"I cannot accept, your canon that we are to judge pope and king unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they do no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power....Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." ~ Lord Acton
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"O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia , and Africa , have long expelled her. -- Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."
-- Thomas Paine, Common Sense
"Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country."
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I miss my country.
The country I grew up in actually was "an asylum for mankind," or as close to that as mankind has had. Corruption and growth of coercive power had already reached horrifying proportions, yet still America was, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the place to escape to for anyone wanting freedom and prosperity. (Are there people who don't want freedom and prosperity?)
No nation was stronger or richer than the United States of America ; no nation offered a better chance for a poor immigrant to become comfortably secure or even wealthy, despite widespread prejudice; no nation protected one's freedoms better. "Live and let live" was at least a common sentiment, if not always the law of the land. And even the law itself was, for the most part, on the side of freedom and sanity.
Torture? Not in my country.
Torture was the sort of thing that made people want to escape from other countries. In America , the Eighth Amendment forbade, in clear language, not only "cruel and unusual punishment" but even "excessive bail" and "excessive fines."
Violations of habeas corpus, or of the right to an attorney, or of the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one's peers? No more likely than violations of the law of gravity. America played by the rules. Most other countries didn't even have rules -- not really. Not rules that protected the citizens from the government. But the United States was different.
Or so I thought as a child.
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My touching belief in America 's goodness was about as well supported as the belief in Santa Claus (which, oddly, I never entertained). Gifts might show up under the Christmas tree with Santa's name on the card, but evidence strongly suggested other explanations than a fat, philanthropic elf who flew through the air in a sled pulled by magical reindeer. I mean: c'mon!
Even in mid-20th Century America , government coercion, corporatism, and corruption were growing like the cancers they are and strangling whatever love and freedom were still available. The income tax had grown from "nonexistent" to "oh my God, how are we going to pay this?" in mere decades. Post-WWII America was in the grip of the Cold War and suffering breathtaking growth in the military-industrial complex and in other corporatist institutions. The nation was living with McCarthyism and tainted by virulent and still-institutionalized racism (no, you can't use our restrooms or water fountains or schools, boy, because you have the wrong skin tone . . .). Sexism in the paternalistic 1950s was another powerful and destructive force. Deficiencies in love and freedom were everywhere, even if most people were too repressed or confused or afraid to see them.
Then why did so many people, in and out of the United States , believe in the America described by Thomas Paine and Marquis de Lafayette? Why did we think of America as being "an asylum for mankind"?
The answer is simple: Other places were, for the most part, dramatically worse. They had always been worse. America really was special; name another country that millions of people around the globe dreamed of escaping to.
Plus -- and not to be taken lightly -- the United States had been founded specifically and explicitly as a haven for liberty by people who, for the most part, actually understood what that meant. Read the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights: then imagine any of today's political candidates or members of the power elite or the mainstream media understanding those documents and truly believing in them. The Second Amendment is a perfect example: "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State , the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." That means, uh, that the government has the right to own guns and to run a militia. Right? What else could "the people" possibly mean?
The right to arms is under attack in America now as never before, but here is how far that Amendment took us: As late as the mid-20th Century, an American schoolkid could, in many parts of the country, bring a gun to school, openly, and store it in his locker (or her locker; female hunters or target shooters were rare but not unheard of). The gun could have been purchased over-the-counter or even mail-order without needing a note from our Masters or requiring any type of background check or waiting period. After school, the kid -- who was treated more like an adult than adults are today -- could take the gun from the locker (again, in plain sight) and go hunting or plinking or target shooting with it. No big deal at all.
Try that now and see how long it takes before you get tased or shot. The principle has been clearly established now that government agents (i.e., the hired help) can have all the guns they want, but you, as a mere citizen, are suspect. What do you need a weapon for, anyway?
Not surprisingly, school shootings are now more common and when they occur are far more likely to become large-scale massacres, since no one on-site is equipped to fight back. Imagine putting a neon sign in front of your child's school saying "Attention violent criminals and crazy persons: We are completely unarmed and helpless! Please don't hurt us, because we can't fight back!" Yeah, that would be sensible.
I want a gun-free world as much as the next person, and the way to get to that world is to create so much love and freedom that, eventually, nobody needs or wants a gun. In the meantime, forcing citizens to be literally helpless to defend themselves (against criminals, who by definition disobey the law) while heavily arming government -- the most violent and genocidal institution ever created -- is counterproductive, and criminally violates the basic human right of self-defense.
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The importance of having a large nation with deep protection for freedom (which is to say, for human rights) cannot be overstated. Love and freedom are the two qualities absolutely required for a healthy world or a healthy society, and indeed love and freedom form two sides of a duality in human life. A lack of either freedom or love is the most serious problem (other than for immediate physical basics like air or food) people can have, and worse: when one quality is lacking, the other is damaged as well. The United States has been damaged, despite its high level of freedom, by too much emotional damage -- that is, by too little love. Slavery, racism, genocide against the Indians, and other such symptoms are merely the tip of the iceberg in this regard.
