love Is Love.”  Surely it is.  Perhaps it appears because love is the core principle of many religions, such as Christianity, which rests on two commandments (also taught in the Old Testament):  Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  As Jesus taught, on these rest “all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)  Jesus also taught that with the breakdown of law and order, “the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matthew 24:12)  I am thrilled that churches are being allowed to open again so that they might continue to teach their doctrine of love.

The phrase, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” is given fourth billing on the signs.  That is absolutely true, even if it is violated in many parts of the world.  I am reminded, by my neighbors who have come to the United States from such nations where women’s rights are routinely violated, why I am grateful that my daughters and granddaughters live in a country where their rights are real and protected.

I am grateful that the signs include what is in danger of becoming a meaningless cliché, “Science Is Real.”  Our nation was midwifed by the enlightenment, a rejection of the medieval notion that scientific verities were determined by government or ecclesiastical agencies and votes of councils.  We are all indebted to courageous scientists who stood alone and refused to accept any scientific debate as “final,” who asked more questions that often led to better answers that have made mankind healthier, wealthier, and more flourishing.  May our nation of freedom encourage the continuation of that story.

The penultimate phrase on the signs is the prosaic declaration, “Water Is Life.”  I remember Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona, explaining to a skeptical Senate the importance of water rights.  There would appear to be a longtime tug of war in our government agencies about the importance of water management.  As with many important issues, relying upon our federal system of state and national interaction is most likely to give us the best management answers.  National mandates are likely to leave local communities dry.

The final phrase on the signs is the catchall, “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”  An unlimited aspiration, mankind has wrestled with it from the earliest times.  As this is to be an ongoing struggle of which we should not tire, the question is how best to proceed?  Our founders asked that question.  They recognized that arbitrary governments were the worst offenders.  The structure of liberty they established has fostered the multitudinous avenues for virtue that have not ceased to make progress in combating injustice.

I cheer such display of worthy attitudes of support for our nation’s growth in liberty.

By the way, there is a website where you may go to purchase these signs, $10 each.  Free enterprise is wonderful.

Of Religion and Liberty

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In recent days the Supreme Court of the United States, in two related decisions, gave a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion.  The cases involved practical application of the principle First Amendment right.  One case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, involved the Obamacare Act and contraceptive insurance coverage.  The other, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, concerned religious schools and their employment policies.  Both cases were decided by strong 7-2 votes. 

Readers will look to other forums and formats for the specifics of these interesting decisions.  I raise them as noteworthy inasmuch as governments in the last few months have acted unkindly toward religion and its exercise, much to the harm of people and the  jeopardy of their other rights protected in the First Amendment.

Not only is freedom of religion and the exercise thereof found in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is the first freedom mentioned.  Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the government follow next, in that order.  This is not necessarily a ranking of importance of these five freedoms.  All are essential, but I would suggest that the latter four are strengthened by freedom of religion and will be put at risk without a vigorous regard for that freedom.

This is not hypothetical.  As an experiment to deal with the unknown effects of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) many state governments (and the federal government to a lesser degree) engaged in an abrupt and progressive impairment of the constitutional rights of nearly all within their jurisdiction.  Of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, governments applied or tolerated the harshest limitations on religion and its practice.  Churches were closed, its members forbidden to meet together, even in small groups.  Administrations of religious rites considered sacred were blocked, even in application to the dying as well as the living.

In my congregation, in my church, we gather, we fellowship with one another, we sing together, we pray together, we teach each other, we provide service to one another, we follow the pattern of what Jesus Christ did and calls upon us to do in the practice of becoming kinder, more loving people.  Government restrictions have made that very hard to do, and are unable to replace it with anything.

One of the leaders of the church, David A. Bednar, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lately said this in remarks on the importance of religious practice:

Latter-day Saints are hardly alone in this need to gather. . . Our Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical friends gather for mass, baptisms, confirmations, sermons, and myriad other religious purposes.  Our Jewish friends gather for worship in their synagogues.  Our Muslim friends gather in their mosques.  Our friends in the Buddhist, Sikh, and other faith traditions likewise have sacred places to gather and worship together. And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.

In the United States and elsewhere, in this experiment into which we were rapidly immersed, people “throughout the free world,” as David Bednar reminded, “learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

Science, including the science of self government, requires us to learn from our experiments.  What have we seen in the social laboratory within which we have been living?  While freedom of religion has been curtailed, other liberties have eroded.  Freedom of speech has been restricted; people have become very careful about speaking their minds, avoiding certain words, even limiting their associations with neighbors, and they do not like it.  Communication even on social media has been censored. 

Press freedom is no longer robust.  Media broadcasters are careful to avoid use of newly minted proscriptions of this or that phrase or word, with correspondents and announcers disappearing from their jobs almost overnight for violation of some new taboo.  People have become increasingly mistrustful of “the news.”

Many assemblies are prohibited.  Where allowed, numerical limits have been imposed on how many people can assemble in the same place.  More nettlesome, as is the usual case with the violation of rights, restrictions are applied and enforced unevenly, some favored and others not.

Governments, especially local governments, turn deaf ears to constituents raising concerns with the application of restrictions.  Arrangements for schools run by local governments are in confusion. 

