Monday, June 10, 2019

Handle Fire with Caution

Government is a tool similar to fire. It’s very useful when kept within careful limits. But if left to grow, it can do great harm.

Through most of history, in most parts of the world, government has leaped beyond a fire circle out into the forest, harming the very people who needed just a little of that power.

To some of us, the idea that the fire should be kept within safe boundaries makes natural sense. But there’s a substantial portion of the public who essentially say, “We need more fire. Go ahead and let it burn free. Sure, that’s been bad everywhere it’s been tried, but somehow we'll make it burn just right.”

We need to know the specific bounds to put upon government—and why. And then how.

Think of it as if you’ve just bought a new outdoor grill, one of those high temperature ones that can cook a steak perfectly seared outside without overcooking the inside. In other words, fire is involved. That means some danger. Really high heat. The possibility of getting burned. Fuel is involved.
When used correctly, you get delicious results, and the grill is a blessing to your life. When used casually or carelessly, it can cause burns. Maybe severe burns. Harm to people and environment. 

There’s a comic in the paper making fun of a guy, Crankshaft, who always has mishaps when he brings out the grill for the first time each summer. Some years all the neighbors require warnings. Some years the fire department is on call. Pretty much every year the grill explodes and shoots up into the sky. It’s a comic, so no lives our house are lost in the annual mishap. But you get the idea. What is supposed to be a useful management of fire turns out to be a danger.

Crankshaft comic from September 11, 2018
Often Crankshaft is found pouring lighter fluid on the grill. Too much. He doesn’t follow basic instructions or safety protocol.

If we’re looking at government as the grill—the way of using the fire for good—it would be a good idea to know enough to use it safely. We probably ought to carefully read the instruction book, and be experienced enough to understand basic safety rules such as using oven mitts and long-handled utensils to keep ourselves from getting burned.

We have an instruction book for our country. It’s the US Constitution. It’s short—about the length of a typical grill instruction manual. I keep a pocket version in my wallet.

But what did the Founding Fathers of America do before that was written—when there was “some assembly required” to come up with the right size government that would safely use the fiery power for good? They read a lot of the same things—as though they had all read the Boy Scout handbook on fire safety, plus related wilderness survival guides, and any other sources of wisdom.

The Founding Fathers were a diverse group, with a fairly wide range of educational sources, from somewhat random home tutoring and self-teaching, to a formal Harvard education. Yet, besides reading widely, they covered many of the same materials. You’d be hard pressed to find a founder who hadn’t read:

·         The Bible
·         Classic sources—in their original languages
o   Polybius
o   Cicero
o   Plutarch
o   Aristotle
·         Contemporary philosophers and historians
o   John Locke
o   Thomas Hobbes
o   Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, published 1776)
o   Montequieu
o   Blackstone
o   Gibbons (Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume I published 1776)
·         History
o   Greek and Roman
o   Anglo-Saxon
o   European
o   English
Books were still something of a luxury in the 18th Century, and yet these men managed to find them in the frontier land of the American colonies—and find the best among many books. They shared them with one another. George Wythe suggested reading for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson advised and shared books with James Madison. Benjamin Franklin had a study group of friends who studied a wide range of information. While they didn’t all know each other, living in various colonies in times when travel was a bigger challenge than today. But their reading choices were surprisingly uniform. As if a divine teacher had laid out a curriculum for them.

We can be grateful that these men understood both the dangers of too much government power (i.e., coercion, force = tyranny) and just the right amount. Harnessing just the right amount of government power was risky—but it has led to the best outcomes in human history.

In our day, at minimum we should be reading our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution. In addition, reading The Federalist Papers will give a fair amount of background to the thinking that went into the writing of the Constitution. These were newspaper editorials written mainly by Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. They didn’t always agree, but they shared the idea that federalism, or distributed power, would work. Then, to see opposing views (those who were very concerned about too much government), you can try The Anti-Federalist Papers, also newspaper editorials attempting to express the dangers they thought the federalists were not fully addressing.

A more contemporary book that addresses the issues the founders faced is Skousen’s The 5000-Year Leap. And I’ve previously listed other suggestions

There are resources on government that I think are plain wrong, and harmful; these are about accumulating power over the masses—the opposite of what our Founding Fathers were looking for. They might be worth reading to understand the opposition, however. These include Machiavelli and, closer to our day but surprisingly relevant, Marx and Engels.

Enough time has passed that, along with a good understanding of history, we can see that the work of our founders is not simply theoretical. We can compare.

Just a decade or two ago, Venezuela was the most prosperous, modern country in South America.

screenshot from Stuart Varney report on Venezuela August 2018
Today it looks like a war zone. But without a war. The result is the burn of too much government.
If you want to see the result of too much government even here in our country, take a look at Detroit. I wrote about that here. Last night a friend shared with us a video from early in Steven Crowder’s career, a short documentary on Detroit. And, in the spirit of supporting free speech, after he’s been censored online, I believe unfairly, I’ll end today’s piece with that cautionary tale.

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