by Chuck Muth
Cook-outs, fireworks, parades. For all too many Americans, that's what Independence Day is all about. Oh, excuse me. The 4th of July. Don't want to be caught promoting actual "independence" on a government-sanctioned holiday.
Still, for those who today celebrate the Declaration of Independence - NOT the Declaration of July 4th - it's important to reflect not only on the epic battle for freedom our Founders fought and won on our behalf, but the slow erosion of those freedoms ever since, an erosion fully anticipated by the Founders.
Thomas Jefferson, you'll recall, warned us that "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." In other words, if we don't keep our eyes open and stay on guard constantly, we could well end up losing the freedoms way too many of us now take for granted.
And Ben Franklin famously replied, when asked what type of government the Founders had established for us at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, "A Republic, if you can keep it." The key words, of course, are "if you can keep it." Franklin, too, realized that eternal vigilance and hard work would be necessary to keep a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
So how goes our eternal vigilance these days? Not so hot.
Columnist Steven Greenhut of the Orange County Register reminds us that the government established by our Founders isn't quite the same government we have today. As you grill up those burgers and oooh-and-ahhh the fireworks tonight, you'd do well to consider the Founders' historical warnings and Greenhut's modern-day observations. Eternal vigilance demands it, lest we lose our Republic. From Greenhut's column this past Sunday...
"Clearly, by comparison with most countries, Americans do pretty well. There's no Gestapo, dictator or prison camps for dissidents. There's talk of building a wall at the border, but to keep people from coming in, not to keep them from getting out. Still, I think Americans would benefit from thinking more closely about the state of our liberty. Every few years, I write a column that updates the erosion of our freedoms. It mostly deals with simple, everyday stuff, but it's rather telling. Here is my latest installment:
"If I want to build a new house, I need to petition any number of government agencies and commissions, and can build only what they allow. Those agencies decide not only if my project conforms to some basic, easily understood rules, but whether it conforms to their own preferences regarding style, color, historical influences, size, number of stories, and so forth. If I ever want to add on or improve that house, I must wait until a government inspector approves it. If I am a developer, and want to build a larger number of properties on a site, I must fight for years to get approvals - and usually the final project will bear little resemblance in style or design to my original vision.
"If I want to start a new business, I not only will have to pay a large portion of any earnings to the government, but I must first get all the necessary approvals from myriad governments. I must pay my employees a minimum rate determined by the government. They may only work the number of hours set by the government. If it's a restaurant or business that serves the public, I must get a conditional-use permit - a long list of conditions that micromanage exactly how I run the place, from the hours to the number of tables, based on the whims of the commissioners who must approve the business.
"The government can, at any time, take my home or business and give it to someone else if officials, for any reason, prefer the new use to my use. The government can, at its discretion, steal all the value from my property by declaring it a wetland or by finding on it some 'endangered' rodent or other species. No compensation need be paid as long as I still have any use of the land.
"The government's officers can launch a 'no-knock' raid of my home (if they get a tip about, say, a drug deal) and can shoot and kill me if they say that they viewed me as a threat. Abusive federal agents or local police officers can, by law in California, keep all their disciplinary records secret. Those same agents can arrest me and throw me in jail for decades for possessing those 'drugs' that the government determines to be illegal. Meanwhile, the government maintains files on all my personal and financial data and will use them to assure that I pay the amount of taxes the government determines that I must pay.
"If I refuse to pay the full amount, I will become a ward of one of the biggest growth industries in the country: the government-run prison system. I am free to pay about half of all my earnings to the government, which will use those taxes to erect a multitude of offices and pay its workers salaries and benefits that are far more than most of us will ever earn. The government's 'child protective services' workers are free to take anyone's children away from them based on their discretion. Parents are then forced into a totally secret court system, in which they must prove their innocence rather than having the government being forced to prove guilt.
"We are all free to travel where we choose after government agencies search, poke and prod us. We can drive on government roads, pay government tolls, fly out of government-owned airports and pay for government-issued bond debt. We are free to pay for the government schools, which teach our children what the government wants them to learn.
"The government can seize our personal property and not give it back even if we are cleared of any crime, and even place us in permanent detention, without any hope of legal representation, if the government determines that we are an enemy combatant. The government can bomb any government it chooses, based on any shoddy pretext (i.e., weapons of mass destruction). We are free to speak and write as we choose as long as the government doesn't decide that we broke campaign-finance laws or engaged in 'hate speech.'
"The 18th century German poet Johann Goethe said: 'None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.' Am I off-base to wonder whether we are careening down that road?"
As Yogi Berra might say, if Jefferson and Franklin were alive today they'd be rolling in their graves.