A New Birth of Freedom

Back in November, when Peter Robinson interviewed me for Uncommon Knowledge, he waited until the last segment to throw down the gauntlet, asking me bluntly why I was so much more sanguine regarding the future than was the estimable Mark Steyn. My reply, which caught him off guard, was what he jocularly called “a low blow.” For I said something like this: “Mark Steyn is a Canadian. What would you expect? I’d be a pessimist myself if I were a Canadian.”


I would not want to deny that my ad hominem argument struck a bit below the belt, but I nonetheless thought it apt, and I have not in any way changed my mind. Mark is a man of keen understanding and quick wit, and he bears comparison with George Will and Charles Krauthammer, the very best of our pundits. Moreover; as a Canadian who has lived in Great Britain, he has firsthand experience of the profound damage done by what I, echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, termed soft despotism in my recent book. When he writes, in a recent post, ” it’s hard to overestimate the magnitude of what the Democrats have accomplished,” he is surely right. Indeed, I agree with almost every word in the following:

Whatever is in the bill is an intermediate stage: . . . the governmentalization of health care will accelerate, private insurers will no longer be free to be “insurers” in any meaningful sense of that term (i.e., evaluators of risk), and once that’s clear we’ll be on the fast track to Obama’s desired destination of single payer as a fait accomplis.

If Barack Obama does nothing else in his term in office, this will make him one of the most consequential presidents in history. It’s a huge transformative event in Americans’ view of themselves and of the role of government. You can say, oh, well, the polls show most people opposed to it, but, if that mattered, the Dems wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. Their bet is that it can’t be undone, and that over time, as I’ve been saying for years now, governmentalized health care not only changes the relationship of the citizen to the state but the very character of the people. As I wrote in NR recently, there’s plenty of evidence to support that from Britain, Canada, and elsewhere.

More prosaically, it’s also unaffordable. That’s why one of the first things that middle-rank powers abandon once they go down this road is a global military capability. If you take the view that the U.S. is an imperialist aggressor, congratulations: You can cease worrying. But, if you think that America has been the ultimate guarantor of the post-war global order, it’s less cheery. Five years from now, just as in Canada and Europe two generations ago, we’ll be getting used to announcements of defense cuts to prop up the unsustainable costs of big government at home. And, as the superpower retrenches, America’s enemies will be quick to scent opportunity.

Longer wait times, fewer doctors, more bureaucracy, massive IRS expansion, explosive debt, the end of the Pax Americana, and global Armageddon.

Mark’s ruminations make for a depressing read, as does the longer version that originally appeared in the pages of National Review, but what he has to say comes close to being on the mark. If the program passed in the House of Representatives on March 21st and signed into law thirty-six hours thereafter is fully implemented and left in place for any considerable length of time, it will complete the project begun by the Progressives when they first took control of the federal government in 1912. We will, as Mark argues, be indistinguishable from the Canadians and the Europeans; our character as a people will change; we will be transformed into subjects and wards of the state, and we will no longer be citizens; our economy will stagnate; and we will have neither the resolve nor the resources with which to defend our country and its way of life. If we acquiesce, we really are doomed.

This is what gives me hope. For we are not yet a people apt to acquiesce in dictates handed down by our lords and masters. When Britain and Canada drifted into socialism, there were no tea parties spontaneously formed by ordinary citizens to buck the trend. The British and the Canadians lacked the spirit of resistance – though, to be fair, it lived on in the likes of Margaret Thatcher.

We Americans are made of sterner stuff. During the Cold War, we defended the Free World. In our absence, I am convinced, everyone else would have given way. I do not mean that we are everything that once we were. The public school system, the welfare state, the consumer culture, the sexual revolution, social security, and Medicare have sapped our sense of self-reliance, our energies, and our strength. After Pearl Harbor, entire fraternities marched into town to join the armed forces. On 9/11, I was teaching a class at the University of Tulsa entitled Historical Studies in the Origins of War. That evening my students interrupted my lecture to ask that I speak about what had happened that day. When I told them that we were at war and asked how many of them intended to enlist, not a single hand went up. We are, sadly, less instinctively apt to insist on looking after ourselves than were our forebears.

But, Mark Steyn to the contrary notwithstanding, we have not yet entirely lost the American spirit. What happened at the town halls in August, what took place in Virginia, in New Jersey, and, most dramatically, in Massachusetts proves the contrary. Barack Obama and his minions are indeed persuaded that public sentiment does not matter. They could not care less that the citizens do not consent, and they believe that what they have done cannot be undone. “Yes, we can,” they chant. But the truth is they can’t, for they are wrong.

Never, in the history of the United States, has a political party dared, in the face of public opinion fully formed and fiercely adverse, to carry so ambitious a bill without a modicum of cover from the opposition. What the Democrats have done is a breathtaking expression of contempt not just for public sentiment as revealed in the polling data but also for the verdict handed down by the people of Massachusetts at the polls in January. What they have done would never have been attempted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had a healthy respect for public opinion. What Barack Obama calls the audacity of hope is reckless in the extreme.

As I have argued in a recent post, Abraham Lincoln was right when he wrote, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” What this means in the present circumstances cannot be overestimated. The Republicans, if they seize the occasion, will have the rapt attention of their compatriots. If they expose fully the tyrannical ambition at the heart of the healthcare bill, they not only can, they will prevail. All that they then have to do is to restate in contemporary terms what FDR said with an eye to Herbert Hoover and the business progressives of the 1920s and the early 1930s: that “a small group” of his fellow Americans was intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives,” for, as is perfectly obvious, that is precisely what Barack Obama and his minions are attempting to do.

This is, as Mark Steyn insists, a very dangerous time. In my judgment, however, it is also a time of almost unprecedented opportunity. We have options that have not been vouchsafed to the friends of liberty for more than sixty years. For, if the Republicans manage to articulate, on the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the rationale for limited government as that rationale is pertinent to the healthcare bill, they will at the same time have articulated the grounds for doing away with the administrative state, and everyone will recognize the consequences.

The larger danger – which I analyzed in detail in Montesquieu & the Logic of Liberty and in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift – has never been that we Americans would succumb to socialism as a consequence of a coup d’état of the sort being attempted by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and their acolytes. The larger danger has always been what Tocqueville feared: that the citizens of liberal democratic republics would gradually and unobtrusively come to depend on centralized administration for help in every aspect of their lives. Our propensity to drift in the direction of obliviously surrendering our liberties one by one in search of a security that no government can really guarantee has always been where the greatest peril lay.

Like Mark Steyn, I view Barack Obama as “one of the most consequential presidents in history,” but not for the same reasons. In my view, he and today’s Democratic Party represent the last gasp of the Progressive impulse. The tyrannical ambition hidden at the heart of Progressivism’s quest for what Franklin Delano Roosevelt termed “rational administration” Barack Obama has made manifest; and to all with eyes to see, the danger that we have temporized with for nearly a century is now perfectly visible. As Obama himself has insisted in speech after speech, the moment in which we now live is a “defining moment.” What is required in what he calls “this defining moment” is what Abraham Lincoln once called “a new birth of freedom.” The period we just entered could be our finest hour.