Thomas Jefferson Corrected – In libertarian and other pro-freedom circles, one of the unquestioned and most beloved holy scriptures is Mr. Jefferson’s oft-quoted observation, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” For years, I have cited this quotation like it was a given fact. Although I suspect some disagree, I don’t recall anyone taking issue with the “wisdom” of this particular observation. However, I have come to realize Mr. Jefferson was wrong on this point.
With full knowledge of engaging in libertarian heresy, and with all due respect to Mr. Jefferson, I will endeavor to correct Mr. Jefferson’s observation by recasting his quotation thusly, “In order for a free and just society to both arise and be maintained, there must be an equilibrium of mutual peace and respect between the people and the government.” Given how far away we currently are from a free and just society, it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances where there could exist a mutual peace and respect between the people and the government.
Indeed, our government today is such a routine and massive violator of peace and freedom concepts that we can barely imagine a situation where principled people, who revere peace and freedom, would actually respect the government. Further, we can hardly imagine a situation where the government actually respects and serves the people and truly advances the cause of peace and freedom. If we are ever going to realize and sustain a free and peaceful society, we cannot be so jaded by the sad history and current reality of government that we cannot envision what is necessary to bring about the society we so desire.
At risk of appearing to engage in even more libertarian heresy, I will also insist that peace officers are not only necessary to a free society but are engaged in a profession worthy of the highest respect from libertarians. I realize some self-proclaimed or jaded libertarians will want to tar and feather me for merely suggesting peace officers are worthy of respect from libertarians. However, the more astute libertarian reader will have already noticed I intentionally used the word “peace” officer instead of “police” officer.
As with so many problems on our planet, a failure to define terms is often at the root cause of the disagreement. I define “peace officers” as those police officers who, knowingly or unknowingly, comply with libertarian principles. They became police officers to protect peaceful people from those who seek to initiate force or fraud against others. As contrasted with “law enforcement officers” who strictly enforce all laws equally regardless of their justness, peace officers are the good guys and gals.
In a truly free and just society, there would be no need to distinguish between “peace officers” and “law enforcement officers” as all laws would be just in any event. Said another way, strict enforcement of all laws would merely be a confirmation and ratification of the non-aggression principle. In such a free and just society, respect for police officers and even politicians, prosecutors, judges, and the military would be obvious and warranted; as all actions taken would be consistent with the non-aggression principle. Such a government would have no reason to fear the people. To the contrary, such a government would be loved and revered by a people who love and revere peace and freedom. Imagine a patriotic libertarian society! It would actually be the “land of the free” in reality instead of the “land of the incarcerated” we have today.
I can almost hear the groans of uneasiness coming from some of my libertarian friends after reading the preceding paragraph. However, it is incorrect to simply state libertarians and other pro-freedom people oppose the government. To state it more precisely, libertarians and other pro-freedom people oppose all coercion. I realize almost everything the government currently does involves coercion. However, it does not necessarily have to be so. To the extent government simply protects people from having force or fraud initiated against them, it acts without coercion. Although funding for such non-coercive government activities must also be accomplished non-coercively, a theoretical libertarian government could properly exist. We should focus our efforts on opposing all coercion.
Although Mr. Jefferson is correct in observing tyranny exists when the people fear the government, he is wrong when he asserts freedom exists when the government fears the people. In such a case, there is something wrong with the government or with the people.
Mr. Jefferson’s vision of a government which fears the people is not only inconsistent with a truly free society, but it is also unsustainable. A government which truly fears the people will be irresistibly attracted to ideas and actions which modify that imbalance. The temptation to invent wars, endless crises, or to simply grab more power will be ever-present. A society in which both sides fear one another may arise. In any event, freedom and peace will certainly be short lived.
Politicians who fear losing re-election campaigns act the same way. Rather than risk criticism for “doing nothing while in office” or whether they simply feel a need to justify their existence as politicians, they believe such wars and crises help justify their existence and re-elections. A truly pro-freedom population expects politicians to adhere to their only legitimate mission; preserving liberty. As such, a quiet political existence should be revered.
