Back To Basics

There is one basic question that every society must answer: what is government for? What is its purpose and what are its proper limits?

Whether you want to call America’s current, vicious civic battles a “culture war,” or an assault by theocrats on the rest of us, one thing is clear: those waging that battle–the “warriors” who are intent upon using the power of the state to impose their beliefs on everyone else–have utterly rejected the libertarian premise upon which American government rests.

Libertarian, in this usage, refers to the nature of liberty, not today’s political ideology.

There is great wisdom in what has been dubbed the “libertarian principle.” Those who crafted America’s constituent documents were significantly influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and its then-new approach to the proper role of the state. That approach rejected notions of monarchy and the “divine right” of kings (the overwhelming authority of the state) in favor of the principle that Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they did not thereby harm the person or property of another, and so long as they were willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.

Government was tasked with protecting that liberty.

The libertarian principle undergirds the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and its operation has been persuasive world-wide. (If we really wanted to make America great again, we would revisit and revive our allegiance to it.)

Those who crafted America’s Bill of Rights believed that individuals are entitled to basic human rights simply by virtue of being human–and they understood human rights to require respect for individual moral autonomy. The term “limited government” is recognition of that principle–“limited” isn’t a description of size, it is a limit on authority, a limit on the power of the state to invade and disregard the individual’s right to self-determination.

Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty.  If those in positions of power and authority can prescribe your life choices, and punish any deviation from officially sanctioned personal conduct, you are a subject, not a citizen–and you definitely are not exercising moral choice.

So what role should government play? What is implied by that libertarian construct?

Allow me to restate it: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–free to “do their own thing”–so long as they do not harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to others.

Those caveats are important, and they require both action and restraint by government.

One of the most obvious purposes of government is to prevent some people from harming the person or property of others. What constitutes “harm,” of course, can be a contentious matter: does my use of profanity constitute a harm to society? What about pornography? Books with “anti-social” content? “Wrong” religious beliefs? (Contemporary Republicans insist that teaching accurate history constitutes a harm.)

Then, of course, there is that little matter of government’s responsibility for ensuring civic and legal equality….

As difficult as our arguments about the nature of the “harms” that justify government action continue to be, Americans have really balked at that second “so long as”–the one requiring those of us who insist on our own right to self-government to “accord an equal liberty to others.” Far too many of us prefer something along the lines of “liberty for me but not for thee.”

The problem with a system in which only some people have rights is that a government with the power to deny me my rights today can use that authority to deny you your rights tomorrow. Actually, a government with the power to grant and/or withdraw rights isn’t dealing with”rights” at all–it’s doling out privileges, and privileges can be withdrawn when the political environment changes.

As a wise man once told me, we’re equally free, or no one really is. Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.


  1. Excellent insight! Thank you. This applies equally to abortion and gun rights (and others).
    But the real point is that neither we nor they can have rights that harm others, or deny others the same liberty. That can be applied across the board, and should be.
    Then, because some of these rights have possible harm built right into them, the question becomes why, how, and how much should they be regulated?
    The start of the American discourse.

  2. The discourse on rights in the constitution and the courts is how does federalism effect the opinion of the courts. If legislation is passed back to the states, it doesnt mean legislation cant be garnered at some overarching national rule of law where Roe Vs Wade began. Was the last bill anywhere close to that?

  3. Prof K closed with:
    Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

    Along those lines, If the government can deny an abortion, they can also demand an abortion…. As China did

  4. If the framers were enlightened and meant “we the people” as all people, then I can understand this libertarian principle.

    However, it did not include “we the people.”

    It included the oligarchs – specifically those who possessed the gold and excluded all others. In addition, women and people of color were excluded.

    It also didn’t include a Central Bank.

    This is why Charles Koch and his other oligarchic friends want to go back to before liberalism destroyed this country (in their mind). White men of substance should rule this country, and the government should enforce that – not encourage the expansion of the original implied definition of “we the people.”

    They don’t want the Wall Street cronies and the Banksters with the FED. They want private wealth to rule this country.

    The Koch network clashes with Soros and his Wall Street/hedge fund cronies.

  5. While Charles Koch calls himself a “Libertarian,” what he wants is a government that is limited to protecting private property, specifically his private property. If he were truly Libertarian, he wouldn’t have backed the building of the wall, with its nod and wink to eminent domain. He would have been incensed by the taking of private lands to build the wall.

    We need to understand that nothing created by man is perfect, including governments. It was nice for a time to have a government that functioned via compromise, but we lost that in the 90s when Newt came along. Now, in addition to calling the Dems traitors (which might be projection), the Republicans have decided that it’s in their best interest to label Dems as pedophiles. There doesn’t seem to be a bottom.

  6. Sheila –

    Would you consider sending today’s blog post to newspapers as a Letter to the Editor?

