In a free society, even TV news-talk hosts sometimes spout a little wisdom.
The other day on MSNBC, the inimitable Tucker Carlson was being berated by some guests who were incredulous that he could even think to oppose the health-insurance mandates that are central to the newest version of Hillarycare.
At first sounding almost apologetic, but by the last word sounding more firm about it, Carlson mounted what actually is the perfect defense. “Look,” he said, “I just happen to believe in freedom.”
Ah, yes, freedom. At my Episcopal grade school, we were accustomed to singing a guitar hymn in chapel whose refrain included these lines: “The thought it was so dear to me, the daring possibility, of freedom. (Oh, oh, freedom. Oh, oh, freedom. Oh, oh, oh.)”
Conservatives would do well to remember that freedom is indeed a daring possibility, and our best defense against almost every big-government, nanny-state, Washington-knows-best scheme of the left. In one sense, it is the answer to all questions, the solution to almost all problems of statecraft, the ideal to which all other civic ideals must bow.
All too often, we conservatives get lost in the weeds of complex arguments and wonkish debates — when all we really need to remember, both to better ground ourselves philosophically and to win political debates in the minds of the American voters, is that the theme is freedom.
Happily, veteran conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans wrote a gem of a book in 1994 by that very name: The Theme Is Freedom. In 323 well-researched, indeed quite scholarly, pages, Evans traced the development of the idea of political freedom through the past several millennia, and convincingly demonstrated three notions. First, freedom is the quintessential American political value. (Not equality, not diversity, and not any number of other trendy concepts.) Second, freedom properly defined cannot exist without firm, and firmly enforced, limitations on governmental power and scope. Third, and most controversially, the American ideals of freedom not only are not at odds with organized Judeo-Christian religion, but actually sprang directly from those religious traditions and depend on those traditions to survive and thrive.
(Before we continue, here’s a caveat: The notion of freedom and faith as mutually supportive rather than antagonistic is “controversial” only in the sense that our major media mavens and academicians are so convinced otherwise. The mutual supportiveness of freedom and faith should not be at all controversial to conservatives, however, but rather self-evident. As Evans put it, “the oft-stated conflict between traditional values and libertarian practice in our politics is… an illusion.”)
Western faith put limits on the state by insisting that there is a power higher than the state. The feudal lords (and bishops, archbishops) who forced the king to agree to the Magna Carta couched all that charter’s rights in the language and traditions of their faith. The Reformation Era debates between Martin Luther and (for instance) Erasmus were all about the “Freedom of a Christian” (to cite the name of one of Luther’s most famous essays) — not whether a Christian enjoys freedom, by the grace of God, but in what way that freedom should be understood.
As Evans traced the history of Western freedom as part and parcel of the development of Western faith, he noted that “taken as a whole, this history tracks a series of ever-narrowing and more definite limits on the reach of secular power — of which the American Constitution is (or was) the ultimate expression.”
The American people do not need a scholarly exposition of all this to be able to feel, in their bones, that freedom is their most valued heritage. If awakened from their torpor (and from their consumerist mentality), the American people still will rally to freedom’s cause every time they are clearly asked to do so. They merely need to be reminded from time to time that their freedom becomes more limited every time the state expands. If freedom is to be preserved, Evans reminds us, “whatever increases the size of the Leviathan should be prevented.”
As it so happened, Evans was writing the book just when Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to foist her first monstrous version of “health care reform” onto the American public. As Evans wrote then: “Connect the dots, and the resulting picture is quite familiar: we are being asked to adopt the style of top-down rule that proved calamitous for Eastern Europe.” He also wrote that “zealots with plans for making over the world by fiat are a deadly menace, and should be resisted wherever they show themselves, on whatever pretext….Problems are inherent in any collectivist regime. In this respect at least it doesn’t seem to matter whether the planners are psychotic tyrants or mild-mannered civil servants; the trouble is built into the nature of the system.”
Stan Evans is right — not just about Hillarycare (which this essay isn’t really about, except insofar as it provides a current example of the battleground), but about the centrality of freedom itself to our political heritage and mission. Freedom, ensured by limits against government interference (including in economic matters), must ever remain our byword and our guiding star. An outgrowth of our historical religious faith, it is the prime component of our civic faith as well.
That’s why, whether we are pushing for proactive policies (personal savings accounts, for instance) or defending against the threatened encroachments of risky schemes such as Hillarycare, the best answer isn’t some defensive proclamation that we really aren’t bad guys; and it’s not a long-winded discussion of the merits and demerits of particular programs.
Instead, the best answer is the one Tucker Carlson stumbled on: Our theme is freedom; we’re on freedom’s side; and freedom is the side that is most practical, most moral, and most just.