Overall, people feel isolated, alone, helpless, and, for too many, hopeless.  They look for and find temporary relief in acts of rebellion, minor or otherwise.

This is where freedom of religion can be seen as important to the other freedoms.  Churches have often in western societies been a counterweight to government tyranny, which is why the governments of Europe tried for centuries to control them.  As the Red Army imposed its Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, persecution and control of religion were a priority. 

The first amendment prohibits government control of religion, specifically to preserve freedom of the churches, which in America has also worked to accommodate variety of religious practice.  All of the churches, together, need the first amendment to thrive, as do their members.  No other human organizations are as organized, enduring, and meaningful to people.  Without vigorous, free religions, people are left alone to defend their other rights, with alternative organizations that at best are anemic by comparison.

In the words of David Bednar, “With goodwill and a little creativity, ways can almost always be found to fulfill both society’s needs and the imperative to protect religious freedom. . . . Never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential.”

Of Freedom and Federals

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News Flash, Washington:  The national government sometimes gets it wrong.

Another News Flash, Elsewhere:  So do the States.

Of course, this is no news to anyone, rather old news to everyone.  We all know that the national government is neither perfectly right nor wrong.  The same is true for state governments.  All are staffed by human beings, like you and me, with the similar packages of wisdom and foolishness.

For nearly two decades I worked in the U.S. Senate for a very wise man.  I once heard him say that when he came to Washington he was frustrated at how little one person could get done.  He said he soon came to rejoice in the fact.  Yes, it is hard for one person to achieve the good that he envisions, but it is even harder for one person to impose on everyone else the good that he envisions.

The founders of the nation did not seek to perfect mankind.  They left that for God, as flawed humans cannot create perfect humans.  For now God has left governments to imperfect people (though He is willing to provide as much wisdom as people are willing to accept).  The wisdom of the founders, thousands of miles away from other nations, but drawing upon thousands of years of history, was to create a system of government that did not rest upon the wisdom and foolishness of one individual or even a small cadre of them.

The founders arrived at a system of government for the new nation that neither guaranteed nor expected officials to get it all right.  It was designed to make it harder for them all to get it all wrong.  Moreover, the founders worked to limit the field of that government, so that as much as possible of the getting things right and wrong was left to the people themselves in their myriad of daily activities, far too complex for a government to manage.

The arrangement divided governing responsibilities among many hands.  States have their responsibilities, which they share with local governments.  The national government has its share of duties and powers to be applied where appropriate for a national sphere.  Those powers are further divided among three interdependent branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial.  I say “interdependent,” because neither was given enough power to operate without involvement with the other two.

Impasse arises, frequently, because schemes for government to govern too much wreck upon the shoals of the diversity of our people and the multiplicity of their needs and preferences.  Such impasse is not a sign of inefficient government but of our system of government efficiently reminding us when it is trying to overreach, going beyond government’s competence.

The founders formed their plan as they realized that it was the only way to govern a nation so geographically broad, increasingly populous, and already socially diverse.  As the 13 states have become 50 from sea to sea, and the several million have become several hundred million, it is even truer today.  There are things that governments must do.  There are many more that need to be left to the governed.

In recent months we have witnessed waves of expanded government restrictions, probing the limits of government wisdom and power.  Space here will not allow an evaluation of the successes and failures, or the effect on individual freedom.

I rejoice in this federal system of government that allows for a diversity of approaches and accommodation of a diversity of conditions.  In my view, the governor where I live has gotten more wrong than right and is out of step with his state’s conditions.  I find the contrast of other examples a source of hope.  The purpose of dividing governmental power is to allow the exposure of mistakes and thereby preserve and promote individual freedom.

The division of error in our system offers hope of relief and recourse from error. It still leaves room, as well, for individuals to get it right and when they get it wrong to learn from the errors, with the freedom to try again and do better.

I will tattle, that the Senator for whom I worked for so long sometimes got it wrong.  Having been a college professor, he told us that we learned so much by working for him that we should pay tuition.  We did not agree.  He did not press the point.

Parting News Flash, New York:  The United Nations gets it wrong almost all the time.  Details, daily.

Of Congress and Appropriations

 

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Why is Congress not legislating?  Congress is the national legislature.  The Constitution vests Congress with exclusive legislative rights.  Then why will the Members of Congress not legislate?

Among the exclusive legislative jobs for Congress is to appropriate funds for the operations of government.  This is a regular, annual task.  This must be well understood:  for Congress to fail to fund the operations of the federal government is a dereliction of duty of the highest order.  Nothing prevents the Members from doing that duty, and no one else can do it.

The President cannot legislate, least of all appropriate.  That limitation is firmly placed as a check on executive power.  The President may not write a single word of legislation, he may not appropriate one penny.  If the agencies of government are not funded, it is because Congress has failed to fund them.  No one else can fund them, and no one else can fail to fund them.  Currently, Congress has not done its job for much of the federal government, and the Members of Congress have no excuse, no justification for the failure.

The President can make recommendations to Congress, he can ask for appropriations.  Congress can heed or disregard such recommendations and requests entirely at its discretion.  They have no effect except as Congress chooses.

