Understanding Freedom: Freedom & Government (Part 1)

© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission) https://understandingthings.net/2019/08/01/understanding-freedom-part-ii-freedom-and-government/

If freedom for all means that everyone is equally free, freedom and equality in a democratic society are, rather than competing with each other, two sides of the same coin. Society organized in the interest of freedom and equality (ideally, if not so much in reality) is called democracy (from Greek, demos, lit., people; and kratos, lit., power). Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address summed it up as “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” updated (appropriately) by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s: “Power to the people!”

Throughout human history, the powerful have been relatively free to oppress the powerless. Which is to say that freedom has always been enjoyed by and, usually, the exclusive possession of the ruling classes. Human progress (defined in terms of freedom for all), therefore, has always consisted of restraining the power—which is to say, reducing the freedom—of rulers in the interest of empowering—that is, of freeing—the ruled. Progress has always taken the form of the long, hard road toward equalizing power relations among members of society, who cannot be equally free unless they are equally powerful (as Part I of this series explains).

Historically, government has been an instrument in the hands of the powerful to extract resources—that is, land and its natural resources, along with labor and the fruits of that labor—from the powerless to increase the wealth of the powerful, thereby maintaining and increasing their power. Only when government becomes a tool to restrain the owning class from exploiting the working class—who always represent the vast majority of “the people”—does progress toward freedom for all become a possibility.

And since freedom means the absence of external restraint, this governmental restraint of the powerful, of course, means the lessening of their (otherwise taken-for-granted and, therefore, invisible and unbounded) freedom. Therefore, freedom for all necessarily means a balancing out of freedom by means of redistributing power. This means, ideally, that rulers lose their power to rule and, by joining the ranks of the people, gain the power that is distributed among the people. (As rulers have so often resisted, by any means necessary, even minor and trivial reductions of their power, they have, in revolutionary times, sometimes lost not only their freedom/power but also their heads.)

Internationally speaking, the self-professed American goal has been to “spread freedom and democracy” to the rest of the world. Without democracy, freedom stops being a thing because it belongs un-self-consciously and only to the powerful (who cry out for “freedom!” only in relatively democratic societies in which their power has been, to even nominal degrees, limited to increase the freedom/power of the people).

The fact that the United States is a republic, that is, a state with a representative form of government, means that democracy is limited by constitutional law. This is necessary to protect the rights of individuals and minorities from the potential tyranny of the majority rule that (at least in part) defines democracy: when decisions must be made and democratic consensus is not achievable, majority rule cannot be allowed to violate the rights of individuals and minorities to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rightly so. What is less clear regarding power in a democratic republic, however, is how to protect the rights of the majority from the tyranny of a powerful minority.

America’s founding fathers understood the threat of majority rule—i.e., of democracy (a word used in neither the Declaration nor the Constitution)—to one minority in particular, what James Madison called “the minority of the opulent” (by which he referred to the wealthy: the land-owners of the early American republic). Madison (the fourth U.S. President) has been called “the Father of the Constitution” due to the influence of his spoken and written words on the framing of the U.S. Constitution. The “permanent interests” of the country, represented by those who owned its land (the owning/ruling class of the time), Madison argued in 1787, “ought to be so constituted [that is, authorized by the U.S. Constitution] as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Madison and the other founders were, of course, class-conscious members of that “opulent” minority of land-owning aristocrats who led the colonies in the Revolutionary War against the British Empire.

As the late progressive historian, novelist, and essayist Gore Vidal pointed out, the two forces of which the founders were most frightened were, on one hand, the tyranny of a despotic ruler and, on the other, the rule of the masses. Which is to say that they were as frightened of democracy as they were of dictatorship. They coveted a republic after the fashion of the ancient Roman republic—which was anything but a democracy, even before Julius Caesar began turning it into an empire.

The American founders knew that democracy would always threaten the interests of the wealthy because the common people would naturally use whatever power they had to try to create a more equal distribution of the wealth produced by their own labor (if not, as the founders feared, to dispossess the owning class altogether). The birth and early growth of the United States corresponded to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, resulting in an ever-increasing number of Americans—formerly settlers, farmers and tradespeople—becoming part of the industrial “working class.”

The founders designed a constitution that allowed for some degree of political democracy while ignoring economic democracy, securing thereafter, for all intents and purposes, the (unspoken) socioeconomic distinction between the owning class and the working class in U.S. society.

The American mythology is, of course, that no class divisions exist in U.S. society. Rhetorical divisions of the working class into blue-collar and white-collar workers, and lowerlower-middlemiddleupper-middle and upper classes—with the owning/ruling class securely perched on the sky-highest beam of “the upper class”—serve to render invisible the obvious fact that the two-class system remains: the working class, which consists of employees who work for employers, and the owning class, who are the employers (the owners) of those employees. The over-riding power of the owning class is thereby obscured, rendering its freedom to exploit workers an invisible feature of the way things are. (The freedom of the owning class becomes visible, of course, in the form of its power, increasingly unhindered by the U.S. government, to impose harsh working conditions and low wages on workers.)

