The Enduring Principles of Liberty

This month some UC Irvine students removed a U.S. flag from the student government area. That triggered a controversy including criticisms that our flag was associated with nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, American exceptionalism, racism, xenophobia and other sins against leftist orthodoxy. It mainly showed how far America has “progressed” since the Second Continental Congress authorized a new American flag.

Criticism that the U.S. is an imperfect country is true. But imperfections shared by the history and some members of every country does not justify condemnation reserved for America. More importantly, it is not the flag, but those who deviate from the principles it represents, who are tarnished by our failings.

Perhaps the most inspiring view of our flag was given in an 1861 address by Henry Ward Beecher, described as “the most respected and idealized religious figure of the day” and “America’s leading moral and spiritual teacher.” At a time when many have lost touch with the ideals of our experiment in freedom, it is worth revisiting:

[O]ur flag…means just what Concord and Lexington meant, what Bunker Hill meant. It means the whole glorious Revolutionary War…the rising up of a valiant young people against an old tyranny to establish the most momentous doctrine that the world has ever known–the right of men to their own selves and to their liberties. It means all that the Declaration of Independence meant. It means all that the Constitution of our people, organizing for justice, for liberty, and for happiness, meant.

Unfortunately, many today do not see that in our flag. Some, reflecting our cynical age, see anything valuable it once represented as now lost. Others see it as a symbol of a system they wish to blame for their frustrations and failures, rather than themselves. Political correctness makes still others see nothing, afraid of any implication that they might think one set of beliefs could be better than others. Beecher found all those approaches faulty.

A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation’s flag, sees not the flag only, but the nation itself…the principles, the truths, the history that belongs to the nation that sets it forth…the American flag is the symbol of liberty, and men rejoiced in it. Not another flag has had such an errand, carrying everywhere, the world around, such hope for freedom–such glorious tidings.

Still other Americans attack, rather than defend, what our flag represents, because many who have been part of our government have abandoned or fallen far short of America’s ideals. That is true, if unsurprising, in a government of fallible people. But it in no way detracts from our country’s ideals.

Our flag carries American ideas, American history, and American feelings…it has gathered and stored chiefly this supreme idea: Divine Right of Liberty in man. Every color means liberty; every form of star and beam or stripe of light means liberty; not lawlessness, not license, but organized institutional liberty–liberty through law, and law for liberty.

Those who, because America falls short of its ideals, have mixed or even hostile feelings toward our flag and the country it represents are misplacing their idealism and efforts. If they recognized, with Beecher, that “The history of this banner is one of Liberty,” and put their energy into reclaiming our founding vision of providing the broadest possible canvas for human freedom, they could reshape the world for the better instead of endlessly repeating grievances.

This American Flag was the safeguard of liberty. … It was an ordinance of liberty by the people, for the people. That it meant, that it means, and, by the blessing of God, that it shall mean to the end of time!

Henry Ward Beecher’s vision of America, symbolized in our flag, echoed our founders’ ideals “that every man shall have liberty to be what God made him, without hindrance.” Americans have too often abandoned that vision. But violations of high principles do not justify rejecting such principles; they demonstrate why they are essential.

Gary Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University

Defending Liberty in All Its Forms

Americans pay ritual obeisance to liberty. But daily, they say “there ought to be a law” that restricts it. They have only the dimmest awareness of our founders’ views on this central issue and no knowledge of friends of freedom beyond our shores. That is a pity, because such investigation would yield much insight.

A good example is Belgian-born philosopher/economist Gustave de Molinari, born March 3, nearly two centuries ago. He has been described as defending “peace, free trade, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and liberty in all its forms.” His touchstones were private property and unrestricted markets–i.e., liberty–made possible by government limited to securing life, liberty and property.

A few examples cannot do justice to Molinari’s half-century defense of liberty, based on each person’s self-ownership. But it is worth reflecting on his vision of a world where government sovereignty, enforced via coercion, is replaced with individual sovereignty wherever possible.

[G]overnment should restrict itself to guaranteeing the security of its citizens…the freedom of labor and of trade should otherwise be whole and absolute.

Society is heavily taxed in the increased costs which follow government appropriation of products and services naturally belonging to the sphere of private enterprise.

[The enlarged] functions of the State…is the real explanation of the grossly inadequate performance of their first duty–protection of life and property of the individual.

The sovereign power of governments over the life and property of the individual is, in fact, the sole fount and spring of militaryism, policy, and protection…the abolishment of that “state” is the present, most urgent, need of society.

[A] careful examination of the facts will decide the problem of government more and more in favor of liberty…

Sovereignty rests in the property of the individual over his person and goods and in the liberty of disposing of them…naturally limited by the rights of equally sovereign individuals…

[G]overnment has abused its unlimited power over individual life and property…

However seriously he might be declared sovereign master of himself, his goods and life, the individual was still controlled by a power invested with rights which took precedence of his own…The sole possible remedy—to curtail this subjection with its priority of claims over those of the sovereignty of the individual…

Government must confine itself to the naturally collective functions of providing external and internal security.

