The Fourth of July is again upon us — a day for gathering with friends and family to celebrate the birth of our country. We commemorate those brave colonists who, unified in their opposition to tyranny, fought against British oppression.
At least, so reads the founding’s folk story. The actual history is more complex. Far from being unified in their opposition to British rule, some 15 to 20 percent of colonists were loyalists who wanted to remain subjects of the crown, despite their grievances with King George III.
A similar percentage were apolitical or otherwise unaligned with the rebelling patriots. So between one-third and one-half of the colonists didn’t support the Revolution.
They believed that only a powerful sovereign could protect them from a harsh “state of nature” where human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And they were willing to surrender their individual rights and property if the sovereign claimed that was necessary for civil peace.
The revolting patriots thought differently. They believed that social order can be protected by a modest government limited to problems that people can’t address privately. They also believed that respecting individual freedoms and personal property promotes civil society and human happiness — especially in a frontier nation with a wildly diverse population. But the loyalists thought that the Patriots’ ideas would lead to mob rule, chaos and anarchy.
The 237 years since the Declaration of Independence have verified the patriots’ vision. Their ideas didn’t always yield perfect outcomes, but history shows them to be superior, both morally and practically, to the loyalists’. And the United States’ greatest failings — slavery and segregation, Depression, wartime authoritarianism — were the products of forsaking the Patriots’ ideas.
Despite history’s verdict, some Americans today — on both the political left and right — share the Loyalists’ yearning for a sovereign. They may not want an actual king, but they want a powerful government to solve the world’s problems — as they see them. They, like their loyalist predecessors, believe that government should have unquestioned authority, unfettered by strong protections for free speech, freedom of conscience, privacy and private property.
These neo-loyalists’ intentions are admirable. But their understanding of the world is naïve and provincial.
They trust in government’s benevolence, wisdom and effectiveness, while they’re cynical of humanity’s industriousness. They do not appreciate how dramatically people vary from one another in conditions and expectations, wants and needs, and values and preferences. And they do not understand the crudeness of government action in such a diverse world. The greatest dangers of the neo-Loyalists’ powerful government are written in blood across the 20th century. But even if this government were led by only the wisest and most benevolent of humanity, its action would still be so crude, inefficient and uninformed about the particulars of human existence that those acts would routinely cause more harm than good.
That’s why the Founders wisely limited government involvement to problems that can’t be addressed privately and why they protected individual liberty with a wealth of legal rights.
In recent weeks we’ve seen the neo-loyalist yearning for a sovereign in some of the responses to the latest Washington scandals. Neoconservatives and progressives have argued that the need for national security justifies government surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and emails. They’ve likewise defended the White House’s spying on reporters. Progressives have also claimed the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of politically active nonprofit groups is appropriate to ensure compliance with the tax laws.
Since the start of this century, the neo-loyalists have dominated American politics. They’ve expanded government power in ways ranging from the Patriot Act to the new health care law, from military adventurism abroad to trying to gut free speech here at home.
But change is coming. In the last few years, there has been growing support for limited government and individual liberty among young people in both the United States and abroad.
As a result, in recent weeks the neo-loyalists have engaged in a remarkably coordinated campaign of bashing those ideas. The neo-loyalists are scared. That’s a good sign.
And a growing appreciation of civil liberties and limited government is a wonderful thing to celebrate on this Fourth of July.