America’s Greatness Lies in Knowledge Diffused
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” - Thomas Jefferson, 1816, Letter to Thomas Yancey
Our nation, for several years now, has been in extended crisis mode. By the end of the Bush administration, we’d reached a point of complacency. We had wars raging on two fronts, but rather than being something the entire nation was focused on and engaged in, it was little more than partisan fodder to be used against Bush and the Republicans in the newspapers and on the nightly news (as evidenced by the fact that the constant front-page stories of soldier death counts miraculously disappeared once Obama took office).
Then came the financial collapse, which effectively ended John McCain’s chances at the presidency and ushered in Barack Obama, a political neophyte who campaigned not on specific policy positions and political philosophies, but on his claim to being “not Bush”, ushering in an era of “hope and change”. Unfortunately, while Obama has certainly achieved “change”, in doing so he has all but destroyed hope in America, at least until he leaves office.
These past two weeks we’ve seen the stock market rising and falling more often than a Kennedy after a night of partying. The dollar continues to be weakened, America’s credit rating is downgraded for the first time in history, unemployment remains high, and the prospects for improvement seem bleak in the short term. We are largely dependent on our enemies for our energy consumption, mainly because we refuse to access the vast reserves of energy we have on our own soil and in the oceans surrounding us. The waves of bad news crashing over us seem endless right now.
At the root of these problems, I believe, is ignorance; ignorance of the greatness of the traditions on which our nation was founded; ignorance of the superiority of a free market economy over all other economies, and an understanding that what we operate under today is not a free market, but a bastardized, incestuous form of socialized crony capitalism, in which big business colludes with big government to gain advantage over its competitors in exchange for favorable tax and regulatory benefits. Ignorance of how government’s interference in the health care market has both lowered quality and access, and increased expense. Ignorance as to how oppressive, progressive tax policy that punishes the most productive actually lowers gross revenues to the government. Maybe most dangerously of all, ignorance of basic economic principles in general, which has led to an apparent belief that someone will always extend credit to America, regardless of our diminishing ability to repay the debt.
Our educational system has done an abysmal job of preparing students, and this is an existential crisis. No matter how glorious the edifice or pristine the halls, if the foundation is weak the structure will eventually fall. So how is it that we can expect to produce ignorant children and still maintain a strong foundation for our nation? We are not producing free thinkers, we are producing Myrmadons which blindly follow the Pied Piper of federal government in exchange for phantom promises of largesse provided by the stolen labor of our fellow citizens. In many ways we’ve become infantile, a solipsistic nation preoccupied with wants and desires and feelings, rather than a nation which sacrifices to accomplish hard things and overcome obstacles.
If our nation is to survive, we must return to the fundamental principles and teachings that long defined us as Americans. If we allow our children to be taught that America is no better or more unique than any other nation, how can we instill a desire to perpetuate what is American? If America is so awful, then what possible motivation would there be to save it?
In his 1790 treatise on government, “Of the Study of Law in the United States”, James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as an original Supreme Court justice, noted that “Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.” Yet today so much of what the public “knows” is simply incorrect, and is rarely acknowledged as such.
For example, how many times have you heard politicians of both parties speak lovingly of our great “American democracy”? Yet the Founders did not set up a democracy, they established a constitutional republic; a form of government where the unalienable rights of the individual take primacy over the tempestuous desires of the many. The Founders abhorred democracy, describing the difference between a republic and a democracy as the difference between order and chaos. Or, as civil libertarian James Bovard so aptly put it, democracy is nothing more than two wolves and a lamb voting on what is for dinner.
Another fallacy is the claim that we have a “right” to vote. Nowhere in the Constitution are we granted a “right” to vote. The Constitution only establishes characteristics (age, sex, race) by which we can’t be denied the right to vote, all other requirements having been met.
Earlier this year, Newsweek magazine surveyed a thousand Americans, asking them questions that, arguably, any ninth grader should know. The results were concerning in their implications. Of those surveyed, 29% couldn’t name the vice president, 73% could not say why we fought the Cold War, 44% couldn’t define the Bill of Rights, and 6% could not correctly say what date Independence Day falls on. Such ignorance is absolutely tragic.
How well informed are you as a citizen? Can you name the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) and define their roles? Can you explain to someone the vertical and horizontal separation of powers that is the basis of our federalist system of government? Can you name the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, your federal representative and senators, your governor and lieutenant governor, your state representative and senator? Can you name even three members of the Supreme Court, which now holds tremendous power over national policy (though it should not)? Can you name three members of your local school board? Can you identify the 17th Amendment and explain how it weakened the power of the states, subordinating them in large measure to the federal government?
If not, why not? The gravity of the problems we face cannot be understated. How can we, as citizens of a constitutional republic, do our duty to protect our Constitution and the freedom it codifies if we don’t understand it or the government it formed? Reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements on the best policies to guide our nation, but let us educate ourselves so that the decisions are based on knowledge, fact and reason, and not on ethereal or populist rhetoric and emotion. Hope and change is a catchy slogan, but a poor substitute for knowledge and leadership.
Jimmy Carter once told us, in essence, that America should accept its decline and embrace mediocrity. Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections because he reminded Americans of the greatness of this nation and that our best days did not have to be behind us. He reminded us that America’s greatness does not lies in a huge and ever expanding government, but in the drive, inventiveness and entrepreneurialism of everyday citizens seeking to improve their lives, and in the process, improve the lives of their fellow citizens.
It is my absolute belief that America’s best days lie before us, if we will only seek knowledge and independence, and not the soul-crushing embrace of dependency on government.