Jefferson Had It Right
I’m writing this in mid-October. My deadline for this column is ten weeks ahead of publication, so you won’t read it until January. By then, all kinds of new horrors may have occurred. The smart thing for me to do would be to ignore events which are likely to outpace me and focus on some Jarndyce-like legal subject that will still be plodding along unchanged
But this is the first chance I’ve had to write about the events of September 11, so I’ve decided to run the risk
First, let me make a few things clear. I’m not anti-American. In fact, if America is considered the world’s primary symbol of capitalism and individualism, I’m one of its biggest fans. I love the energy, ingenuity, optimism and benevolence of its people.
Second, this should not be interpreted as “America got what it deserved.” The thousands who died on September 11 were innocent victims, and I wept for them and their families.
Yet I grieved not just for the dead, but also for the cherished freedoms of North American society that I feared would likewise be buried in the rubble. Sure enough, within hours of the attack, politicians were talking about a “new balance” between freedom and security. One poll found 66 percent of Americans willing to surrender some civil liberties. Eighty percent of Canadians expressed their willingness to carry fingerprint-encoded identity cards that would have to be produced to police upon demand.
Famous quotations started running through my mind. Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Randolph Bourne: “War is the health of the state.”
Unfortunately, the majority of North Americans simply don’t see that the reason they are now being asked to give up ever greater swaths of their liberty is that they started surrendering it, bit by bit, many decades ago.
The founding fathers of the United States were clear in their vision for the new nation. “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none,” pledged Thomas Jefferson at his inaugural address in 1801.
“I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people,” Jefferson wrote in 1823.
Yet in the past half-century, the United States has assumed the role of global policeman, attempting--without notable success--to convert or compel brutes and zealots to the path of justice. I’m not saying that the causes America has championed in Vietnam, Israel, Grenada or Kuwait, were all bad causes. But they were not America’s causes.
Like the cop who responds to a domestic dispute, America has found that sometimes one or more of the enraged combatants turns his anger towards the peace-maker. In the cop’s case, it’s his sworn duty to intervene in other people’s problems. In the U.S. government’s case, it isn’t. Its only duty is to defend its own people, on its own turf, from outside aggressors.
Suppose the U.S. had conformed to Jefferson’s vision these past 200 years, eschewing foreign entanglements. Suppose war broke out in some distant land. If the warring factions sent emissaries to America to raise private funds for guns and ammunition, how many Americans would donate their money to such repugnant causes? Few if any. Certainly not every single taxpayer. So if Americans aren’t willing to send their money voluntarily to finance a slaughter in some foreign hell-hole, why should they be forced to do it by their government through taxation?
How did Americans transform Jeffersonian government, their servant, into Big Government, their master? Largely by letting it pick their pockets. As late as 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled income taxes unconstitutional. In 1913, the U.S. passed the Sixteenth Amendment, making income tax constitutional just in time for World War I. This initially tiny tax has since grown into a massive burden, depriving people of a huge portion of their working lives and the right to decide how their money is used. Canadians too still stagger under the weight of 1917’s “temporary” Income War Tax.
While Islamic fanatics may indeed hate America for its virtues, or wish to eradicate our allegedly licentious lifestyle, I don’t believe these motivations would ever have been sufficient to provoke an attack out of the blue. I think if the U.S. had stayed out of the Middle East’s endless squabbles, they would have gone on fighting among themselves eternally, and left us alone.
So what should America have done all these years? It should have stuck to its roots, engaging in combat only when its own domestic security was threatened by aggressors. If it wanted to help the tired, poor, huddled masses displaced by foreign holocausts, it should have invited them in, as it once did, to breathe free and prosper.
What’s the point of this 20-20 hindsight now that bombs and buildings are falling? Maybe some day this nightmare will end, and we’ll have the chance to start over—right.
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