Most everyone acknowledges that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, possessed deep insights into the relationship between liberty and government. One of his important insights involved the relationship between liberty and war:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Madison believed that even without war, the biggest threat to the freedom and well-being of the American people lay not with foreigners or even domestic criminals but rather with the federal government itself.
That is a shocking notion to some Americans living today, especially, no doubt, many millennials, given that they have been born and raised in a “war on terrorism” in which the troops are thanked for protecting our “rights and freedoms” and “keeping us safe.” The notion that the federal government is the biggest threat to our freedom and well-being would also shock many in the boomer generation, given their conviction that the federal government is their friend and provider, especially now that it is taking care of them with its Social Security and Medicare programs.
Madison’s conviction was shared by most Americans at that time. The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to simply come up with reforms to the Articles of Confederation, which Americans had lived under for more than a decade. Under the Articles, the federal government had been limited to extremely weak powers to prevent it from becoming a threat to freedom. In fact, the federal government under the Articles didn’t even have the power to tax!
Americans liked that form of government because they felt that it didn’t pose much of a threat to their freedom and well-being. When the Constitutional Convention surprised people with the Constitution, many people were immediately opposed to it because they were convinced that it would call into existence a federal government that would destroy their freedom and well-being.
Proponents of the Constitution ultimately convinced enough Americans to go along with the deal, which gave the federal government more powers, including the power to tax. Their principal argument was that people didn’t need to be overly concerned about the federal government as a threat to their freedom because its powers would be limited to those few powers that were enumerated in the Constitution itself.
While Americans approved the Constitution on that basis, they were still skeptical. That’s how we got the Bill of Rights, which really should have been called the Bill of Prohibitions. It prohibits the federal government from destroying freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, and other fundamental rights, from killing or incarcerating people without following due process of law, and from searching people’s homes or persons without judicially issued warrants based on probable cause.
The reason for the Bill of Rights? Americans had no doubts that in the absence of such express restrictions on power, the federal government would do whatever it could to destroy their freedom.
Among all the threats that the federal government posed to liberty, Madison believed, war was the biggest because it inevitably led to all the rest. War reinforced and magnified the threat that the federal government ordinarily posed to the freedom of the American people even in the absence of war.
Notice the irony today: Most Americans are infused with the notion that U.S. troops fighting abroad are protecting our “rights and freedoms” (notwithstanding the quite obvious point that no one overseas is even trying to take away our rights and freedoms). The point Madison was making was that wars that the troops are fighting makes the federal government an even greater threat to their own “rights and freedoms” than it already is in the absence of war.
Today, large numbers of Americans, especially young people, are struggling just to make ends meet. They live paycheck to paycheck. A big part of the reason for that is the exorbitant amount of money that the federal government takes for taxes.
The national debt is now $20 trillion dollars and growing. Click here to get a sense of how big this problem is. Each taxpayer’s share of the debt amounts to $170,000.
Thus, Madison’s point: “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes.”
What Madison failed to point out, at least in that quote, is that it’s not just war that leads to taxes and debt but also the burden of empire. That’s the problem that afflicted the British Empire, against which the Americans had rebelled. Empires are not inexpensive, cost-free enterprises. On the contrary, they pose an enormous burden on the citizenry in the form of higher spending, taxes, and debt.
That’s the big twin-problem facing the American people today — war and empire. The forever wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan constantly use up bombs, missiles, bullets, planes, vehicles, equipment, and supplies, all of which must be replaced. On top of that are all the supplies, equipment, troop salaries, foreign aid, ships, planes, vehicles needed to support and maintain the federal government’s worldwide empire of military bases around the world.
That means never-ending and ever-growing spending, debts, and taxes, which Madison pointed out are the “known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
Empire and war are actually the driving force of the federal government. As a practical matter, American taxpayers work to sustain the Pentagon and the CIA and their forever wars and worldwide empire of bases. Their budgets never go down and always go up. Sure, there is the massive welfare-state component of the federal government, especially Social Security and Medicare, which also drives the ever-growing debt and taxes but the welfare is really just intended to keep the citizenry pacified, sort of like a political heroin. When people are pacified by welfare or in fear of losing it, they are less apt to protest against the war and empire part of the federal government.
Moreover, as Americans have learned, there is another price for empire and constant war — the threat of retaliation, especially through terrorism. People in faraway lands don’t like being invaded, occupied, sanctioned, embargoed, kidnapped, assassinated, meddled with, or dictated to. At some point, they retaliate.
That then leads the federal government to acquire dictatorial powers here at home, in order to “keep us safe” from the enemies it is producing with war and empire. That’s how we have ended up living a society in which our very own government now wields the totalitarian-like powers to arrest, incarcerate, assassinate, and secretly spy on us without due process of law. Thus, Madison’s point that that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
While some people in the rest of the world are stirring against totalitarian regimes under which they are living, Americans continue to sit passively back and keep letting the federal government destroy their freedom and well-being through constant war and empire. When will Americans finally say enough is enough and push back?