[The following first appeared at Eternity Road on July 31, 2009. — FWP]
In reply to this earlier piece, longtime reader and frequent commenter Goober wrote:
It isn’t their fault. The founding fathers knew for a fact that even the kindest and most altruistic of governments would and could overstep their bounds on occasion. That is why they wrote the Constitution, and entrusted we, the people (NOT the government) with it’s enforcement and adherence.
We’ve fallen down on the job, not them, and we’ve done so because they’ve promised us things. A cleaner environment (EPA), a safer world (IRS and income tax for WWI), safety from jobsite hazards (OSHA) and payment in the case that you lose your job or are injured (FICA and FUTA). They’ve promised us medical care when we’re old, a pension for our retirement, a super-highway system to get us there, and all of these things were ushered in not just with the consent of the governed, but with their cheerful support.
All were constitutional oversteps. All were heralded by the governed.
The government isn’t to blame. We are.
All true until the very last line. Yes, we cooperated in our enslavement, but to say that the architects and builders of our political prison are therefore not to blame is like exculpating a rapist on the grounds that his victim chose not to resist him. All the same, there’s a lesson in our history of habituation to bondage: a lesson about how cheaply we price that for which we never had to struggle.
Americans at the opening of the Twentieth Century were largely unaware of the differences between freedom and tyranny. They’d enjoyed the former lifelong, and had never tasted the latter. Remember that in 1900:
- There was no conscription;
- There was no income tax;
- There was no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or unemployment insurance tax;
- There was no zoning;
- There were no environmental laws;
- There were no labor laws;
- There were no anti-discrimination laws;
- There were no “public accommodation” laws;
- There were no laws mandating preferential treatment by race, sex, religion, or ethnicity;
- There were no restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms;
- Private property was considered sacrosanct;
- The right of self-defense and defense of the innocent, by any means up to and including lethal violence, was unchallenged.
An American of 1900, if given a device through which he could survey the political landscape of 2000, would have tossed it aside in disbelief. Such things could never come to America, he’d say. That sort of nonsense is strictly for the Old World and the savages of Africa, Asia, and South America. This is the Land of the Free.
Well, it was, anyway. Yet the changes all came, as lovers of freedom know to our sorrow.
With very few exceptions, the legal fetters Americans wear today were applied to us quite gradually. Our masters allowed us to grow accustomed to one before applying another. Nor were they at once tightened to the maximum; few persons chafed under them at the outset.
The income tax is an excellent example: When the Sixteenth Amendment was being debated on the floor of the Senate, one of its opponents rose to ask the body what it could say to reassure the American public that this tax would not rise to seize some unconscionable fraction of their earnings — perhaps as much as ten percent! A pro-income-tax senator rose and replied that the country need never fear such a development: “The people would never allow it!”
Another fine example arises from Social Security, which Franklin D. Roosevelt pitched as a “supplement” to the resources of American retirees. At its inception, Social Security promised to take no more than $7.50 per month from a worker’s paycheck. Today the limit is over $550.00 per month, and for many wage earners is the largest single tax they pay. To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court has ruled that no matter how large his payments to the Social Security system, no man has a right to any payments from it.
Look at any of the political bonds that have been fastened upon us: labor law, environmental law, firearms control laws, laws that infringe upon property rights, what have you. In nearly every case you’ll find that the original collar was gently applied and loosely fastened. It simply didn’t stay that way.
The term most commonly applied to such a slow, steady tightening of the screws is gradualism. Gradualism uses the power of habituation — the ordinary human tendency to accommodate and adjust to conditions we can’t individually alter — to solidify its gains and prevent retrograde motion. In her landmark book The God Of The Machine, Isabel Paterson referred to it as political power’s “ratchet action.”
We have habituated ourselves to all manner of fetters. They were applied with such delicacy, and tightened so slowly and smoothly, that many of us cannot imagine life without them. Yet at any instant in the process, it was still possible to rear up against it. Despite appearances, it remains possible today. We simply haven’t done so, nor is it likely that we will.
The process got under way in the early years of the Twentieth Century, when Americans had enjoyed liberty without cost for too long to remember the price that was originally paid for it. They had ceased to believe that it should cost them anything to remain free. Worse, they looked upon subsidies, subventions, and other temptations held forth by the State and failed to ask, “What’s the price for these things? Just because no one has spoken of one doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”
All things have their price. Nothing worth having can be had at zero cost.
Which brings your Curmudgeon to the parable of:
Some years ago, an old trapper from North Dakota hitched up some horses to his Studebaker wagon, packed up his traps, and drove south. Several weeks later he stopped in a small town just north of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
It was a lazy Saturday morning when he walked into the general store. Sitting around the pot-bellied stove were seven or eight of the town’s local citizens. The traveler said, “Gentlemen, could you direct me to the Okefenokee Swamp?”
Some of the oldtimers looked at him like he was crazy. “You must be a stranger in these parts,” they said.