Coercion violates both love and freedom. Using coercion (force or threats of force) against others is evil, except in defense. Your mother taught you that and she was right. What she was talking about was love and freedom: Coercion is the literal negation of freedom, and using coercion is an unloving thing to do to another person.
Government is an organization built on systematic coercion. For that reason, coercive government is by far the gravest possible threat to love and freedom. It is inevitable that those who wish to use coercion against others strive to capture government power and to increase that power. Government thus tends to grow, at the expense of love and freedom, and to fall into the hands of people who are especially interested in pushing others around by force.
That simple truth is the abolitionist argument in a nutshell.
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Government justifies its license to use force by monopolizing national defense, police, and court functions. These functions sometimes require force and exist, at least in theory, to protect the rights and even the lives of citizens. They are important functions, and giving a monopoly on those functions to a single entity is a huge mistake.
Allowing this force-wielding, monopolistic entity to broaden its use of coercion into other areas, including funding (taxation), is an even bigger mistake. Once the principle is accepted that forcible government can involve itself in other functions, all is lost, although the disaster may not come to full flower for decades -- and along the way, the masses will be told, and many will believe, that the love-and-freedom-killing growth of government power is a good thing -- even a necessary thing. That is how every growing tyranny, from Hitler's Germany to Castro's Cuba, presents itself to the citizen/victims, and the ongoing growth of tyranny in the United States has followed the same pattern.
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In Social Statics (1851), Herbert Spencer pointed out just how deeply, horribly wrong is the whole idea of running society by a system of force:
"Command is the growl of coercion crouching in ambush. Or we might aptly term it -- violence in a latent state. All its accessories -- its frown, its voice, its gestures, prove it akin to the ferocity of the uncivilized man. Command is the foe of peace, for it breeds war of words and feelings -- sometimes of deeds. It is inconsistent with the first law of morality. It is radically wrong."
"Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man. Though further qualifications of the liberty of action thus asserted may be necessary, yet we have seen (p. 89) that in the just regulation of a community no further qualifications of it can be recognised. Such further qualifications must ever remain for private and individual application. We must therefore adopt this law of equal freedom in its entirety, as the law on which a correct system of equity is to be based." [Emphasis in original]
-- From Chapter 6 of Spencer's Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, as published at the Online Library of Liberty.
How dangerous is the mistake of creating a monopolistic, coercive central authority? In the just-past 20th Century, governments murdered over 260 million people -- more than two and a half million murders per year, for a hundred years. This is in addition to many millions of war dead in the government wars of that bloody century. It is in addition to tens of millions who were tortured or maimed or raped or otherwise harmed, but not actually killed. It is in addition to hundreds of millions kept in poverty and hunger unnecessarily. It is in addition to the many millions who had mothers or fathers or other family or friends murdered or maimed or tortured or raped or otherwise harmed. It is in addition to massive environmental damage (e.g., pretty much the entire Soviet Union, so polluted and otherwise hostile to life that those living in its corpse have an average lifespan of only 66 years, 16 fewer than in Japan and 14 fewer than in the European Union. For Russian men, the average lifespan is an even more abysmal 58 years).
How much emotional damage was caused by all that mayhem and murder? There is no way to quantify it, but clearly the emotional health and capacity for love of millions was harmed, often dramatically, by the staggering levels of violence and cruelty inflicted upon them by government, both directly (e.g., war and genocide) and indirectly (for example, from corporatism).
Creating the formalized, systematic coercion of government was the most dangerous and damaging mistake the human race has ever made.
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Earlier in this nation's history -- as late as the 1950s and early 1960s -- Americans had a generally warm view of government employees and even of politicians, or at least of some politicians. There was great affection for Eisenhower and for Kennedy, for example -- not from everyone, to be sure, but from a very great many people. Policemen, teachers, and many others within government were seen as genuine protectors and benefactors -- as fellow citizens providing necessary services. Such government employees were, for the most part, not seen as tyrants or bullies or agents of pro-tyranny propaganda. While the positive perception of such government employees was far from universally deserved, it was nonetheless based on a large measure of truth. Citizens had more direct control over the less-centralized government of that time than they do today, and the legal protections built into the Constitution and its Bill of Rights were better known, more widely respected in Congress and elsewhere, including by many on-the-ground government employees, and more reliably enforced by the courts.
Returning to the wider understanding and enforcement of human rights in this country would be a boon to government employees as well as to the rest of us; why be feared or hated ("don't tase me, bro!") when you can be loved and respected. Protecting love and freedom instead of violating those qualities is what makes the difference.
As Thoreau pointed out in Civil Disobedience, "That government is best which governs not at all." Until we reach that healthier state, let us strive to at least undo the growth and the corruption of government power that has infected the United States over the years, and return our beloved nation to the status it once aspired to, and was partly worthy of: a sanctuary and asylum for mankind.