[P]rogress will be…secured by measures extending the sphere of individual self-government…

What is the interest of the individual? It is to remain the absolute proprietor of his person and property and to retain the power to dispose of them at will…It is, in a word, to possess ‘individual sovereignty’ in the fullest…Each individual sovereignty has its natural frontiers within which it may operate and outside of which it may not pass without violating other sovereignties. These natural limits must be recognized and guaranteed…such is the purpose of “government.”

Sovereignty rests in the property of the individual over his person and goods and in the liberty of disposing of them…

The individual appropriates and possesses himself…This is liberty. Property and liberty are the two aspects or two constituents of sovereignty.

[T]he ills [ascribed] to liberty–or, to use an absolutely equivalent expression, to free competition–do not originate in liberty, but in monopoly and restriction…a society truly free–a society relieved from all restriction, from all barriers, unique as will be such a society in all the course of history–will be exempt from most of the ills, as we suffer them today…the organization of such a society will be the most just, the best, and the most favorable to the production and distribution of wealth that is attainable by mortal man.

The true remedy for most evils is none other than liberty, unlimited and complete liberty, liberty in every field of human endeavor.

Gustave de Molinari learned of “the destructive apparatus of the civilized State” from the French Revolution, “naively undertaken to establish a regime of liberty and prosperity for the benefit of humanity, end[ing]…in an increase in the servitude and burdens.” That inspired him to a long life of opposition to the destruction that goes with coercion, always looking forward to “an era of assured liberty.”

Molinari brought a natural rights objection to government abuses of their citizens that should not have been considered radical, but was—that “no one has ever thought that the laws which apply to [government] are the same as those which apply to the others.” He did so because he saw that “Everywhere, men resign themselves to the most extreme sacrifices rather than do without government and hence security, without realizing that in so doing, they misjudge their alternatives.” He saw that the alternatives included a vast expansion of liberty, and an accompanying explosion of human potential and the human spirit. That is something our age needs to be inspired toward, as well.


James Otis: Protector of American Rights

James Otis, though “one of the most passionate and effective protectors of American rights,” is little remembered, because at the peak of his influence, mental illness took virtually everything from him.

When the British crown created writs of assistance, broad search warrants enabling customs officials to enter any business or home without advance notice, probable cause or reason in search of contraband, to crack down on smuggling, which Britain’s onerous trade restrictions had turned many to, Otis resigned his post prosecuting that offense, then represented Boston merchants’ efforts against them. For five hours, he argued that they violated citizens’ natural rights, putting them beyond Parliament’s powers. John Adams said “the child independence was then and there born.”

Otis lost the case, but public wrath kept officials from employing the writs. Otis role then grew with American grievances. He led the Massachusetts committee of correspondence in 1764. He wrote pamphlets. He wrote against Parliament’s power to tax colonists, particularly in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, and was a leader at the Stamp Act Congress. Otis and Samuel Adams pened a circular to enlist other colonies in resisting the Townshend Duties. Then bouts of mental illness ended his contributions. Yet we can still profit from revisiting his insights that helped create America on his February 5 birthday.

[We] are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all man are…

A man is accountable to no person for his doings.

[O]ne of the most essential branches of…liberty is the freedom of one’s house.

A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege.

Everyone with this writ may be a tyrant…

I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other, as this Writ of Assistance is.

All precedents are under the control of the principles of the law…An act against the Constitution is void; an act against natural equity is void.

Every British Subject…is by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of parliament entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great-Britain.

Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is good for the whole; but it is not the declaration of parliament that makes it so.

The end of government being the good of mankind…It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. There is no one act which a government can have a right to make, that does not tend to the advancement of the security, tranquility and prosperity of the people. If life, liberty and property could be enjoyed in as great perfection in solitude, as in society, there would be no need of government. But…[men] cannot live together without contests…The necessity of a common, indifferent and impartial judge, makes all men seek one; though few find him in the sovereign power of their respective states…

[Those] on whom the sovereignty is conferred by the people shall incessantly consult their good. Tyranny of all kinds is to be abhorred, whether it be in the hands of one, or of the few, or of the many.

[Even] if every prince…had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyrannize. There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature, and the grant of God almighty; who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it ordinarily in their power to make themselves so, if they please.

Whenever the administrators, in any [government], deviate from truth, justice and equity, they verge towards tyranny, and are to be opposed…

Taxation without representation is tyranny.

Can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent?

If we are not represented, we are slaves.

James Otis had a sad end. Today, sadder is how his mental instability has undermined our appreciation of his contributions to America’s creation. In a world where every disability must be accommodated, his reputation deserves rehabilitation.