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Presidential Inaugurations and the Politics of Stealing Apples

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According to the Nielsen ratings, over 30.6 million people watched Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on television on January 20, 2017. The newly sworn in president soon was in a battle with the mainstream media about whether this was larger or smaller than the numbers who watched Barack Obama’s swearing in, in 2009.

But whether the number of viewers was larger or smaller in 2009 versus 2017, it is nonetheless the case that 30.6 million is a lot of people. It is equal to almost the combined populations of the Czech Republic, Greece and Sweden. It is also nearly half the entire population of France, alone.

However, since the total population of the United States at the end of 2016 is estimated to have been around 325 million people, that means only about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population watched the 45th president take his oath of office. Or another way of saying this: 90.5 percent of Americans found something better to do that spend their time staring at their television or on computers or smartphones to see Donald Trump promise to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Whether on the Commie News Network (CNN) or the Trump Television Network (Fox News), all the program anchors and reporters reporting the event “live” on the scene invariably drew attention, over and other again, to the hallowed and almost mystical meaning and symbolism of the transition from one U.S. president to another.

Whether these reporters – all unbiased and dispassionately objective journalists, of course – clearly hated or loved the dawn of the presidential “Age of Trump,” they all emphasized, in a near hushed religious reverence, the magical meaning of the peaceful transfer of political power from one president to another, and thus the profundity and proof of the miraculous democratic experience that demonstrates the enduring worthiness of the American people, no matter how otherwise imperfect they may be.

America’s Democratic Presidential Coronation

The solemnity of the event was manifest with the placing of the incoming president’s hand on the Bible as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court read out that presidential oath of office and Donald Trump repeated it before all the world – or at least those 30.6 million watching it, plus however many were actually there in the crowd in front of the Capital Building to see with their own eyes America’s democratic coronation.

Then, shortly after Trump’s inaugural address, came the presidential inauguration parade. Like some vast procession of loyal subjects and slaves passing before the Emperor in Ancient Rome in one of those 1950s movie extravaganzas, thousands of loyal and proud American citizens, young and old, passed before the reviewing stand waiting their turn to see and to be seen by the newly installed president.

I must admit that every time the reporters and the news anchors waxed lyrical about the divine experience of the peaceful transfer of political power that demonstrated the enduring and unique continuity of American democracy, I felt nothing particularly to be proud about. I felt none of the patriotism clearly and sincerely felt by those who had traveled to watch or participate in this renewed consecration of America’s democratic system.

As I listened to those reverential words and the imageries of my fellow Americans paying their patriotic tribute to the new American leader of the “free world,” I considered (no doubt cynically in the eyes of some) that the pomp and ceremony to be nothing more than the “bread and circuses” to dupe the American people into four more years of believing and obeying those who generally have one purpose for being in political office – to fleece those whom they claim to represent in their roles of humble public servants, including the president. I just could not make myself get into the awe-inspired patriot mood clearly being experienced by so many others.

Jefferson and the Sprit of Liberty – With Imperfections

If I had been alive at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, I might very well have felt that sincere sense of patriotic pride. There standing before the crowd was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and its proclamation of those “self-evident truths” that all are endowed with certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Yes, if I were a through going and consistent advocate of that spirit and principle of liberty I would have made a mental note that even the author of those noble words, now taking the presidential oath of office, inconsistently owned slaves who also should have been deserving of the same freedom as others.

But if I possessed any sense of historical perspective, I would have also noted that slavery had tragically been an element of virtually every society everywhere around the world for all of recorded history. And that it was only in my own time of the late eighteenth century and beginning nineteenth century that people were, now, finally morally aroused to take their own, newly stated principles of individual liberty seriously and undertake the attempt to bring to an end to this ethically despicable institution of slavery.

In that 1801, I would be living in a transition period of thought and deed of how to do away with this “peculiar institution” that some now morally despised and condemned, while others still clung to an insistence that they had a right to own and command other human beings as if they were cattle, yet while, no doubt, too many more others were still indifferent to the entire matter as they went about their own daily affairs.

The Imperfect But Real American Experiment with Liberty

Nonetheless, I would have been “proud to be an American” watching Thomas Jefferson’s rather modest inaugural proceedings because I would be living in a new land, based on the ideal (if as yet not fully the practice) of individual liberty, economic freedom, and constitutionally limited government in a form and to a degree never experienced before in human history. America’s borders were open and generally welcome to the arrival of almost every one who wished to make their way to the shores of the new United States. Charity and community concerns (as Alexis de Tocqueville and other visitors were to highlight in their accounts of life in this new land) were not the concerns of governments close by or far away, but the free associative matters of those in the hamlets, towns and cities across the country.

Little stood in the way of free enterprise, wealth accumulation and its productive use, and the free movement of a growing multitude to trek west to clear and cultivate this vast new continent. And, yes, the imperfections and indeed the always potential cruelty in man sometimes manifested itself in the handling of interactions with the native Americans whose notions of property rights and land uses differed from the ocean of new settlers.  But, nonetheless, the large majority of this migrating multitude saw themselves as conquering nature in the process of making lives for themselves, and not with the task of enslaving others to do the work for them.

