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Celebrating Freedom in the Shadow of Tyranny

...Amidst the barbecues and fireworks - remembering with gratitude the words of the Declaration.

This year we celebrate our nation’s birth at a time when the foundational ideas that animated our break with England are under siege throughout our political, business, educational, and cultural institutions. The iconic preamble to the Declaration of Independence–– “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”––is under assault, and tyrannical ambition continues to undermine the infrastructure of our liberty.

We focus so frequently on that world-changing preamble that we forget the bulk of the Declaration is a detailed indictment of George III in terms that evoke Classical tyranny, which Aristotle defined as “arbitrary power . . . which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will.” The cost of that tyranny is the weakening both of political freedom limited by the tyrant’s will; and of the independence necessary for self-government and full human dignity.

The Declaration, then, contrasts unalienable rights and political freedom with their opposite, tyranny, laying the foundations of a government that by design checks the excesses of power that destroy both independence and freedom. Rather than depend, as the Left has done since the French Revolution, on the progressive improvement of human nature, the Founders believed that people are by nature driven by “passions and interests,” as Madison called them. These forces motivating human destructive action cannot be eliminated or improved either by greater knowledge or by “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin called technocratic oligarchs. Rather, political institutions must divide and balance power so that “ambition counters ambition,” preserving the freedom of all, and forestalling tyranny whether of the minority or the majority.

A century of progressive assaults on the Founders’ architecture has weakened this defense against tyranny. Power has increasingly been expanded and concentrated in the federal government and its agencies. These bureaucracies are insulated from accountability to the people, and unconstitutionally combine the three functions of government––legislative, judicial, and executive––into one institution backed by the coercive power of the state.

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