    Even though newspapers are a dying industry, I believe this would grab people’s attention and potentially give them the courage and will to battle the current theocratic war on women’s bodies.

  7. Equal liberty is “cancelled” by corporate capitalism. A poor person who steals some shoes goes to prison; a rich person who owns a company that steals lives by making/selling dangerous products pays a fine, at best, without even having to own up to it.

  8. We seem to have put ourselves into that dangerous position of a “circular firing squad” which President Obama warned against a few years ago.

    “Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty.”

    When the “losers”, the Republican White Nationalist MAGA party, is still in control from their minority position, and the leading party doesn’t have the power to lead, all citizens are the losers of even basic liberty. The current elected “enemies of the state” are well known by name, face and action and/or inaction and will remain in power until the Democrats unite as tightly as those Republicans who may disagree but maintain the same goal of activating the “Big Lie”.

    Whether we are in the position of shifting winds of poison gas or that circular firing squad; the government is proving Pogo was correct. “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

  9. Lester – those corporate capitalists that you mentioned, as we all know, use their profits to spend pennies on the dollar on lobbyists to get unnecessary tax breaks/subsidies and lucrative government contracts, along with watered down or completely neutered punishments for any laws they plan to break.

  10. Nancy – and their “representatives” continue to stop/reduce spending for any oversight/timely justice. Thus the huge cuts/lack of funding for the IRS, immigration judges, etc.

  11. Lester – YES to all you said. But rural citizens continue to vote Rs into office because they refuse to make an effort to find out if they are being lied to by the Rs and the right wing media. Wait – even if they know they are being lied to they still refuse to vote Dems into office because of the lies they are told about the Dems by the Rs. Sigh……

    To all of the urban dwellers on this blog:

    The Rs have almost completely taken over every rural local office, from township boards to courthouse employees and judges. Locally, there are several government employees (including two judges) that used to be Democrats, but had to switch to the R party to keep their jobs. How is that for power?

  12. People have been led by the entertainment that we demand 24/7 to identify as Rs or Ds. Really only politicians are Rs or Ds. Voters are merely fans. Voters get to vote infrequently and most often locally. Politicians govern, make laws, establish policy, create our position in the world, make money, etc. It’s no different than professional sports are and most fans love their home teams unreasonably so.

    We see in Russia what happens when a party or a person has control of all of the tools, the military, the propaganda, the economy, the definition of the country to the world. Putin has always been a bully, and still is, and now Russia is, and is paying the price for what he created.

    Trump is as close as the US has ever been to be under the control of a dysfunctional bully. We have only been saved by the fact that he’s not particularly smart.

  13. Nancy – I have no data, but I strongly suspect that most non-MAGA rural “red dog GOPers”, independents and DEMs don’t bother to turn out because most rural districts are torturously gerrymandered to ensure GOP wins AND the local GOP powers are under the control of state GOPs which are mostly now MAGA-powered.

  14. Today’s column by Sheila provides sufficient material to debate for a millennium.

    “As a wise man once told me, we’re equally free, or no one really is. Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”

    The wise man’s words aptly describes the absurdity of ambiguous possession of nuclear weapons developed by Israel as a deterrent to leverage “peace”. Exactly what country would Israel target? No matter the choice from among adjacent enemy nations, prevailing winds would blow radioactive dust back over its own citizens for centuries.

    If today’s argument blisters with absurdities, I could not resist another to contribute to our understanding of human nature.

    No wonder monkeys just sit and stare at us wondering, too.

  15. It is my view that the cutbacks on the IRS and the immigration judges were Trump’s way of protecting his criminality, for one, and then,
    of advancing his too widely shared Xenophobia. Thatsame xenophobia that led to the Buffalo shootings, and more. And, that the huge
    increase in mass shootings is directly related to Trump’s toxic rhetoric.
    Going “Back to Basics” would work for me. Koch, and his kin, want nothing but the freedom to do whatever will make them wealthier
    and still more secure in their haven of power.

  16. I think we are finally getting to the point where 20 years of policy pushing for unfettered freedom for the right bear arms is really starting to show. Mass shootings are being reported at any large gathering, with multiples in a weekend, and even multiples at the same event. I think that Republicans have dismissed the rising gun violence as Black inner city problems, but it is starting to show up everywhere now. I think the reason the recent shooting at a car show in rural Alabama made the news is that happened in white rural Alabama and people were shocked that gun violence was not just a Black inner city problem.

    Curfews at Spring Break resort towns is the only tool that Florida police have to ensure public safety. By God I am free to bear arms, but who care if I give up my freedom to even be out of my house? It seems like a small but reasonable step to give up everyone’s freedom so that gun owners have an unrestricted right to bear arms, but like yesterday’s blog pointed out, it was just small seemingly reasonable steps until your in over your head.