Inescapable Conmen and Political Corruption

Of course, in their midst were conmen, swindlers and crooks, as they have always been, everywhere. Yet, the bad deeds of the worst of them did not compare with the systems of political plunder and privilege that these migrants from the “old country” had escaped from in their journey across the Atlantic.

The weaknesses of the flesh are always difficult to restrain, so even in this new land of liberty and opportunity, these conmen, swindlers and crooks tried also to use the local and state governments for land grants, monopoly positions, government contracts and subsidies, and often happily with the assistance of vote-hungry politicians wanting the campaign contributions and kickbacks that are the lifeblood of elected office.  And the corruption trickled up to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.

But all this pales almost into insignificance compared to the size, scope and corruption of government, today. In the first edition of the World Almanac in 1868, even with the centralization and growth in Federal government authority and power as a result of the Civil War, the entire government fit on one page: half the page was a list of the president, vice-president and the few cabinet positions, while the rest of the page listed U.S. ambassadors to other countries. Today, all the diverse agencies, bureaus and departments of the Federal government cover several pages, in small print, in the World Almanac.

Other People’s Apples for Political Sale

What has happened between then and now? The great libertarian essayist, Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945), once pointed out that when discussing the cause for the fall of man from the Garden of Eden, some point their finger at Adam for allowing himself to be tempted by Eve. Others direct that finger at Eve for allowing herself to be tempted by the Devil. What seems to have been missed, Nock said, is that if the Devil had not had the apple to dangle under Eve’s nose the sequence of events might not have played out the way they did.

In our time, the apple is other people’s money waiting to be coercively redistributed from those who have honestly and peacefully produced it to those who have not, but who are tempted to get what others have at a lower cost through the use of political means than what would be required in a voluntary, agreed upon exchange between the owner and wanter.

But instead of focusing on the essential institutional fact that government is bloated with plundered and plunderable apples to redistribute in exchange for campaign contributions and votes, too often the discussion is directed on what the plundered apples are being proposed or used for, or who wants the plundered apples, or how one of the devilish politicians in charge of the apple redistribution has been too indiscreetly caught selling other people’s apples outside of the standard rules.

Now, certainly, in that nineteenth century heyday of far smaller and generally less intrusive government there was private and political apple plundering going on. But both were morally condemned as inconsistent with a respect for individual liberty and honestly acquired private property. It was a time when people would publicly declare: “Do as I say, and not as I sometimes do,” and most people did what they said in acting honestly and respectfully for the rights of others, certainly pretty much in the private sphere, if less consistently in the political one.

But today, while most still emphasize that privately stealing other people’s apples is ethically unacceptable and deserving of disapproval, this does not apply to the political and governmental sphere of life. Indeed, it is presumed that any apples in existence are not really the private property of the person who is currently in possession of them.

Apple ownership is taken to be an implicit temporary privilege that may be modified or revoked at any time in the changing political landscape of the necessities of the day. Some determine the expedient rightness of different people possessing apples in various amounts and used for particular purposes based on politically left conceptions of “social justice.” Others now in Washington, D.C. are guided by their notion of which apple distribution and patterns of use will “Restore American Greatness,” on the basis of more narrowly nationalist and protectionist premises.

A Tale of Two Inaugural Addresses

After Thomas Jefferson took that presidential oath of office on March 4, 1801, he said in his inaugural address:

Still one thing more, fellow-citizens – a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities . . .

It is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none . . . Freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation that has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.

The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Compare this with some of Donald Trump’s words in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength . . .

America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation . . .

We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.

Jefferson’s promise was respect and protection for the rights of each and every American to his life, liberty and property, as reflected in government policy directed to secure the type of fundamental personal rights he enumerated, with each secure to use his labor and wealth as he peacefully thinks best. And he expressed his apology if error or emotion temporarily were to deflect government policy away from them, with an intention to retrace any such missteps in short order. Jefferson clearly thought your apples were your own to grow and use as you decided to be best.

What did Trump promise? An activist, interventionist, economically nationalist government that will use its coercive power to close off borders to trade that he considers not in the interest of “American” jobs and “American” manufacturing, while picking the pockets of a lot of Americans to pay for huge “American” public works projects. Trump’s America involves, from his own words, the government telling a lot of people where they can produce apples and with whom they may trade them, while having to give up a goodly portion of them, no doubt, to fund all the things he thinks government must do for the cause of “national greatness.” This implies that the apples you’ve honestly produced are really not your own.

What, then, was to be reverently held in awe and appreciation on January 20, 2017? To be appreciative that one group of apple plunderers superseded another group without the death and destruction of a violent civil war? If two gangs are fighting over the same city to extort and plunder, it is certainly better that innocent bystanders do not get caught in the crossfire and not have their homes destroyed during any street fighting over the turf. But it remains the fact that whoever ends up in charge still plans to steal all or part of your harvest in the apple cart, and tell you where to push the apple cart and how you may use it.

For myself, if there is ever to be again a time when a presidential inauguration may be patriotically valued and praised, it will have to be when the oath of office is taken by someone dedicated and determined to restore and reinforce real people’s individual liberty and economic freedom, and leaves everyone’s apples alone. And not some pontificating politician’s promises about “social justice” or “national greatness” that covers up their desire and intention to coercively poach the apples you’ve peacefully and honestly worked to produce.

This post was written by:

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).