Initially, voters were required not only to be white males but also to be land-owners (landless white males being authorized to vote—on a state-by-state basis—from 1792 to 1856; African American males gained voting rights officially [though not, in practice, for long] in 1870; women in 1920; and American Indians in 1924). And initially, the U.S. Senate, unlike the U.S. House of Representatives, was not elected but appointed to office (the election of U.S. Senators resulting from the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913).

These original constitutional provisions placed an obvious check on the power of the vast majority of Americans to influence their government and its policies. And power was gradually and partially redistributed to the people, as the history of voting rights clearly attests, only under pressure from the people, clearly indicating that the U.S. Constitution was always under review and always subject to amendment in the interest of democracy: of redistributing power to the people in the interest of freedom for all.

The result of constitutional protections of the “minority of the opulent,” writ large throughout American history, has naturally been that the owning class (that is, large land and business owners) has remained, ipso facto, the ruling class, whose members enjoy the power to (or power over those who) exercise governmental authority (including the necessary time and money to educate themselves for and dedicate themselves to it). Which, of course, they (with few exceptions) exercise in the interest of preserving and expanding the power, and corresponding wealth, of their own class.

The worldwide reality is that the powers that be—regardless of whether their rule takes the form of a dictatorship or a so-called “democracy”—will always view people-power/freedom for all as a threat. To read the writings of America’s founding fathers with understanding is to sense their internal struggle between, on one hand, their ideal of freedom for all and, on the other, their self-interest as aristocratic land-owners (and, for the most part, slave-owners). They had risked their lives to free themselves and their property (which, ironically, included those whom they wished to keep enslaved) from what they considered the oppressive power of the British Empire (which had already abolished the institution of chattel slavery), and they designed a constitution that would protect their interests in perpetuity. (This is not to demean the U.S. Constitution but, rather, to recognize it as—rather than a divine revelationa human invention in need of further amendment in the interest of freedom for all, as the Bill of Rights makes clear was understood from very early on.)

Political democracy cannot exist without economic democracy because economic power is inseparable from political power. Those with economic power run the government because political power costs money. (The most obvious example, among many, is political campaigns, the cost of which typically makes politicians the servants of their corporate donors/masters.) If political democracy means, at least ideally, that political power is distributed among the citizens, who thus engage in self-government, then economic democracy can only mean that economic power is distributed among the workers, who thus engage in self-ownership. (And, of course, the vast majority of U.S. citizens are workers.)

Governmental protection (from exploitation by the owning class) and empowerment of workers (“the 99%”) is the general meaning of the term socialism (which is, of course, indicted as the arch-enemy of freedom by the powers that be). Socialism, in its original sense, calls for workers to retain control over the fruit of their own labor, instead of surrendering it to their employers/owners, whose intent is always to maximize the profits for themselves of “free enterprise.”

Today, “socialism” has come to refer to any government action, first, that regulates
business activity to protect members of society (i.e., workers/consumers/citizens); and, second, that redistributes wealth from the owning class to the working class, primarily via a progressive taxation of wealth (i.e., the wealthier you are, the higher the tax rate on your income), redirecting that wealth into social programs that benefit all members of society. The primary examples of this kind of socialism in the U.S. government today are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as (at least for the time being) public education, among other public services; it used to include public works programs that consisted of the government’s employing workers to construct and maintain infrastructure like roads and bridges, as well as the government’s providing public housing for the poor. (Public works programs have long since been considered too expensive to fund by the owning class and its tax-cutting, right-wing political representatives.)

Many owners view any kind of progressive taxation of their wealth in the interest of social welfare as theft, ignoring the fact that they (or their forbears) acquired, and that they maintain and expand, their wealth on the backs of taxpayers, who fund the kind of society that has made the ongoing and growing prosperity of the wealthy possible: taxes fund the education of their workers, the infrastructure that allows the transport of their goods and services, the police whose primary duty is to protect their private property, etc. The reality is that the owning class is forever redistributing the wealth that is produced by its workers to itself, while using the political influence its wealth buys from government officials to engineer all kinds of loopholes and waivers in the tax system to minimize, and often eliminate, its payment of taxes.

Nevertheless, while the redistribution of wealth from owners to workers via progressive taxation —far from being theft—is altogether fair and just, it falls short of the redistribution of power that socialism, in the sense of workers’ ownership of their own labor and its fruits, calls for: the organizing of power relations in such a way that owners and workers would be equals because they would be one and the same people.

So, then, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—that is to say, a democratic, or people-powered, government—would not just protect workers (“the 99%”) from exploitation by their owners but would free workers from their owners. Which is to say that a thoroughly democratic government would empower workers with the ownership of their own labor and its fruits. This would seem to be the goal that lies at the end of the road of progress toward freedom for all.

Nevertheless, the counterargument that insists that this goal is both unrealistic and unrealizable is ever-present, having been securely instilled in the American consciousness. And that counterargument is made, of course, by the very powers that be that have arranged the way things are.

(Next: Understanding Freedom: Freedom and Government-Part 2)

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One thought on “Understanding Freedom: Freedom & Government (Part 1)

  1. It would take a new Constitutional convention, the first in over 230 years, to change much. Appears unlikely now– however after Fearless Leader is done with us, such might become more appealing.

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