Is it possible that with the COVID-19 crisis and now, riots in our cities, we have forgotten the central principle of America, the Declaration of Independence’s resonating duality of equality and liberty? Their meaning in turn illuminates the core human qualities of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….” and the subsequent need for government by consent.
These rights have stirred Americans in our greatest crises, preeminently in the Civil War. Dispute over their meaning underlies all the political struggles of our history. After all, what would violate the principle of government by consent more than brutal, unjustified treatment by an agent of the state (or of mobs)?
With all its fears, shutdowns, and radical changes, the coronavirus crisis has forced this key question: “Does the Declaration still breathe in Americans?” The riots we’re enduring now only emphasize the point. The meaning of the Declaration can only be preserved if the bulk of Americans are willing to sacrifice their lives for it.
To date, the American response to both of these crises leads us to wonder whether the Declaration has now become, as Lincoln feared, “mere rubbish.” Has the weakness exposed by the virus lockdowns now welcomed the coup de grace of riots and a return of the state of nature?
Equality and Liberty, Wrongly Understood
What has happened to us Americans? We now have warped understandings of equality and of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Equality today, our betters tell us, must mean some form of socialism, gender equality, or identity politics. Just as twisted, an irrational obsession with life as mere survival invites one to harbor slavish attitudes in response to one’s fears.
Similarly, a stunted view of liberty breeds the tyranny of one’s passions and whims. And a vulgar notion of happiness destroys the distinction among the varieties of life choices, and thus rejects a hierarchy of purposes. A free life is impossible without risks, uncertainties, and even dangers. Have we lost our ability to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable fears?
First, the virus and now the riots have exposed our now tenuous hold on the Declaration. With respect to COVID-19, all the fears and the talk of millions of deaths have overwhelmed our now weakened hold on what was the rock of our political good sense.
Too many Americans, and especially, it seems, those in positions of political power, have capitulated to the rhetoric of science and expertise and cleaved to their own love of power over Americans’ almost instinctive desire for freedom. And now they take a knee to the demands of mobs calling for further tribalism and divisions that keep us submissive and dependent on their orders and protection (selective though it is).
This exhaustion of the Founders’ legacy of wisdom is the direct result of the Progressive Revolution led by political scientist and President Woodrow Wilson, over 100 years ago. The Progressives despised the Declaration, whose robust meaning would limit government willfulness and question the expertise of the new progressive guardians.
“New Goals” Undermine Natural Rights
The meaning of this new view of unchecked government becomes clear in Franklin Roosevelt’s nonsense epigram that “necessitous men are not free men.”
By “necessity” Roosevelt meant something beyond the evils of slavery or starvation, as his “Second Bill of Rights” proposed. Roosevelt wanted not previously recognized rights to pursue happiness through jobs, education, and security but rights to jobs with vacations, day-care education, and the security of “new goals of human happiness and well-being.” These “new goals” take us beyond the Declaration’s own guideposts of “safety and happiness.”
Of what sort of necessity would Roosevelt’s new politics relieve us? We can start and end with the unavoidable necessity of death. Here Roosevelt’s Progressivism takes us beyond the modern revolution of political consciousness.
That irascible political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) revolutionized politics by replacing the wisdom of Proverbs 9:10— that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom with the premise of his new political science: The beginning of wisdom is fear of the sovereign state. FDR joyfully transformed the surety of this political monopoly on violence into a wisdom that fears the removal of the state from its ability to eliminate our fears, anxieties, troubles, and neuroses.
Organized experts would show us how it is done and take over where our elected officials left off the sacred trust of our collective sovereignty. Without the all-powerful state, doing things we perhaps were too stupid to understand needed to be done, our lives would be insecure. Unless the state can free people from the fear of (even nonviolent) death, it has failed, a defect that can only be remedied by further increasing its power over its subjects.
So armed with all available weapons over the mental as well as the physical security of its subjects, the sovereign state has every incentive to drive subjects insane, with threats of invasions, famines, and plagues that make the hapless subjects ever more dependent on its burgeoning will. It knows best how we should think, how we should act, and how we should react to events. Wait for your orders.
Losing America’s Soul
The therapeutic state seeks to save subjects’ lives from the delusions of their unenlightened past. The sovereign’s terrifying narrative of impending dangers replaces what it dismisses as the inherently dishonest dangers of Hell, belief in truth, and other philosophic or theological delusions like self-government and freedom. Moreover, the sovereign state will make life hell for those who defy it. (See Professor Tom West’s remarks at this Hillsdale College symposium on COVID-19.)
What is misleadingly labeled “political correctness” becomes a necessary part of the progressive project. To feel unintimidated by the latest reports and doubt what profess to be scientific findings is somehow to exhibit contempt for human life and even for science.
While we welcome the input of expert epidemiologists, we do not need them to tell us that this virus is something terrible or how we must live in response to its dangers. I have volunteered for over 10 years at an assisted living center that counts 20 lost to COVID-19, and I know that with the coming of every flu season, some lives will be lost.
Reasonable precautions must be taken against any pandemic but losing our lives means more than just our biological existence. Imposing masks (or hijabs) on a free people makes no more sense than allowing otherwise peaceful demonstrations to excuse the widespread violence and looting accompanying them. A nation can lose its soul while keeping itself merely alive, as Lincoln warned.
As we protect the vulnerable—be they vulnerable because of disease or poverty or any number of other causes—so must we also encourage our youth to develop their strength and intelligence, our men and women to work and raise their families, and our people to exercise their freedoms, virtues, and happiness.
It’s not about the economy or the siren call of tribal divisions, fellow citizens. We are all Americans and the struggles we confront are about our souls.