“I am. I’m from North Dakota,” said the stranger. “In the Okefenokee Swamp are thousands of wild hogs,” one old man explained. “A man who goes into the swamp by himself asks to die!” He lifted up his leg. “I lost half my leg here, to the pigs of the swamp.”
Another old fellow said, “Look at the cuts on me; look at my arm bit off! Those pigs have been free since the Revolution, eating snakes and rooting out roots and fending for themselves for over a hundred years. They’re wild and they’re dangerous. You can’t trap them. No man dare go into the swamp by himself.” The others nodded in agreement.
The old trapper said, “Thank you so much for the warning. Now could you direct me to the swamp?” They said, “Well, yeah, it’s due south, straight down the road.” But they begged the stranger not to go, because they knew he’d meet a terrible fate. He smiled, waved away their concern, and said, “Sell me ten sacks of corn, and help me load it in the wagon.” And they did. Then the old trapper bid them farewell and drove on down the road. The townsfolk thought they’d never see him again.
Two weeks later the man came back. He pulled up to the general store, got down off the wagon, walked in and bought ten more sacks of corn. After loading it up he went back down the road toward the swamp.
Two weeks later he returned and bought another ten sacks of corn. This went on for a month. And then two months, and three. Every two weeks the old trapper would appear on Saturday morning, purchase ten sacks of corn, and drive back into the swamp.
The stranger soon became a legend in the little village and the subject of much speculation. People wondered what kind of devil had possessed this man, that he could go into the Okefenokee by himself and not be consumed by the wild, free hogs.
One morning the man came into town as usual. Everyone thought he wanted more corn. He got off the wagon and went into the store where the usual group of men were gathered around the stove. He took off his gloves.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I need to hire about ten or fifteen wagons. I need twenty or thirty men. I have six thousand hogs out in the swamp, penned up, and they’re all hungry. I’ve got to get them to market right away.”
“You’ve WHAT in the swamp?” asked the storekeeper, incredulously. “I have six thousand hogs penned up. They haven’t eaten for two or three days, and they’ll starve if I don’t get back there to feed and take care of them.”
One of the oldtimers said, “You mean you’ve captured the wild hogs of the Okefenokee?”
“How did you do that? What did you do?” the men urged, breathlessly.
One of them exclaimed, “But I lost my arm!”
“I lost my brother!” cried another.
“I lost my leg to those wild boars!” chimed a third.
The trapper said, “Well, the first week I went in there they were wild all right. They hid in the undergrowth and wouldn’t come out. I dared not get off the wagon. So I spread corn along behind the wagon. Every day I’d spread a sack of corn. The old pigs would have nothing to do with it.”
“But the younger pigs decided that it was easier to eat free corn than it was to root out roots and catch snakes. So the very young began to eat the corn first. I did this every day. Pretty soon, even the old pigs decided that it was easier to eat free corn. After all, they were free. They could run off in any direction they wanted at any time.”
“The next thing was to get them used to eating in the same place all the time. So I selected a clearing, and I started putting the corn in the clearing. At first they wouldn’t come to the clearing. It was too far. It was too open. It was a nuisance to them.”
“But the very young decided that it was easier to take the corn in the clearing than it was to root out roots and catch their own snakes. And not long thereafter, the older pigs also decided that it was easier to come to the clearing every day.”
“And so the pigs learned to come to the clearing every day to get their free corn. They could still augment their diet with roots and snakes and whatever else they wanted. After all, they were free. They could run in any direction at any time. There were no bounds upon them.”
“The next step was to get them used to fence posts. So I put fence posts all the way around the clearing. I put them in the underbrush so that they wouldn’t get suspicious or upset. After all, they were just sticks sticking up out of the ground, like the trees and the brush. The corn was there every day. It was easy to walk in between the posts, get the corn, and walk back out.”
“This went on for a week or two. Shortly they became very used to walking into the clearing, getting the free corn, and walking back out through the fence posts.”
“The next step was to put one rail down at the bottom. I also left a few openings, so that the older, fatter pigs could walk through the openings and the younger pigs could easily jump over just one rail. After all, it was no real threat to their freedom or independence. They could always jump over the rail and flee in any direction at any time.”
“Now I decided that I wouldn’t feed them every day. I began to feed them every other day. On the days I didn’t feed them the pigs still gathered in the clearing. They squealed, and they grunted, and they begged and pleaded with me to feed them. But I only fed them every other day. And I put a second rail around the posts.”
“Now the pigs became more and more desperate for food. They were no longer used to going out and digging their own roots and finding their own food. They now needed me. They needed my corn every other day.
So I trained them that I would feed them every day if they came in through a gate. And I put up a third rail around the fence. But it was still no great threat to their freedom, because there were several gates and they could run in and out at will.”
“Finally I put up the fourth rail. Then I closed all the gates but one, and I fed them very, very well. Yesterday I closed the last gate. And today I need you to help me take these pigs to market.”