Some might say, but what about the President’s veto?  Can he not refuse to sign an appropriation, and send the bill back to Congress?  Indeed he can.  He may send it back, but he cannot change it, he cannot add or remove a single word.  Congress can decide whether to change the legislation, do nothing, or vote to override the veto.  Those decisions are entirely in the hands of the legislators.

It is no excuse for legislators to say that they cannot find sufficient agreement whether to override a veto or even to pass a law.  Whose fault is that?  True representative legislatures (not the rubber stamps of communist dictatorships) have always had the difficult job of dealing with disagreement.  That is why we have legislatures with numerous members.  It is expected that there will be varying points of view.  The legislators’ responsibility is to resolve these differences sufficient to pass necessary laws.

Appropriations for government operations are necessary laws.  They are also among the most malleable of questions.  When the consideration is money for government projects, there is a compromise to be found.  We will not pass anything is not an acceptable option.  It is legislative failure.

Presidents may say that they will veto a bill that does not meet certain standards.  That is a President’s prerogative, but the Constitution is careful to make it a surmountable obstacle.  The Members of Congress, working through the legislative process, may either find a sufficient majority to pass a law that the President will not veto or a sufficient unity of view that will allow them to override the veto.  Doing nothing until the President changes his view is dereliction.

Presidents have had vetoes overridden.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, vetoed 635 Acts of Congress passed by strong majorities of fellow Democrats.  Congress overrode several of those.  Ronald Reagan vetoed 78 Acts of Congress, several of which were overridden.

Most often, a significant number of Members will sympathize with the President’s view.  That calls for legislative efforts to find a formula reasonable enough that the President does not reasonably veto it.  That is what the national legislature traditionally does and is expected to do.  That is what this Congress has so far failed to do.  That failure is entirely the fault of the Members of Congress.

Of Free Speech and Insensitivity Training

There is a poignant scene in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a movie with many poignant scenes, in which Lawrence demonstrates to a fellow officer how to snuff out a candle. He pinches the flame with his fingers. The other officer gives it a try but jerks back his hand when his fingers are scorched.

“That hurts,” the officer complains. Lawrence replies, “Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

There is a lesson there, particularly important for a society that has become hypersensitive to injury, real or imagined. Hurt may come from something as small as a look—or failure to look. It may come from an article of clothing, either worn or neglected. Lately flags have been targeted as sources of personal and even societal pain. Hurt may come from something as small as a word. Indeed, I think that most often today and in our society, both words and our sensitivity to words have become sharpened.

If we are to preserve freedom of speech—in all its important varieties—we need to develop some insensitivity, as in not minding when it hurts. Freedom of speech only matters when someone hears something he does not like. The choice then is intolerance and silence or freedom and not minding the hurt.

Another way to look at it is that we most desire freedom of speech when we are the speaker. From the point of view of listener, we may have mixed emotions. We may like what we say, but when we do not like what we hear do we wish to silence the speaker, or do we accept the options of free speech, to turn away or to endure another’s unpleasant rodomontade?

Freedom of speech was made part of the First Amendment, because rulers and monarchs were at pains to inflict genuine physical hurt whenever they took offense at the words of their subjects. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech was needed to protect people using words that hurt people in government, that offended people in power.

Even though enshrined in the Constitution, freedom of speech has to be won by each generation, because it is constantly in jeopardy. Americans are nearly unanimous in their support of freedom of speech when it is speech that they like, speech that reinforces their own views, and especially speech that praises and flatters. We do not particularly need the Constitution to protect that kind of speech. Speech that is unpopular, speech that goes against the grain, speech that is obnoxious to our opinions, speech that challenges our beliefs, that is the speech the Founders fought to protect. Most of human progress has come from that kind of speech. It is speech that is worth protecting today and that many try to silence.

President Obama and his political friends are fond of declaring that “the debate is over,” whether referring to Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank Act, climate change, same-sex marriage, or other important issues of significant disagreement. I expect that soon we will hear President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration spokesmen insist that the debate is over with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran. In a free republic, can the debate ever really be over?

This is nothing new; it is a continuation of a very old struggle. Despots great and petty since early ages have exercised what power they might to silence ideas and expressions they did not want to hear, or did not want others to hear. The gallows, flames, and torture chambers of yesteryear are matched today by bullets, bombs, and bayonets from radical Islam and totalitarian governments. In the West, where constitutions solemnly embrace free speech, voices are silenced by public ridicule, elaborate and intrusive regulations on what can and cannot be said and when and where—reinforced by government fines, restrictions, confiscations, and jail time.

I recently visited my son at his new job at a large factory. He was very careful to spell out to me a lengthy list of subjects I should not bring up, whether from fear of his colleagues, company policies, or federal, state, and local regulations. I have been given similar training at my place of work.

When I was young I was taught to be courteous and not seek to offend. I was also taught to be slow to take offence. Do children today repeat the rhyme I heard as a child? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I wonder. Or are our children taught today that there is great reward in being the sensitized “victim” of someone else’s “offensive” words? Where do we find freedom in that?

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