    So now you talk about the role of government. Until fairly recent history, it was always understood that the government had a role (even at the federal level) of controlling guns in society. The idea now that more guns will make people safer seems to be falling apart, but I suspect it will take a several more years, maybe even another generation, and a lot more deaths before enough people wake up to the fact that the government should have than role in controlling who, how many, and what kind of guns should be out there. Otherwise, we will be shopping for houses with kevlar house wrap, and bullet proof windows, while staying home after dark because we are not allowed out.

  17. The first Enlightenment is said to have begun in Florence. Now (courtesy of Professor Kennedy) we have an enlightenment of the Enlightenment, with hints of Lockean social contract in her edification of Florentine philosophy thrown in the mix. For my money this is the best blog on the subject I have read and I am going to send it to some friends and followers for their information and advice.

    Not unexpectedly, some today are complaining that our Founders were the wealthy of their day who doled out rights and privileges excluding white men who did not own real estate should have the vote in which a debater asked, rhetorically, why any man who did not own real estate would have any interest in voting. This argument, ridiculous on its face as measured by our criteria today, reflected that debater’s limited understanding of the Enlightenment and the Athenian democracy that preceded it.

    We today rightly complain of the government’s coddling of the rich and corporate class as politicians dole out privileges to those who finance their campaigns, but there have been nabobs galore in recorded history, notably God-appointed royalty as well as Caesars and Hitlers, all of whom were and still are dictators as measured by Enlightenment values and, I hope, contemporary values, battered and tattered as they may be by Trump & Co.

    Complain as we must and should if we are to improve the interplay between government and citizen we have nonetheless made progress with our social contract as envisioned by Locke and others from the days when peasants tilled the soil for their royalty in the castle, and our task in these days (when one major party has been captured by retrogades) is to persist in fleshing out the Enlightenment philosophy by not only defending but expanding our experiment in Athenian democracy, which is the most precious asset we hold in common and one of the last few things left worth dying for.

  18. Profanity and foul language can always lead to physical confrontation, I believe they call them fighting words! So what’s the limit on foul language? I think maybe you’ve reached the fighting words when somebody punches you in the face for running your mouth! Or possibly implant a piece of lead in your body.

    Pornography is a gateway addiction to other much darker practices. Now, just as every single person that takes drugs will not become addicted, every single person that engages in pornographic consumption may not become addicted and it may not lead them down a darker path. But the reason behind pornography is to stimulate sexual desire! And some people are not going to feel pleasuring themselves is sufficient! Then it moves to the darker side!

    Religion and freedom to worship in someone’s own domicile should be accepted, as long as the state doesn’t attempt to adopt any one particular religious Dogma in a secular society! Because everyone does not belong to any one particular religion. So, if any one particular religion becomes entrenched in government, it’s going to create an unequal right of living.

    Although, I might add, most religions sprang from one particular religious society. It definitely has factionalized and evolved!

    The thing is, if the hand is writing on the wall so to speak, or the smoke signals are popping up over the tree line, it’s time to take some sort of unmitigated action! But, that won’t happen, because in history it’s only happened a few times, and that hasn’t turned out well either. Roman emperor Constantine was desperate and that’s why he tried to use Christianity to bring his empire back together. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like he planned.

    Like I mentioned before, once things get out of hand, it’s very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. More stringent action needs to be taken, otherwise it will just be another cycle in history that they’ll be talking about in a couple of thousand years if there’s anything left to talk about by then.

  19. I think libertarian ideas, as expressed here today, are an evasion of the necessary and genetically endowed social contract.
    Seems unaware to go on about liberty without espousing responsibility too.

  20. Nancy – in speaking with a couple of rural Democrats down at the annual get together in French Lick, they had two complaints.
    1) The Democrats don’t show up. If you ignore people, they will ignore you, even if you might have won some votes.
    2) As Sophie Tucker sang over a century ago, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

    Another excellent post today, Sheila. You do point out a major problem today, of people who believe in “liberty for me but not for thee.”

    However, there is a second related issue that affects people who don’t quite go that far. It has been called “lack of moral imagination”, but that sounds too pejorative. Let’s just say that some people cannot imagine walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

    These people find no voting law restrictive because it wouldn’t inconvenience them; any elevation of Christian prayer is fine because being a Christian, it wouldn’t make them feel like an outsider.

    They also don’t seem to understand asymmetrical power. A CEO negotiates for their salary, so a minimum wage worker “accepting a contract” to work for $2.50/hour should be the same. If Donald Trump decides to sue me for whatever, I can’t afford to defend myself, but if I sue him, he can afford delay it into MY bankruptcy. A $50,000 fine for a small business can be a disaster, but it isn’t even petty cash to a Amazon or Walmart.

    I end with one of my favorite Anatole France quotes.

    “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

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