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The Compulsion to Compel
Why America's founding vision of limiting those in government from policing beliefs and speech should extend to the broader liberal project.
While Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” was a self-evident truth, the history of humankind suggests it is anything but. Tyranny, oppression, feudalism, the divine right of kings and outright slavery defined millennia of human history. While exceptions existed, “might makes right” ruled the day. The dark side of human nature includes a desire to control others, and part of the audacity of the founders was to establish a system that sought to cut across that grain.
To build the case for a government based on the consent of the governed, Jefferson enumerated the tyrannical offenses of King George against the colonies. King George “refused,” “has forbidden,” “obstructed,” was “imposing” and “depriving,” and generally was doing whatever the heck he wanted because he could. Even when he violated agreements and principles of English law in his treatment of the colonies, there was no mechanism to hold him accountable. So in some of the most eloquent political prose ever composed, Jefferson and the other founders told George in essence to go pound sand, and a new nation was born.
The intention, as noble as it was, to found a nation on the principle of individual worth, freedom and autonomy, clearly fell short in execution. Though many of the founders recognized on some level the cognitive dissonance of forming a nation based on the principles that “all men are created equal” while at the same time enslaving thousands, soon to become millions, of their fellow humans, they lacked the moral and political fortitude to end the abhorrent practice. Even worse, they built an entire intellectual edifice around white supremacy and the supposedly benighted condition of the African race to rationalize their sin. The perceived short-term material costs of ending forced labor simply outweighed in their psyches the loftier principles of self-determination for those under the slavemaster’s whip.
Eventually this design flaw, incorporated into the nation’s blueprint with eyes wide open, led to the inevitable rupture that became the Civil War. And while the Southern states may have held the conceit of once again throwing off a yoke of tyranny evidenced by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” by the federal government, Lincoln and the North refused to conflate secession from the union to maintain an immoral and degrading social system with the spirit of 1776. Even though the Civil War ended in victory for the North and the end of slavery, the irony is that this ultimate expression of coercion, force of arms, was limited in its ability to create real change. The derailment of Reconstruction and establishment of Jim Crow for nearly a century more showed that you could lead a country to the right ends, but you can’t force change into individual hearts and minds.
Today, undeniable (though some still try) progress has been made in this country and throughout the world in expanding freedom and individual human rights.
How much work is left to be done—and even whether some hard-won ground is being ceded—remains a subject of fierce debate. Despots still manage to gain control of individual countries around the globe, terrorists and terror-backed regimes still hold millions captive, and China’s Communist government shows little sign of once-hoped-for reforms to its authoritarian ways, now even threatening the democratic sanctuaries of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
And closer to home, illiberalism has established footholds here in critical American institutions. Polarization and demonization of political and cultural opponents are routine and have given rise to cancel culture—the unforgiving, scorched-earth personal destruction of one’s enemies for political gain. The media often fall into line with partisan and ideological narratives rather than seeking to follow the facts wherever they may lead and whoever may pay a price, all the while pouring scorn on those who refuse to stick to the script. Colleges and universities, and even the students themselves, seem intent on enforcing “woke” orthodoxy rather than encouraging open debate and discussion and teaching students how to draw their own conclusions. Politicians, being politicians, wish to please their constituents (ar at least their base), and therefore focus on legislation that will compel change rather than engaging all sides in a free exchange of ideas to persuade and thus generate change from the ground up rather than the top down.
The Constitution defines the structure of our government and how it is supposed to operate, but it is no accident that the prosaic, technical and practical text of the Articles is accompanied by the Bill of Rights which is almost entirely focused on limiting the power of the government. “No” and “not” appear over and over again in the first ten amendments, protecting citizens from government’s compulsion to compel. Both the ninth and tenth amendments explicitly prohibit infringement on the rights of “the people,” unspecified rights that lay outside the text of the Constitution and therefore outside the government’s penchant for control.
Our institutions, of course, are composed of people, and therefore simply railing against “them” is a fruitless exercise. “We, the people” will not escape the judgment of history if we allow our own desires to control our neighbor’s behavior to seep into our institutions,thereby magnifying and propagating authoritarian tendencies in this and succeeding generations. If “the best government is that which governs least” is true, then perhaps it is also true that the best citizens are those who seek to govern their fellow citizens the least.
The Declaration of Independence credits the “Creator” as the source of individual “unalienable Rights... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though the founders’ views of God and the scriptures varied widely, they took it for granted that even an omnipotent, sovereign God bestowed the right of liberty on those he created, to use it for good or for ill. “Choose you this day whom you will serve” God told the ancient Israelites through Joshua. Forced compliance is no match for a free choice for the right and good, even to an all powerful God.
Certainly coercion has its appropriate place. Society devolves into dystopian chaos when liberty becomes license without consequence. But far more often than not, persuasion should trump coercion, reason should replace intimidation. A society built on a foundation of threat-induced conformity encourages a dangerous competition for power that raises the stakes and risks triggering an ever-ascending (or descending) spiral towards tyranny, authoritarianism and oppression.
Forcing another to “agree” with our ideas and conform to our standards of behavior delivers a certain level of satisfaction. But achieving the same ends through persuasion and, yes, deference backed by principle and character is far sweeter and long-lasting, while also leaving room for the persuader to occasionally become the persuaded. As members of a free society who wish to see it remain free and see that freedom spread, we should be able to humble ourselves and say with the founders that we “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to that end.