Speaking to an audience in Wichita last Thursday, author and scholar C. Bradley Thompson delivered a lecture that explained the foundation of the greatness of America, and cautioned that this greatness is, and has been, under attack.
Thompson’s lecture was sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute and underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation. Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. He has also been a visiting fellow at Princeton and Harvard Universities and at the University of London.
In his lecture, Thompson explained the “two Americas,” which he said are “two radically different moral and political visions for America.” These are two different perspectives on the meaning of the word “liberalism.”
America, Thompson said, is and always has been a liberal nation. The question to ask, he said, is: Which liberalism? Thompson drew a distinction between what he called the old liberalism of America’s revolutionary founding fathers, and the new liberalism associated with “the ‘Republicratic’ party of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.”
The philosophy of the old liberalism, Thompson said, is summed up in the words of 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.”
The philosophy of the new liberalism, however, is this: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” These are the words of Karl Marx and the political philosophy of socialism.
Thompson said that these two competing moral philosophies have dominated American culture for the last 100 years. He asked: which of these is the most dominate in American life and culture today? The answer, he said, is clear, holding up a copy of Newsweek magazine from last year whose cover claimed “We are all socialists now.”
In examining the two forms of liberalism, Thompson started with the old liberalism. This insisted that men have the right to be free and to pursue their happiness without interference from others. Politically, government should be strictly limited through a separation of church and state, school and state, economy and state, and culture and state. Economically, individuals should be free to produce and exchange their goods and services free from government control, and government should not take wealth.
Socially, Thompson said that the founder’s liberalism is best expressed by “rugged individualism.” This is distinctly American — there is no French version of this, he told the audience.
This is a “principled commitment to freedom” in which individuals are morally sovereign.
Liberalism embodied itself in America’s founders a distrust of political power. The question at the time of the founding was “How can the grasping power of government be tamed and harnessed in a way that would serve the legitimate functions of government?” The solution was to subordinate the government to the Constitution. Written constitutions, then, are the fundamental law.
Initially, the night watchman state advocated by Thomas Jefferson was strictly limited with a “tightwad budget.” Government asked only that citizens respect the rights of others, live self-starting, self-reliant, virtuous lives, and that citizens deal with each other through persuasion and voluntary trade. In exchange, the state promised protection from domestic and foreign criminals and to govern by the rule of law.
But the “land of the free,” Thompson said, would not, and could not, last.
Turning to the new liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, Thompson said these are its principles: Morally, he repeated the Marxian slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This, he said, is the moral philosophy of altruism: Selfishness is the ultimate form of evil, and that selflessness is the highest moral good. “Man’s greatest moral duty is to sacrifice one’s self to needs of others,” he told the audience. President Obama has called for such sacrifices, he said.
In practice, Thompson said that altruism means the hard-working must be sacrificed for the lazy. The best is sacrificed to the lowest common denominator. In practice, he said it punishes ability and virtue, rewards incompetence and vice, destroying incentive, responsibility, integrity, and honesty in the process.
Egalitarianism is at the center of the new liberalism, he said. New liberalism says that individuals have positive rights and positive freedom. It means that everyone — regardless of ability and productivity — should be made equal. Freedom from fear and want become basic human rights.
“The modern welfare state is morally corrupting and fundamentally evil on all levels. It teaches one man that he has the right to live off the work of another man.” The impact on the moral character of Americans is that presently 61 million Americans are dependent on the government for their daily housing, food, and health care. This has grown by 31 percent in the last nine years, Thompson said.
Politically, new liberalism says that the common good trumps individual rights. Individual self-interest must be always be sacrificed to the general welfare. Since this “public interest” is undefinable and non-objective, the coercive power of the government must be too: undefinable and non-objective. “Unlimited ends requires unlimited means,” Thompson said.
While liberal socialism speaks of grand ideals such as social responsibility, what it really wants is more basic: power. “There is a direct and causal relationship between the morality of sacrifice, and force, and the violation of rights.”
Examples of the violations of rights and freedoms include Social Security, which violates the rights of younger Americans by forcing them to fund the retirements of senior citizens. Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare force taxpayers to fund the health care of anyone who claims to need it. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 violates the rights of bankers by forcing them to make risky mortgage loans to people that they wouldn’t have otherwise lent to. The ARRA (the federal stimulus bill of 2009) forces taxpayers to pay for all sorts of programs.
Underlying all these programs is altruism, the moral philosophy which says we must serve others, whether we want to or not.
Thompson went on to explain how altruism affects our lives day-to-day. The tax and regulatory system means that workers must work (on average) until April 9th to pay their taxes. This means, Thompson said, that for almost three and one-half months we are all enslaved to someone else.
Thompson said that we are dying a slow death by regulatory strangulation. Endless commands by government bureaucrats regulate nearly all aspects of our lives. “We live in a world today — believe it or not — more heavily regulated than was Nazi Germany during the 1940s or Communist China is today.” Besides federal regulation, state and local governments add to the regulatory burden.
The regulations have a much more insidious effect, Thompson said: “Each and every new entitlement or regulation passed by government seduces and tranquilizes the American people to become ever more reliant on politicians and bureaucrats for their daily sustenance and for their daily decision making and actions.”
Thompson continued: “A moral culture of radical independence has become a moral culture of slouching dependence.” The last 80 years have seen the greatest expansion of political power, and the greatest loss of freedom, in our history. The untold story of our national history of the last century is “how the American people sold their freedom and sold their souls to the nanny state.”
There are two questions confronting Americans today. First, have we reached a “tipping point” where government is on an unstoppable downward cycle?
Second, and more important: Have we reached a point of no return on the road to serfdom?
There is also another way to divide the two Americas, Thompson said: the rulers and the ruled. The ruling class is all the politicians of both major parties, along with bureaucrats at all levels, college professors, journalists of the mainstream media, think tank policy wonks, community organizers, and corrupt businessmen who support corporate welfare. This class presumes it is intellectually and morally superior to those it rules over.
This ruling class, Thompson said, seeks to manage and regulate two classes of Americans: those who work and pay taxes, and those who don’t. By redistributing over one-fourth of what Americans produce, the ruling class rules over the country. The rule of law is replaced by the rule of men.
And what does the ruling class want, Thompson asked? It wants us simply to obey. The country is drifting slowly and steadily to soft despotism.
The two Americas are irreconcilable, Thompson told the audience. We can’t have both, he said — we must have one or the other.
Concluding, Thompson said that “Americanism created a sphere of freedom unprecedented in world history.” The freedom philosophy of Americanism has liberated the creative and productive power of millions of ordinary Americans, listing the many impressive contributions of America to the world. The principles of individualism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism have revolutionized human life and improved it immensely.
This American, “old liberalism” philosophy that has liberated ordinary men and women to pursue their own values and greatness is under attack, and we must fight to keep it alive.