We ought to strive to achieve a harmonic balance of mutual respect between the government and the people if we really want to achieve a just society that has longevity. As with most things, this cannot be legislated. Only when enough hearts and minds are won over to truly support freedom will we have an opportunity at a longstanding free society.
Chances are good you are still part of the problem. Yes, you! You are probably a pretend freedom advocate. I already know you claim to support freedom. Almost everyone claims to be in favor of freedom. Many thugs engage in their anti-freedom activities while proclaiming they are for “freedom and democracy.” Is this you?
If your definition of freedom is like most people, in that you absolutely support the rights of others to engage in activities you yourself engage in or approve of, you are indeed part of the problem. Real advocates of freedom support the rights of other competent adults to engage in any peaceful activity they so choose; especially when they themselves do not personally engage in or even approve of such activity. Those are the real freedom advocates. For example: I’m always more impressed by the non-marijuana smoker who supports the rights of competent adults to peacefully smoke marijuana than I am by the hippie, pot head, making the same argument.
If you are a pretend freedom advocate, I invite you to consider graduating into the real freedom advocate crowd. It is easier said than done. When you support the rights of other competent adults to peacefully engage in acts you morally oppose, you have graduated. Until then, you remain part of the problem.
Real freedom advocates ought to employ whatever skills, passions, interests, money, and influence possible to help bring about a free and peaceful society. It’s not a legal obligation and it shouldn’t be one. However, I wonder if there isn’t some moral obligation to at least try to help improve the human condition.
Even in today’s world, there are peace officers and other freedom advocates working inside unjust systems. In my relatively extensive international travels, and in my vast experience as a practicing criminal defense attorney, I have had many interactions with people wearing badges, carrying guns, and having official titles who are real freedom advocates. They help promote or advance freedom in many ways. They exist all over the world, and in many different positions. I suspect you also have met some of these people and haven’t even realized they are real freedom advocates.
The true measure of how many people throughout the world are real freedom advocates, or are just a short conversation away from becoming real freedom advocates, is unknown. I suspect it is much greater than you think.
Fear isn’t a necessary prerequisite for freedom. Indeed, fear is incompatible with freedom. We should not be content whether the people fear the government or if the government fears the people.
Although progress towards a free society, and even a free world, is excruciatingly slow and not without setbacks, there is progress nonetheless. As an international matter, the world is now generally much less tolerant of things like war, torture, religious intolerance, suppression of peaceful dissent and coercion as a whole, than it was hundreds of years ago. Indeed, recent progress has been almost shocking, when measured as a whole, since humans have been evolving. In many ways, we have come a long way in a few hundred years.
I recently had lunch in Berlin with a fellow attorney who was raised and educated in the Socialist Italian legal system. We spent hours together discussing freedom and economics. I found him to be as principled a libertarian and man of peace as I have ever met. Although he lives and works in Europe, he reviews various libertarian websites on a regular basis. It was a wonderful and energizing experience. I expect we will remain friends and partners in advocating for freedom.
At risk of being criticized for being too optimistic, I can honestly assert that, even in the United States, there are signs things are moving in the right direction. Our inhumane war on people who use unsanctioned drugs is slowly coming to an end. A real libertarian, Dr. Ron Paul, was actually in several presidential debates. Among youngsters and the military, his libertarian ideas resonated. Further, it appears Senator Rand Paul is gaining popularity promoting the same libertarian ideas.
Although it won’t be pretty, our empire is destined to suffer a giant economic collapse. Maybe our nation’s failure to learn about economic realities from the collapse of the Soviet Union will not be repeated after our mostly Socialist economy collapses. Many Russians now value Capitalism and it appears to be thriving in Estonia.
I have personally visited these former Soviet Union countries. There are many pro-Capitalist and pro-freedom people now living in the former Soviet Union. That I am free to travel there, and to what used to be East Germany, speaks for itself. It is easy to be optimistic when freely and peacefully standing next to what used to be the Berlin Wall. It warmed my heart.
For those who choose to be optimistic about the prospects for freedom, there are lots of ways to support the position. Although Mr. Jefferson was wrong about the necessity of “fear” in the calculation for achieving a free society, his great legacy of being a well-intentioned freedom advocate survives. What will your legacy be on our shared road to freedom?